About sex, again . . .

13WINICK-OBIT-articleLargeOne meets the most interesting people in the obituary pages of The New York Times. On Monday, July 13, 2015, for those of us who didn’t know him before by reputation or his 20 books, we learned about Charles Winick, a professor of anthropology and sociology. He taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is known for his warnings about the blurring of lines between the sexes in The New People: Desexualization in American Life in 1968.

He insisted that ‘equality does not mean equivalence, and a difference is not deficiency.’ Archaeologists of the future may regard a radical dislocation of sexual identity as the single most important event of our time.

imgres-1Winick’s concern about the increasing lack of distinction between the sexes reminded me of the state of sexual experience displayed on several popular TV series. Since the first season of Girls, Lena Dunham’s successful HBO series about women in their twenties trying to make it in NYC, I have been disturbed by the prevalence of explicit, casual sex scenes in many episodes. Broad City is a funnier series on Comedy Central, about a similar group of young women experiencing life in NYC. Their friendships are shallow, interesting jobs are rare, and sex looks lousy. It is pornography for the middle class [in other words, it’s borderline porno and the middle class can be titillated without feeling “dirty”] and, thus, acceptable on cable TV.

images-7According to Manohla Dargis, in a New York Times review of Amy Schumer’s new film, Trainwreck, that was just released, we are in a neofeminist (see note below) moment. In a kind of convoluted way, women, now unencumbered by stereotypes of the past, are free to express themselves as they wish (totally “feminine” or not) and behave with the same freedom once associated with men in the arenas of sexuality and the workplace.

In Trainwreck, as in her best work elsewhere, Ms. Schumer is at her strongest when she insists that women aren’t distressed damsels but—as they toddle, walk and race in the highest of heels, the tightest of skirts, the sexiest, mightiest of poses—the absolute agents of their lives and desires.

Winick warned of a flattening out of experience as the sexes take on the attributes of the other. Prior to the Sixties, it was a kind of given, whether true or not, that men could have as much sex as they could get with impunity. Women now claim the same right and why not? But at what cost? According to Winick,

It is increasingly difficult to tell the sex of many things, at almost any distance, in America today. . . . He said scientists had warned that radical changes in sex roles might lead to the end of the species. This does not mean that we, The New People, will fail to survive or we are unable to create a viable substitute for rejected lifestyles. . . . It does suggest that the new tone of life, a bitter, metallic existence, may simply not be worth the price of enduring it.

While Winick’s view of a future of sameness in gender roles is harsh and extreme, one cannot help but be deeply disturbed by the repeated display of casual sex scenes that do not indicate any sense of intimacy, passion, or tenderness, and often even privacy in Girls or Broad City. As an antidote to the current culture and Professor’s Winick’s bleak prediction, here is an idealized description of what Mario Vargas Llosa, in “Ars Erotica,” proposes that human sexual relationships should/could be like:

There are many ways to define eroticism, but the best might be to call it physical love stripped of animality. The satisfaction of an instinctive urge becomes a shared creative activity that prolongs and sublimates physical pleasure, providing a mise-en-scène that turns it into a work of art. . . . An ideal eroticism would broaden the boundaries within which our sex lives unfold such that men and women might act freely, exploring their desires and fantasies without feeling threatened or discriminated against. But it would still maintain the forms that preserve the private and intimate nature of sex, so that sex lives do not become banal or animalistic. . . . Without attention to the forms and rituals that enrich, prolong, and sublimate pleasure, the sex act would again become a purely physical exercise—a natural drive in the human organism, devoid of sensitivity and emotion . . . Making love in our time, in the Western world, is much closer to pornography than to eroticism.

— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Contributor

Note: Here is the definition of Neofeminism from Wikipedia,

Neofeminism describes an emerging view of women as becoming empowered through the celebration of attributes perceived to be conventionally feminine, that is, it glorifies a womanly essence over claims to equality with men. It is a term that has come into use in the early 21st century to refer to a popular culture trend, what critics see as a type of “lipstick feminism” that confines women to stereotypical roles, while it erodes cultural freedoms women gained through the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s in particular.

Some might disagree with part of this definition. Women have clearly gained and celebrate freedom in the sexual sphere while dressing in the most feminine “costumes.” In the workplace, women have made huge strides and gained in equal pay and more women are graduating from college than men.

Quote from “Ars Erotica” is from the July 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Top photograph of Charles Winick is from The New York Times. Second photo of Girls and third photo of Broad City from Google Images.



  1. Steve Webb

    I’m wondering why the relaxation of traditional sexual differences is supposed to be the segue to a “bitter, metallic” nihilism? I don’t see that the two are necessarily related. If difference is not a deficiency, then why not more difference? What prevents non-traditional sex from being as ethically contextualized and sweet as the old-fashioned variety? It may be true that sexuality not solemnly bound by fidelity and procreation with all their weighty obligations can be more prone to adventure, experimentation, and ultimately “pornography.” But one shouldn’t exaggerate. The wilder deviations actually have their natural limits: satiation, boredom, disgust, injury, and old age among them.

    Aside from these natural dead-ends, there’s also a kind of ethics for even the most daring of hedonists, if only they could be taught it and how to apply it. You might call it a naughty person’s categorical imperative, and it goes something like this: “Never pursue pleasure of any kind or to any degree that will impair your capacity for future pleasure.” When you think about it, that covers quite a lot, from the physical to the psychological to the interpersonal. “Is this really hurting me and others in long run? Is what I’m doing self-defeating and extinguishing pleasure from life?”

    As for animals, naughty sex, and pornography, here’s something that seems obvious to me. Non-rational animals do not indulge in either naughty sex or pornography, not nearly to the same degree, anyway. I’m told that individuals of some animals species do get aroused by looking on, but there’s a qualitative leap when it comes to human ogling and inventiveness. We’re the only beastie with a completely open-ended sexual nature, one that allows for the kind of endless, sometimes gross and dangerous elaboration of sex that most of us by now are at least indirectly familiar with.

    Strange to say, if humans are rational animals, they are also, at least potentially, pornographic animals. They can even be, as I suggested above, rational pornographic animals. What so bothers many people today is that this natural fact of human sexuality, its openness and flexibility, now finds itself in a situation of unprecedented social tolerance, and the result is a lot of in-your-face presentation that can be shocking and repulsive. This impels some people to want to “DO something about it.” What everyone needs, I think, is to chill out and consider a education in non-authoritarian sexual ethics.


  2. Gayle Rodda Kurtz

    Steve–I think you haven’t seen Girls or Broad City. The sex scenes are prosaic and almost like exercises. There is no sense of tenderness, caring intimacy or passion, and often, no privacy. I think this is a loss for both men and women in whatever combination. If you read Vargas Llosa carefully, I think there is little difference between your suggestions and what he wrote.


  3. Steve Webb

    My comment was merely to suggest that the human propensity to seek sexual pleasure outside the deeper, more soulful bonds of traditional romantic love does not represent the kind of dreary threat to civilization that some people (Charles Winick?) seem to fear. What is absent in our culture, I think, is sex education, by which I mean not just education in sexual mechanics but also, especially, in sexual ethics. And by sexual ethics I obviously don’t mean the usual conservative prohibitions or even the love-and-intimacy platitudes that liberals would have replace them. I mean the cultivation of self-regarding and other-regarding habits (virtues) that can enable even unusually frisky folks to live fully integrated and meaningful lives. In my earlier comment, I suggested that the “hedonist imperative” might be a heuristic step in that direction. It’s in the hedonist’s pleasurable interest to be “virtuous,” i.e., to cultivate good habits — that’s the general idea. Sadly, sexual ethics has become almost a dirty word among the more sexually liberated because it’s been entirely abandoned to the dogmatists. One can hardly mention words like ‘ethics’ and ‘virtue’ anymore without eliciting rolling eyes and derisive smirks. You would think the only choice available to us is either to obey the “law” handed down by the Sacred Magisterium or to go hog wild and start rooting for truffles, if that’s what you dig. I think there are plenty of ethical alternatives in between. —But you’re certainly right, Gayle, this is a tangled subject.


  4. Steve Webb

    I forgot to say, Gayle, you’re correct in your hunch that I have not seen Girls or Broad City. However, the kind of cold, passionless sex you describe is probably nothing new; only the gender roles have changed, perhaps. One image that comes to mind — we’ve all read it in novels and seen it on film — is that of the heartless farmer or hypocritical preacher who demands his conjugal rights from “his” woman (ownership literal) without bothering to take off his boots or dirty linen. For her part, the poor woman silently endures the degradation, face averted, bitter, hopeless. I expect that kind of near-dead, perfunctory sex has been a constant in history, but because nowadays we can SEE it represented nightly on TV, we’re mislead into thinking it’s something unprecedented and uniquely dire. I hope I’m not still missing the point. Thank you for the conversation.


  5. Daniel D'Arezzo

    I agree with Steve that there is no new thing under the sun, in bed. But I also wonder if sex is “not enough” for young people today. In the 1970s, when I came out and started going to bars and baths, sex with other guys was an amazing turn-on for me. Then came the epidemic, which put a lid on the fun. Then came the Internet, which killed the gay bars. Then came Meth, because having sex with guys wasn’t enough unless you were both high. Not that there weren’t plenty of drugs in the ’70s, but for me, sex was all the high I needed. So that’s my question: Is sex not enough? Are young Americans too worn out from working long hours to enjoy a romp? Or have they been banging away for so long (since puberty) that they’re bored with sex? What gives?

    As for the distinction that Vargas Llosa makes between eroticism and pornography, I think it’s phony. Eroticism (art, imaginative, suggestive) versus Pornography (mechanical, explicit, degrading): it makes little sense to me. There is an educational aspect to pornography that is usually missing from the clouds of erotic art (“Oh, first you grease it with Vaseline–so that’s how you get it in!”), but otherwise they are pretty much alike. When I read or view pornography or erotic art, I have to imagine myself involved–often I draw on my own memories–in order for the work to be stimulating. Otherwise it is, indeed, cold marble and mechanical humping.

    In the May 11 New Yorker, Calvin Tomkins wrote about a sculpture by Charles Ray of Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim that the Whitney decided not to place outdoors, as originally planned, because it was too provocative. The statues depict boy and man as naked as Adam, in the way Mark Twain described them; the black man standing, the white boy squatting. The Whitney feared a massive American freak-out: racism, nudity, pedophilia, you name it. To me, the sculpture interprets the novel accurately: the man appears to be protecting the boy, standing guard; meanwhile, the dreaming, orphaned, white trash boy imagines he is protecting the man. I think it’s inspiring. The pornography is only in the paranoia.

    Finally, I wanted to say that, also in the ’70s, I had lunch with John DeCecco, editor of The Journal of Homosexuality, at San Francisco State University, and in a meandering conversation, he mentioned that in his interviews of men concerning their experiences at gay baths, he was struck by how often they described the pleasure of intimacy. Yes, there was wild, orgiastic, impersonal sex at the baths; but there was also conversation, kissing and caressing, shared intimacy between strangers. Sex, if nothing else, brings people together.

    P.S. Ethics for hedonists was put forward by, among others, Epicurus, was it not? Epicureanism has acquired a reputation for promoting “a bitter, metallic existence,” largely because it lacks a higher purpose in life. It is the existence portrayed in “La dolce vita” and, more recently, in “La grande bellezza”–vacuous, solitary, meaningless. But there’s no reason it can’t be joyful, companionable, purposeful. For example, food that is tasty, nourishing and environmentally sound has become a joyful crusade for many people.


  6. Steve Webb

    Oh my gosh, that’s great, Daniel! I’m going to take a walk now, then come home and read this over about ten times. I’m glad you agree with me, otherwise I’d probably be wiping egg off my face right now. I think we’re contemporaries, by the way. Also SF 1970s. For what it’s worth, in my first comment on this site I referred to Walter Harding’s opinion about Thoreau’s homoeroticism. His research on this first appeared in DeCecco’s journal circa 1990.


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