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The two worlds of our sexual revolution that cannot hold

We can’t foster a culture that celebrates and affirms extravagant sexual exploration while also enforcing much needed boundaries.

Authors like Philip Roth liberated readers from the Victorian morals preceding them. But they are becoming victims of their own revolution.
Gustave Wappers, Wikimedia Commons

Today’s literary class is caught between two worlds that cannot hold. On the one hand, they take an open and affirming posture to ever-more imaginative sexual experimentation. Yet, on the other hand, they seem eager to condemn any behavior that appropriately garners censure from the #MeToo movement, which broadly seeks to end unwanted sexual advances.

A 1964 cover story for Time magazine quotes Dr. Paul Gebhard, a professor of sex research, who commented on the rise of vulgarities in literature at the time.

“What do you do after you show it all?” he asks. “I’ve talked to some of the publishers, and they are a little worried.”

One can’t help but see today’s literary establishment now reaping the unhealthy sexual culture that they themselves helped to sow. We can only hope that society’s movements in recognizing the well-being of one’s sexual partner — ideally within the bonds of marriage — can begin to right these wrongs.

Earlier this month, W. W. Norton, the publisher of “Philip Roth: The Biography,” halted printing, shipping and promotion of the book when allegations surfaced that the author, Blake Bailey, sexually assaulted at least two women and, as a teacher, groomed middle school girls for sexual relationships later in life.

Norton moved fast, given today’s era of swift public accountability. The allegations are as serious as they are disturbing, and they’re also a window into an unsustainable tension that defines today’s sexual mores.

Our contemporary sexual revolution prizes “sex positivity” as the means by which participants can fully explore their desires without judgement or retribution. As long as adults amicably agree on the parameters of an encounter, so the dogma goes, what happens next is not only totally fine, but ought to be respected (and perhaps even celebrated) by society at large.

It’s what undergirds the push for legalizing sex work and the creation of “ethical porn.”

But for all the rosy “positivity,” the movement can’t disguise the many layers of abuse and harm to women. That brings us back to Philip Roth, the subject of Bailey’s canceled biography.

The novelist rose to fame by liberating his readers from the Victorian norms that preceded them. He wrote candidly about sex and explicit themes — precisely the kind of author welcomed by the sexual revolution. His shockingly explicit “Portnoy’s Complaint” made him wealthy and famous.

Misogynistic, obsessive and anti-religious (“I find religious people hideous”), Roth gives us many reasons to find his personal life unsavory. He was given to trysts while navigating two failed marriages from which he tries to emerge the victim of nagging, irritable wives, an effort Bailey attempts to advance in his biographical work.

Roth once made sexual advances on his step-daughter’s friend. Rejected, he evidently insulted her each time they interacted thereafter. “What’s the point of having a pretty girl in the house” if you don’t get in bed with her, he said in his defense.

As one reviewer in The New Republic points out, it’s not too hard to see why Roth would select Bailey — the one now accused of sexual assault — as his authorized biographer. Whatever literary talent both men possess, their attitudes toward women rightly inspire broad condemnation. And they are personally responsible for their actions.

But it also leaves one question hanging: Are Roth and Bailey two men who failed to live up to their liberal ideals, or did they falter in part because of them?

We can’t foster a culture that celebrates and affirms extravagant sexual exploration while also enforcing much needed boundaries. If you stop policing social speed limits, the outcomes are predictable.

A 2020 survey from BBC Scotland found 7 out of 10 men under 40 years old have slapped, choked, gagged or spat on their partners during consensual sex. More than half of the men say they were influenced by porn. As Mary Harrington points out for the Institute for Family Studies, it’s difficult to imagine all the women in those relationships enjoy such degrading acts, especially when some women confess they feel pressure to say yes for their partner’s sake.

A survey in Australia that asked teenage girls about online abuse and harassment reported a majority of girls believe they feel pressured to send “sexy” photos. A 15-year-old respondent said she only has sex with her boyfriend so he stops pressuring her and watches a movie.

These are hardly the attitudes our sexual climate claims to champion, yet they are the ones it has fostered.

By replacing genuine love, fidelity, sacrifice and restraint with a sterile contract of consent alone, we’re neglecting the depth of humanity that ought to flourish in our relationships. In the natural tension between eros and agape — between desire and charity — we’re letting eros trample us.

Or, as Time magazine concluded in 1964, “The Victorians, who talked a great deal about love, knew little about sex. Perhaps it is time that modern Americans, who know a great deal about sex, once again start talking about love.”