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My Messy Bedroom: Titillating times

Titillating times

Sex and TV: Dangerous vices, or merely signs of our increasingly hedonistic times?

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.

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  • by Natalie Dzepina - March 10, 2005, 1:05 pm

    As someone who loves sex right after a nice long shower (hey, I’ve got my issues), I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed this article.
    However, I find it increasingly scary that our youngsters are exposed to so much sex. Granted, I was brought up in a very strict environment where Madonna was considered a cheap slut and I didn’t have sex until I was 19. Heck, I didn’t even get the “mechanics” of sex until the age of 15!
    I don’t have kids yet but it scares me that my 7-year old daughter might come up to me one day, wearing a colored bracelet, asking me how to give a blowjob so she can be “cool” like her friends. I just hope she won’t be asking as I’m trying to swallow something (no pun intended) or I’ll choke to death!
    All jokes aside, I’ve never regretted that I waited so long before being introduced to sex and it doesn’t make me a prude or inexperienced. (To the contrary, when I want to learn about something, I go full throttle ahead!).
    My dad once told me, when I was about 16 and mesmerized by Madonna in one of her kitsch videos: “It’s just not right to take sex out of the cabarets and out unto the street. One day you’ll understand.”Boy do I understand now. Here’s to you dad!

  • by Pedro Eggers - March 10, 2005, 8:20 pm

    All sex, all the time.
    It’s as good of a theory as any I guess and I can’t really say that I buy it as such but in the final tally does anyone really care and does it even matter?
    Maybe we are all going to hell in a handbasket but can you think of a better reason to be damned than this? People will judge and people will impose what they believe is the cut-off line of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, there’s really no stopping that.
    Funny thing is, who’s name are they crying out when these bastions of what’s right get down and dirty?
    Like I said we’re all going to hell…some of us will just get there with cleaner slates and big happy smiles on our contented faces.
    ‘Nuff said.

  • by Ben Kalman - March 11, 2005, 4:44 am

    The rampant sex and sexuality has nothing to do with desire. It’s about self-inftuation, a need to grab a spot in society and prove to everyone that it’s yours, as well as a simple need to follow the flock.
    People want to show themselves off because everyone else is doing it – especially on tv. Everywhere you look, you see displays of nudity and sexuality, so naturally people mimic what they see. And if anyone were to DARE to complain, they’d likely get an earful of ‘it’s my right, you can’t tell me, yada yada yada…’ – all of which they inevitablty read in some magazine or echoed from the same generic power-pop anthem that sounds like every other power pop anthem that every other power pop band seems to need to record.
    Maybe I’m overly cynical or naive in my ‘old age’, but most of what I see has nothing to do with desire or sensuality – there’s nothing erotic about it. It’s all clinical, meat and potatoes sexuality, and sex is fast becoming mundane. A shame, really, as all of the excitement and curiosity that make most things sexual so much fun to explore seem to be sucked out of it like a healthy portion of bone marrow…I long for a time when sex was more about passion and rapture – even in one’s stink while the in-laws slept in the next bed – and less about fucking and doing it every which way – but smelling like Irish Spring and Herbal Essences in one’s own apartment.

  • by Nancy Garbish - March 11, 2005, 5:17 pm

    I agree the sex is everywhere and that sex sells. I believe that no one should be ashamed of their sexuality; as a matter of fact, we should embrace it. We are sexual beings, after all. What people do with their partners in the bedroom is up to them.
    The problem is that sex sells, and too many youngsters are being exposed to it without understanding the true meaning of what it means to be in a relationship. I’ve heard kids 12 and under talk about the act of sex and intercourse. Some of the descriptions they came out with were mind boggling. Unfortunately, these kids seem to think that sex is what makes one partner love the other. Perhaps we should take another look at how we teach our children about sex. They need to know that a loving, stable relationship should be the first thing to think about before having sex.

  • by Michael Stone - March 12, 2005, 12:31 am

    I agree that hedonism is a step in our natural evolution, but not necessarily a step that will grow and develop. I think that it’s a reverse pendulum swing effect that comes after generations of suppression, oppression and restraint. Whether it was religion, hygiene or politics that made us inhibitive, we’re slowly coming out from under the embarrassment, the shame, and the fear of persecution into a new age of sexual freedom, which is a good thing, but like a child denied candy will often eat candy until he is sick, so too are we as a species compensating for centuries of denial by embracing our new found freedom with as much enthusiasm as we can give. Not everyone of course, some take longer to adapt than others within a single generation, those are the ones clinging to traditional values and are offended by new values and chastise those of us who feel comfortable with fulfilling desire. We’re moving through a period of adjustment, forward to a time when what was once sinful or prosecutable, will be accepted and tolerated without prejudice. When this swing reaches it’s apex and falls back, hopefully it will reach a balance where everyone can express, indulge and share without guilt or facing judgment.

  • by Claude Provost - March 13, 2005, 6:36 pm

    For most of our population sex is everywhere and readily accessible: cable tv, internet, chatrooms, magazines, saunas, raves, school, you name it, it’s there. And the customers are younger that ever before, pre-teens girls wearing bellybuton t-shirts and made up to look like Mrs Spears or Julia Roberts’s character in pretty woman and boys wearing half of their underwear out of their jeans and half a bottle of cologne. Some of them going deaf listening to their mp3s at full level. Time warp : back in the 80′s we had shows like Dynasty and Dallas and people tried to copy that image of success. Sex in Primetime. Shoulder pads. It appealed to the 30 to 40 somethings. Time warp : now, twentysomething years later, it has blown up on us like the A bomb. The new customers are teens and pre-teens. Same as a century ago, or a thousand years ago if you want, it’s all about the five senses of the human being : Smell, sight, sound, touch and communication although standards have changed. We are animals too, that has not changed but the industry targets the population where the money is : children. Will they starts selling condoms at toys r us… If there’s money to make out of it I’m sure someone will. Diapers looking like thongs…maybe. You cannot stop evolution if that is what we call it but we can be made aware and knowledged like the article above just to remind us that sex is the only reason why humans are still around and will be for eons to come but that could change too with cloning and over zealous religious groups trying to dictate to all of us what is “right” and what is “wrong” and they too have been around and tried to dictate our conduct for hundred of years. It remains an individual choice, although sex is usually more pleasurable when there are at least two people involved with a common and reciprocated attraction.
    Shorter’s upcoming book just allows us to be one step ahead of earth’s other animals.

  • by Eric Wilson - March 13, 2005, 7:56 pm

    This was a fascinating article! I never thought about how people used to smell, and how that was a factor in the positions, and types of things that people would try!
    The church loves to point to a society with looser morals. But look at how racism has decreased. Hoe people have become more multicultural, and generally more sensitive to others. So a woman might choke down on a few more cocks now, than a woman would have 100 yrs ago. It doesn’t mean she, or society in general, is worse off? Who is it hurting? And an act of love, or at least affection, is better than acts of violence.
    Sex isn’t bad. The church has tried, and are often sucessful in making us think it is. But it truly isn’t!

  • by Collin Mullet - March 14, 2005, 2:11 pm

    I am not convinced by Shorter’s argument that stink equals less exploration of sexuality. The summun of stink was probably France during the 17th century (rememder the Sun-King, Louis 14, who, it is reported, had only three baths during his entire life of about 60 years). That period also happens to be the time when the Marquis de Sade wrote the book on sex (really, if you read anything he wrote, you will see that the most extreme of any porn movie just pales by comparison). I certainly do not believe that the old Marquis did everything that he describes in his books, but these ideas were in someone’s head and what stopped the depraved aristocracy from trying any of it? Not stink I venture to say…

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