Thursday, September 01, 2005

The only person in the room with no clothes on

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a former flower child and a pretty fine essayist. If you haven't been introduced yet, here's your chance. In this piece, she speaks freely about how the transmission of our culture's inherited wisdom about sex has broken down.
Here's where I think my generation did the next generations a disservice. I was part of that hippie generation that very deliberately rejected the values of the older generation that came before us. Part of this was the "sexual revolution," an insistence on sexual freedom. I think that, for us, "freedom" had a defiant quality; we were rebelling against something. I think that for young people thirty years later, it's a milder kind of freedom. It's like the freedom to choose between cheese-flavored and barbecue-flavored tortilla chips. It's a consumer freedom. It looks like sex is something you can select, take home, consume, and forget about.
But I think this seriously underestimates the deeper levels of meaning that sex has. Given the primal and complex role that sex has in the life of the human animal, it involves much more than just consuming pleasure. It's tangled up with all the deeper issues of trust, security, and loneliness. My generation just dismissed all that, as if it weren't there. As a result, we have not prepared our children to deal with it. The result is that they can get blindsided: You think you're just having fun and discover that something bad is happening to your heart. It was this breezy attitude toward the sexual revolution that lay behind so much of the divorce in my generation. That's why so many of our children grew up without dads, or lived through their parents' divorce (and why so many of their children will as well): because my generation decided that you can change partners when the mood strikes, that you can make a commitment, break it, and make a new one, and that the whole meaning of sex is consumer pleasure. We abandoned our children. Now they're growing up, and we haven't given them much guidance about how to do a better job. Many young people are afraid of marriage because they're afraid of divorce, and at the same time they really long for a safe, secure, happy home, even though they have no idea how to make one. Everything you hear in ads and entertainment is telling you that your goal is to wake up next to someone gorgeous tomorrow morning. That's the rationale of consumer sex. But I think what humans really want is to wake up next to someone kind, fifty years from tomorrow morning. My generation has spread the idea that sex is about power rather than vulnerability. While there has always been a pattern of men treating women as conquests, the sexual revolution led women to think in the same way, that making men desire them was evidence of their power. But that doesn't have anything to do with love; it can even be the opposite of love. I recently read a review of a book titled Strip City, written by a woman, Lily Burana, who traveled across the nation working at strip clubs. She says that we're living in an era of "sex-positive feminism." She calls herself a "gender warrior," and says that when she dances, she can feel "all the hearts in the room gathered into the palm of my hand." Well, that's a lot of power. Yet she doesn't feel tenderness toward those gathered hearts. The reviewer says that Burana "relished taunting men because she is revolted by their erotic neediness." It's a battle, for this "gender warrior." Make war, not love. Here's something else. Burana says that her work represents new liberation for women's sexuality. She says we live in a period when "the notion of female desire is being re-evaluated." But does stripping have anything to do with the woman's sexual desires? It looks like it's all about male desire, provoking and despising and ridiculing that. Once again, sex means male desire. For women, stripping isn't about a deeper understanding of their own sexuality, but about a substitute thrill: the experience of power. A power that doesn't have much to do with love. And it's a funny kind of power. Dancers work in depressing places that stink of mildew and ammonia, exposing themselves to seedy old men. It's no great achievement if you get a guy to look at your body. Any girl could do that. The dancers are all interchangeable, and nobody cares about their name or history or personality. Nobody looks at their faces. An ex-stripper once told me, "I had to ask myself, if I had all the power, why was I the only person in the room with no clothes on?"
Everything you hear in ads and entertainment is telling you that your goal is to wake up next to someone gorgeous tomorrow morning. That's the rationale of consumer sex. But I think what humans really want is to wake up next to someone kind, fifty years from tomorrow morning. The decisions you make today, and tomorrow — and tomorrow night — will have everything to do with whether that happens for you or not. It happened for me. I have been married thirty-one years, and until the end of my life I'll have beside me the man who fell in love with me when I was nineteen. If I get old and cranky, if I get breast cancer, if I get Alzheimer's, he'll stick with me, and I won't be alone, and I'll do the same for him. In this way we show the presence of God to each other, and grow into his likeness.

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