Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Golden Age

I was born in the nineteen-fifties, into the world of McCarthy and Eisenhower, conformist and conservative. I reached sexual maturity, though, in a golden age – that fifteen or twenty year period after the invention of the Pill and before the onslaught of AIDS.

Women a generation before me indulged their sexual desires at the risk of becoming pregnant. (Perhaps they risked their reputation as well, but that was a far less tangible concern.) When contraception was unreliable or even illegal, surrendering to the moment could have dire consequences. Unwed mothers were ostracized and back street abortions claimed many lives. Premature marriage was safer, but often shattered a woman’s dreams of a higher education or a career.

Women of my daughter’s generation (actually, I don’t have a daughter, and I’m rather glad) bear an even heavier burden. These days, sex can literally kill you. What a horrible thought! Now sexual relations must be approached warily. They must be negotiated, predicated on the results of blood tests or the availability of “protection”. I bow to the indisputable need for safe sex, but I weep at the damage done to the joy and spontaneity of the sex that I knew.

The golden age. I don’t think that I’m romanticizing. In college, in graduate school and after I began working, I was free to explore who I was sexually, to discover what – and who – I really wanted. The so-called sexual revolution in the late sixties and the seventies was real and wonderful. I don’t want to turn this blog post into a sexual memoir, but I will admit that I had quite a few lovers during that period, including several serious relationships going on concurrently. True, this was a bit confusing emotionally, as well as creating some logistical problems. But it felt right at the time.

I had deep loves as well as my share of short-term flings. Looking back, I am intensely grateful for these experiences. Though I do wonder now where I got the energy!

How does all this reminiscing relate to “the new explicitness”? The opening of society to things sexual began during this golden age. Perhaps this was a reaction to the constraints of the drab fifties. Maybe it was just the natural cycling of society – after all, the nineteen-twenties was also a period of sexual freedom and explicitness.

Now, though, I believe that things have gone too far. A strange opinion, you may think, for an author of erotica. Nevertheless, I stand by it. These days, there’s too much sex in the media and on the Internet. Actually, the real issue for me is not the quantity, it’s the quality. There’s sex everywhere, nudity and kink, on the porn sites and in the evening news. Unfortunately, most of this sex is not arousing or erotic in the least. We’ve become habituated to the surface expressions of sex, and the emotion has slipped away.

Back in my golden age, sex was still naughty, exciting and fun. It could feed your soul and break your heart. Now, in the age of AIDS, sex has no mystery. It is used to sell everything from blue jeans to baby food, and the thrill is largely gone.

Indeed, it has occurred to me that the explosion of explicitness in the public sphere is a reaction to the terrifying reality of AIDS in the private psyche. We’ve deliberately de-sensitized ourselves, killing desire through over-exposure, in order to purge ourselves from the fear of dying through loving.

Maybe this theory simply reflects my history. Perhaps someone who has grown up with AIDS does not see it as the tragedy that I do. It’s not just that it has stolen the lives of so many millions. It has robbed the living, stealing the peak experience of irresistible, irrational passion. My story “After the Plague”, in my collection Fire, captures my feelings about this.

You were born to the plague. So were your mother and father. For you, making love has always been tainted by the threat of death. What a tragedy – an abomination! Can you even begin to imagine a time when two people who were drawn to each other could have sex without fear, without consequences, other than the fact that the emotional connection might or might not strike true?

It's nearly inconceivable to you, I know, the notion of spontaneous sex. No vaccines, no tests, no questions asked. No barriers – at least no physical ones. You might enjoy yourself, you might not. That was the only risk.

I lived in that age. The golden age, it seems now. You could revel in your own body, in someone else's body. Anyone you fancied. Maybe a stranger. Maybe your best friend's husband – or even your best friend herself! If desire called, you answered, as long as that was what felt right.

Every day was ripe with erotic possibilities. We moved through our world (well, perhaps I should speak only for myself) in a continual state of borderline arousal, ready to recognize and enjoy the next sensual adventure.

You're trying to be polite, but I can see your nose wrinkle with disgust at my "promiscuity". To you it sounds unthinkable. Irresponsible. Try to understand. Sex was safe – without drugs or viral inhibitors or any other "precautions". Oh, you could be hurt. You could fall in love with someone who didn't care for you, or with a stranger you'd never see again. But you were always free to try.

So how can an author of erotica evoke this kind of emotion, in our pressurized, impersonal, hyper-sexual world? I’m not sure. Speaking for myself, I try to capture the emotional essence of my own experiences and transplant it into my characters. I write on the fringes of the acceptable, using taboos to recreate the delicious sensation of transgression that I knew when I was younger. And I focus on the feelings – not the sensations of sexual intercourse, but the characters’ emotions as they allow themselves to sink into passion.

It’s a challenge, and I take it very seriously. I’ll allow the unnamed narrator of “Before the Plague” to speak for me:

You're right, I'm a romantic, but don't you think the world today needs a romantic or two? Look, my conapt is just a few levels up. Wouldn't you like to come up and join me for a nightcap?

That swelling in your britches is answer enough. No, that's OK, let me get the tab. Come on now, don't be such a prude. You know that you want to.

Of course I have a supply of condoms, viricide, gloves and dental dams. I'm a woman of my times. But I hope that I can make you forget all that. I want you to relax, to trust me, to let me give you a glimpse, a taste, of what pleasure was like before the plague.

Because, so help me, if someone doesn't know, and remember, we're doomed. Or might as well be.


  1. I was just a little bit behind you Lisabet, nine-teen sixties, but coming of age in the seventies wasn't all bad either. In retrospect I could have handled things better, but that's a story best left untold.

    Times have changed for certain, and I miss lots of things, like riding in the back of a pickup and never being quite sure where the seat belts disappeared to in the back seat of that old Chevy. I don't miss the sex, drugs, rock and roll era, because I didn't experience that the first time around.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

  2. I was a teen in the late 70s and, while sexually active, I still had to answer to my parents and abide by their rules (to a certain extent). I've often regretted not being an adult during those times.

    I did my best to make up for it in the 80s, but some of the magic was eaten by the AIDS demon.

    I agree that the prevalence of sex smothers eroticism, but from what I've read in your stories for Coming Together, you do an exemplary job of uncovering it.

    The magic, the titillating thrill, lives within us all. It's just a matter of stripping away the layers to expose it. Those who can achieve that through writing give the world a great gift.

    peace & passion,

    ~ Alessia

  3. I've never applied that particular idea, the onslaught as a reaction to the dangers. It's thought-provoking.

    I've always viewed it more as a period of gluttony based on availability. A reaction to inability of the old guard to put this particular cat back in the bag.

    I remain curious to see the changes that are still coming. Opinions about sex have never been constant.

  4. I don't remember a time before AIDS. Come to that, I don't remember a time when sex wasn't a mainstream media favourite.

    Neither safe sex nor the media glut really registers with me as a result.

    Really interesting to see things from a different point of view. Lot's to think about ready for later in the week :)

  5. Hi Lisabet,

    I read this much earlier today and wanted to take a little time to think about some of the things you said. You and I were born within the same decade, if not closer. Growing up at that time we did have certain freedoms that todays children will never know. We didn't have television until I was nearly ten. We didn't have video games at all. Plastic didn't even happen until I was somewhere around 12 or so.

    I think we had an innocence and freedom that kids today can never hope to understand. We were poor, but so was everyone else, so we didn't realize it. I had two outfits for school, worn alternately. After school, we wore last years school clothes, if they survived, or jeans that were to last a year. Designer? There was no such animal.

    In the sixties, the pill made sex and promiscuity very possible. I think some of us went overboard, but hey, we were kids. Excess was our motto. *G* That innocence never truly went away for some. Freedom movements,Woodstock and drugs forced some of us to grow up when we started losing friends.

    The Golden Age. I think of the big screen idols, Clark Gable, Rhonda Fleming and the like.

    AIDS has forced this generation of young people to think about what they do. The only trouble here is, often they're not given the tools they need to make a wise choice. Sex education in schools is no better than what we had, possibly not as good. Parent's rights have been taken away so any attempt at discipline is looked on as child abuse. Children are pushed into the higher grades whether they know the stuff or not. They're not taught responsibility, they're taught to run with the herd.

    Yes, I guess this is a rant. I wish some of that innocence could happen for my children and their children.


  6. Lisabet!

    Really excellent, your post reflects my thinking a great deal though I didn;t get to explore my sexuality much as you having spent almost my whole youth in celibacy. You and I represent polar extremes i suppose, and yet we arrive at the same place. The shock of seeing a person nude, the scarey experience of first intimacy. So much of that I think is gone now. In some ways we were very lucky then. I wonder what the future will be like?

    C. Sanchez-Garcia

  7. Interesting, Lisabet! I was born in the 1950s as well, but the whole free love thing missed me. I married at 21 and my husband is and was my only lover. We're close to our 30th anniversary now. It seems clear I'm not an adventurous person!

    I agree that the overexposure of sex in the media is a problem. Overexposure to just about anything brings desensitisation.

  8. The funny thing was, with all the sex that I enjoyed, there was an innocence to that, too. Now it seems that everyone is jaded.

    I definitely agree about childhood. I would never want to grow up in today's world. I used to worry about the atomic bomb, but that's better than AIDS.

  9. Garce - I think that the mystery and meaning of sexual connection has been stripped away. Not for everyone, of course. But it seems to me that the prevalence of sex, everywhere, has cheapened it.

    I believed then, and still believe, that sex is important, weighty, even when it appears to be "recreational". I never understood the notion of something being "just sex".

  10. I don't feel like we are overexposed to sex or sexual images.

    I do think that we are desensitized and that it is due to waving sex in our faces while simeltaneously condemning it.

    There seems to be a constant message of, "Take a good look at this. Now, don't do it!"

    We have become accustomed to the analysis and rejection of sexuality and beauty in so many ways that instinctive, emotional response and attraction are immediately considered to be subject to some sort of filter.

    It is not "OK" to be turned on, and certainly not "OK" to be turned on by anything that is not first examined for its acceptability.

    Was that an innapropriate display of a body part? OMG - did someone under 18 glimpse a nipple?

    Is that sexy woman too skinny? Some overweight, young girl might develop body-image issues!

    Did they fail to mention condom use in that really hot sex scene? Someone might think it's OK to blow off safe sex!

    It's not the validity of the underlying conerns that I take issue with, it's the presentation.

    It's no different to buying an iron that actually includes in the instruction not to iron your clothes while wearing them, or a hairdryer that informs you not to use it while sleeping.

    I was born in 1973. I missed out on that beautiful, transitional period of free love. When I was 9 I had a teacher who "used to be gay." My parents were very concerned because of AIDS. The mechanism of transmission was uncertain (at least as far as they knew) at the time. That was my introduction to the issue.

    By the time I reached the age where I was becoming sexually active the need for condom use was just a given. But, that may actually be a good thing. STDs were a real issue before AIDS. I think of it merely as one of many diseases that I want to protect myself from.

    Lisabet, I love this post, and even though I may not agree with all the specifics there is an underlying message that really speaks to me. This part sort of sums it up:

    "Can you even begin to imagine a time when two people who were drawn to each other could have sex without fear, without consequences, other than the fact that the emotional connection might or might not strike true?"

    When you ask:
    "So how can an author of erotica evoke this kind of emotion, in our pressurized, impersonal, hyper-sexual world?"

    I don't see it as hypersexualized at all. I think that even the "sex" has become desexualized, and that's probably pretty much what you are saying, too. So I guess my question would be - How do we put the sexuality back in?

    I say sexuality instead of emotion because I think that what we have lost is even more basic, more visceral than emotion. We cut ourselves off at the most basic level.

    I think the answer is by reaching the soul. By skipping all the rules and just touching that part that never goes away and hoping that all the layers and bullshit can still be transcended for individuals.

    All fiction relies on the suspension of disbelief. In short, we evoke this emotion the same way it's always been done, by writing a good story, regardless of today's trends.

  11. I enjoy the sex in the media. I was born in '62 and a teen in the 70's.

    Aids is a tragedy, I've known too many victims of it to think otherwise but I think the reality of it makes the trust required for making love something special. Obviously there are a lot of people who refuse to take precautions but I think they are the minority, at least the adults. Kids need to be taught early how to protect themselves because they will someday, at 15 or 50, have sex.

    If both partners are careful you can have the best of both times.

  12. It is sad that the hazards of sex today have killed some of the spontaneity, but I think the the up side of this is that people now **should** take the time to get to know a lover. I say **should** because a lot of people still don't (I recall in some instances I didn't, and doing so would have saved me a lot of heartache). There's something about having emotional intimacy along with physical intimacy that makes things feel right to me. My husband and I flirted a looooooong time before I finally hit him over the head and dragged him back to my dorm room, and I remember that period of flirtation as one of the hottest times of my life. I'd love to recapture that somehow these days.

    As for the media, it is explicit, but only to a point. We can see plenty of nude and semi-nude females, but how often do we see male nudity? Not often at all. It's so totally unfair (she says with a pout). And I don't know that it's desensitized me to sex, nor do I think it's desensitized anyone else. If it had, would we still have people getting up in arms about Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction? Maybe if anything, it's made people overly sensitive, and turned most folks into prudes!

  13. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments, Luna and Helen,

    I second the desirability of building trust and connection with a potential lover before going to bed together. Plus, I've always argued that sexual tension is more erotic than sexual release! However, it really bothers me that the need for trust should be fueled by fear.


  14. I, too, have found that building trust and a connection before sex has been very beenficial to long-term relationships.

    However, during the few times that I was newly single, one night stands did wonders for my sanity. They also kept me from jumping into the disasterous rebound relationships.


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