Does Sex Have to Be Stupid?
The fortunate readers of the Good Vibrations blog know that sex and eros can indeed be discussed with wit, insight and intelligence. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream culture still seems to have trouble doing the same. Consider Charles McGrath’s profile of Nicholson Baker in The New York Times Magazine (August 4, 2011 issue), entitled “The Mad Scientist of Smut. How does our most prestigious newspaper choose to present a writer with the courage to push literary boundaries in the twenty-first century? With a tittering, patronizing discomfort that is downright embarrassing.
“Nicholson Baker does not look like a dirty-book writer. His color is good. His gaze is direct, with none of the sidelong furtiveness of the compulsive masturbator. He wears round, owlish glasses, and, in early book-jacket photographs, when his beard was darker and more closely trimmed than it is now, he reminds you of one of those earnest Russian intellectuals of the 19th century.
I’ve been writing and publishing erotica for over fourteen years, which I suppose qualifies me as a “dirty-book writer. I also have a Ph.D. (in Japanese literature) and have no difficulty looking people straight in the eye. Of course, what any given “pornographer actually looks like is beside the point. McGrath, beneath his wink-wink faux urbanity, has in fact captured the ugly truth of how the literary world views any writer who explores erotic topics fearlessly: shifty and unhealthy with a “sick obsession with whacking off. And, most important of all, a dirty-book writer is the opposite of smart and thoughtful.
While I’ll admit to envying Nicholson Baker for his apparently unique status as an erotica writer who gets attention from major newspapers, I certainly felt great relief I didn’t have to endure an interview with the likes of McGrath. And yet, even the great mad smutter himself confessed unease with what he writes. In describing the genesis of his most famous erotic novel, Vox, he states: “It seemed like literary novels then had a very set sexual pattern: four or five sex scenes among some literary-sounding writing. So I said to myself: ˜Just do it. Stay with the sex. Accept that you’re reading and writing this with mixed motives.’
“Mixed motives. As in, the exploration of sexuality is not as pure or worthy as that of any other human experience. And woe to you if your response compels you to masturbate compulsively (is there any other kind?).
Okay, I’ll acknowledge that the effort to keep intelligence separate from our animal nature is as old as the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. But hasn’t the sexual revolution and the birth of the Internet brought sex out of the closet? Sex is all around us in advertising, film and TV. We can access countless erotic stories that are dirtier, funnier and smarter than any single writer’s efforts gratis with a mere Google search.
Alas, the marketing campaign surrounding Baker’s new novel shows well enough that even the polite classes can now talk about sex in our society, as long as the tone remains hysterical, adolescent or denigrating. The occasional licensed therapist might be allowed a mature voice on the topic, perhaps concerning a scientific survey, but the rest of us are still forbidden to treat sexual matters with calm and respect in a public forum.
I would like to propose a simple, but revolutionary antidote to this sad state of affairs. As an intelligent person\’and I know you are, dear reader–challenge this sex-phobic status quo whenever you are able. Seek out writers and journalists who take a grown-up approach to sexual matters, whether humorous or serious. Better still, write smart, sexy articles and stories yourself. Sexuality is the source of life and even spirituality; eroticism is inescapable food for our imaginations. By admitting that out loud, we will all grow.
Even someday, perhaps, the writers and editors at The New York Times Magazine?