We live in sexually hedonistic times. Sex is everywhere. Sex sells. Young people are having earlier sex, more sex and a wider variety of sex than ever before.
And if you believe the mainstream media, the Church, and the right wing, this is a bad thing that is sending us all to hell in a handbasket.
If, however, you believe Edward Shorter, sexual hedonism is a natural development in our sexual history.
Shorter’s upcoming book, Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire, is a fascinating take on sex and desire throughout history and an excellent antidote to the rising panic surrounding sex in our increasingly sexualized culture.
Turns out it’s not all MTV’s fault.
Rather, desire, posits Shorter, is a drive much like eating and sleeping. Gay, straight, or otherwise, we are biologically hard-wired to desire. It’s just that, up until the last hundred years or so, there’s been so much stuff getting in desire’s way, it hasn’t had a chance to really stretch its legs.
And while most histories of sexuality would put the blame squarely on the shoulders of religion, Shorter points to several historical desire dampeners.
Like the fact that, up until a few hundred years ago, people stank. These days, we get cranky if our partner is a little ripe, but back then, people reeked, "especially about the anus and perineum," writes Shorter, which not only killed desire but also limited people’s sexual repertoire. "The missionary position for straights and anal penetration from behind for gays may have been popular because they minimized exposure to the stench of one’s partner," Shorter posits.
It’s also hard to feel sexy when your body is a big human scratching post of lice and scabies. Or to have hot sex when your family is sleeping in the same room, if not the same bed.
And while that whole virgin/whore business has made more than a few women think twice about acting on desire, the fear of getting pregnant – when one in 10 women died in childbirth – was no doubt an even bigger turn-off.
Fear of death in general – thanks to lower life expectancies, rampant disease and no medicine – also killed the mood. As Shorter writes: "People who live amid fear of death do not fling themselves about in gay abandon."
Desire enjoyed a little more freedom among the ancient Greeks and Romans, writes Shorter, but upon closer examination, this desire was nowhere near the hedonistic free-for-all we enjoy today.
At a time when frescoes of threesomes and even foursomes could be found outside a Pompeii bathhouse, oral sex was rarely mentioned. Gay sex was limited to "buggering" – and lesbians? Even back then, it seems, no one knew what they did in bed.
By the time 15-year-old Fanny Hill has a lesbian encounter in John Cleland’s classic 1749 novel, the focus is still entirely on the vagina, writes Shorter.
The real move toward what Shorter refers to as "total body sex," that is, sex that understands "the body as a whole instrument or a receptacle of desire," started in the late 19th century during what he refers to as the "break-out period."
That’s when the semen-stained dress showed up. No, not that one.
Seems Virginia Woolf was sitting around with her pals in 1904 when a Mr. Lytton Strachey walked in and pointed to a stain on Virginia’s sister’s white dress.
"Semen?" he said.
Everyone had a good laugh, but Virginia thought: "Can one really say it?"
"With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down," offers Shorter.
Then came industrialization, increased migration to the cities – which symbolized "sexual adventure and release" – and increased privacy. For the first time "the bedroom becomes the exclusive place for sex," writes Shorter.
Religion was losing its grip on people’s desire.
According to Natalie Barney (whom Shorter describes as "hedonistic, lesbian and very Parisien"), "the considering of physical relations as a sin, tolerated solely from the viewpoint of reproduction, demands such a desolating courage that only a religious wife, who had never experienced pleasure nor proffered complaints, could tolerate it."
She and her chic Parisien friends of the 1920s were like the Carrie and pals of their day.
With increasingly available and reliable contraception, and, eventually, The Pill, desire finally broke free of its shackles, sending us on "a fast trajectory toward total sexual hedonism," writes Shorter.
And unlike fickle fashion or social trends that bow and bend to the whims of an era, biologically driven desire, once free, argues Shorter, is "steady, unidirectional and irreversible."
"Is there a price to pay for all this hedonistic pleasure?" he asks.
Like most private pleasures that don’t require leaving the house – like watching TV, which Shorter turns to for comparison – one could argue it makes us less community oriented.
"But is television the whole story or even the main story?" he writes. "Is it possible that deeper forms of hedonism push us to watch television at night rather than going to PTA meetings? To terminate marriages rapidly rather than endure the prospect of lifelong heartburn? To marry later or defer it entirely?"
After all, sex isn’t the only hedonistic behaviour on the rise. Lots of other fun stuff, like smoking, drinking and drug use, is on the upswing.
And rather than "waggle fingers" or decide that "people choosing these things or even the choices themselves are inherently wicked," Shorter suggests a more simple explanation.
Maybe it’s not just girls who want to have fun. Maybe people just want to have fun. And the fewer the obstacles, the freer we are to follow our hard-wired desire.
James Olds and Peter Milner of McGill were on to this back in 1954 when they hooked rats up to electrodes that stimulated the pleasure and pain centres in their little rodent brains. The rats stimulated the pleasure areas non-stop and avoided stimulation of the pain-producing areas.
In other words, perhaps we’re hard-wired to go to hell in a handbasket. Sounds like a fun trip.