by Jean Roberta
Porno Chic and the Sex Wars: American Sexual Representation in the 1970s, edited by Carolyn Bronstein and Whitney Strub (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016).
The War on Sex, edited by David M Halperin and Trevor Hoppe (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016).
Several weeks ago, I agreed to review these two books for a glossy magazine, The Gay & Lesbian Review. The editor wasn’t sure if either of them have much relevance for an LGBT readership, but the books had been offered to him, so he sent them along to me.
Even though I was a young adult in the “free love” era of the 1970s, and I felt directly affected by the drastic change of zeitgeist in the 1980s (apparently brought on by the rise of AIDS, the galloping-capitalist policies of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and the Feminist Sex Wars), there was a lot I didn’t know before I read these books.
Regarding the insane extension of laws against various forms of consensual sex in the current age, I was in a bubble of ignorance. This is partly because I haven’t lived in the U.S. since the 1960s, and both these books focus exclusively on the status of sex in that country. However, I suspect that even many Americans don’t know the real state of the law if it hasn’t affected them personally.
Despite unprecedented improvements in the legal and social status of gay/lesbian/bisexual citizens (not so much the gender-nonconforming), the consensual sex lives of Americans are now more policed than ever before.
Did you know that everyone convicted of a non-violent (note the emphasis) sexual offense in the U.S. has the orange letters “SEX OFFENDER” stamped on his or her ID for the rest of his/her life? This is the modern equivalent of the scarlet letter “A” (For “Adulteress”) which Hester Prynne has to wear on her bodice in the Puritan community of Boston in the 1640s in a famous historical novel, The Scarlet Letter.
Cole's Note on a Much-Studied Classic: This novel was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1840s. He was descended from English Puritan colonists, and found them to be fanatics, even by the standards of nineteenth-century New England. In the novel, Hester’s own community eventually lets her take off the letter of shame after she has served her time as a social outcast and shown herself to be both a talented seamstress and a good mother to her “illegitimate” daughter Pearl. Even Hester’s much-older husband, who was originally offended by her affair with the local Puritan Minister while husband was away, makes Pearl his heiress. The ending of the novel is not exactly happy, but in some sense, Hester and her unfortunate lover are redeemed (in his case, by death), and their innocent child is “legitimized.”
So apparently the strict sexual standards of Massachusetts colony in the 1600s, as seen through a nineteenth-century lens, were more humane than current American legal standards. A young, single adult man (say, a 20-year-old) who has a consensual relationship with a single girl he believes to be 18, but who is really 15, can be convicted of statutory “rape,” sent to prison, then kept on a kind of probation until he dies.
In my youth, that kind of relationship was expected. Since teenagers tend to be reckless, then and now, sex in the back seat of a car often led to a shotgun wedding. Aside from that, the law was not involved.
Note that a very wide legal definition of sexual “offenses” has not done anything to decrease actual rape, i.e.: sex forced on unwilling victims. The fact that force was used to obtain sex is still much harder to prove in court than the fact that sex occurred at all. This helps explain why assailants (especially if white, male, upper-middle-class) are free to target potential prey (especially in venues such as university campuses, where young women are found in large numbers), while relatively harmless people are effectively forced into a permanent underclass.
How did things get to this point, and why is there so little protest against it?
According to the contributors to The War on Sex, traditional hysteria over “perversion” (same-sex activity, highly illegal in the U.S. before the late 1960s) never really went away. It simply changed form into panicked efforts to protect “children” (including teenagers) from all sexual experimentation, to criminalize HIV-positive status, and to shut down both the sex trade and sexual representation in words and images.
The fledgling feminist movement of the early 1970s included demands for reproductive freedom and protests against rape, sexual harassment, and human trafficking (all non-consensual activities). This led to protests against “porn,” some of which glorified the abuse of women. However, legal remedies were and still are largely in the hands of conservatives who reject most of a feminist agenda.
It became easy for homophobic, “pro-family” rabble-rousers such as Anita Bryant to associate every form of sex that wasn’t sanctified by Christian marriage with sexual violence, including several high-profile murders of children by pedophiles. Registries of “sex offenders” that originally targeted gay men who solicited undercover cops in bars were allowed to lapse after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, but these registries were revived to target “pedophiles,” including young men such as the one mentioned above, whose girlfriend is younger than he thought.
To a much greater extent than I knew, people who test positive for HIV can be charged with “aggravated sexual assault” for non-disclosure of their status to consensual partners, even before they themselves have been tested. And this law is enforced here in Canada. Do you see a pattern here? Ignorance is apparently no excuse.
Just as feminist objections to forced sex (including rape in marriage) have been transformed into the persecution of various consensual activities, feminist objections to human trafficking (which enslaves vulnerable people for various purposes, not only sexual) have been transformed into a campaign to end prostitution. Anyone who sells sex in the U.S. is now more at risk for legal harassment, imprisonment and a permanent stigma than for being abused by a “bad trick.”
Increasingly harsh laws against sex have been passed by various levels of government (mostly in the U.S.) without much opposition. Just as few Americans defended same-sex “perversion” in the past, few are brave enough now to publicly distinguish private, consensual sex acts from sexual violence. The difference is crucial.
These two books tell a chronological story if read in the right order. Porno Chic and the Sex Wars describes the decline of the American economy in the early 1970s, and the corresponding decay in “inner cities.” Times Square in New York City became a mecca for sexually-oriented businesses, including movie theaters that showed sex films in a time before the internet and the video-rental business. At the same time, neighborhoods such as “the Castro” in San Francisco were increasingly occupied by young, LGBT refugees from Small Town U.S.A. The rise of “porno” films and magazines, a few of which achieved mainstream status (e.g. Deep Throat), coincided with the rise of a visible “gay” community. In fact, there was more overlap between “gays” and sex workers than is usually acknowledged today.
Of course, there were problems with the visions of utopia expressed in the “porno” of the time. Heterosexual plots in sex films often featured a kind of female sexual “awakening” in which a man raped a young woman, who then admitted that she loved it. There were logical reasons why feminists picketed the venues where such films were shown or sold in the 1970s.
The Spirit of the Eighties (if there was such a thing) was largely about “cleaning up” the messy freedom of the seventies. Government studies of “porn,” the sex trade, and the sexual abuse of “children” (including teenagers who go “all the way”) were produced in the U.S. and Canada, and these were the basis for new laws.
Remember Linda Lovelace, star of the 1972 hit sex film, Deep Throat? Ghost-writers produced three books, supposedly “written” by her, which changed in tone from the first to the last. In the heyday of her stardom, she gave numerous interviews in which she claimed to be a liberated woman enjoying sexual pleasure. Her situation was problematic: her “boyfriend,” pimp or handler, Chuck Traynor, had a degree of control over her that was noticed by most other people who came in contact with them. Nonetheless, Linda seemed to have enough freedom to leave him, had she wanted to. Her third book, Ordeal, produced in the 1980s, describes her as a victim of trafficking who had been forced into becoming a “porn star.” By then, apparently, she wanted only to be a monogamous wife living below the public radar.
I always found the changes in her story bewildering. If she had no control over her life as a porn star, how much control did she have over the words attributed to her, but written by other people? In an insightful essay in Porno Chic, “Making Sense of Linda Lovelace,” Nancy Semin Lingo discusses Linda’s real-life circumstances, including the car accident that left her with scars that damaged her confidence—before she moved in with Chuck Traynor. In the aftermath of Deep Throat, Linda apparently tried to get work as a serious actress in Hollywood, with no success. The reasons aren’t hard to guess: screen acting is a very competitive business, and Linda’s only assets were physical. Desperate for money, she and her new husband found a new ghostwriter who offered a financial life-raft in the form of a new book which would tell her “true story,” one that would appeal to a contemporary audience.
Reality tends to be messy and complex, but mass-market paperbacks tend to be easy reads that reflect current trends. Like other sex-workers, Linda did what she could to survive as well as possible. Tragically, she didn’t live into self-reflective old age; she died in a fatal car crash in 2002. As the essayist sums up: “Her life story beings up questions about women’s bodies, sexual freedom, and agency that defined public life in the 1970s, and are still, to a large extent, unsettled today.” I think I’ll end there.