With Easter just behind us, it is a fine time to consider sex. The Christian holiday celebrates the fertility and renewal of the Spring season, with its symbols of flowers, eggs, and the internationally recognized go-to reference point for libido, the bunny rabbit. But Easter also more explicitly embodies the sexual weirdness of the religion itself – the rebirth of God’s son, who was born to a chaste woman but grew up to enjoy the company of prostitutes. In this spirit, we take a look at a 2009 Newsweek piece, “Only You. And You. And You,” one of many awkward discussions of sexuality broached by the nation’s most august newsmagazines over the years.
This remarkable piece of work introduces the Peorians of middle America’s checkout lines to “polyamory,” the practice of sustaining emotional and sexual relationships among multiple different partners, with mutual consent. Writer Jessica Bennett suggests that polyamory descends from the free love movement of the 1960s and the swinging fad of the same era. The magazine’s photo editors underlined the point by pasting a photo of Elliot Gould’s chest hair in bed with co-stars Natalie Wood, Dyan Cannon, and Robert Culp at the top of the article, referencing an era when films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) shocked Americans by portraying unconventional sexuality. (As an indicator of how little progress we have really made, consider this: ABC actually had the chutzpah to adapt swinger film Bob & Carol into an incredibly ill-advised sitcom in 1973, whereas today we are forced to listen to debates about whether a show called S*** My Dad Says is too risqué for primetime; God forbid American children would be exposed to asterisks.)
When the likes of Newsweek and Time report on sexuality, it is a bit like your parents commenting on photos of your drunken shenanigans on Facebook: everyone had a vague sense that these things were going on, but actually seeing the evidence prompts an uncomfortable dialogue. And like Facebook, these magazines thrive on exhibiting people’s personal lives for public consumption. The polyamory piece reminded me of numerous articles in the past that have attempted to inform Americans of the latest new thing in sex, such as a 1995 piece that announced the discovery of bisexuality. It tells the story of a young couple who met during freshman orientation at the University of Chicago; much to the relief of their parents, Steven and Lori triumphed over their past dabbling in same-sex relationships to become real married heterosexuals. Except for one thing – Steven’s appetites have shifted from men to women and back to men again. He defined himself as both gay and “a once and future bisexual.” The article provides other details to puzzle readers, such as the couple’s habit of discussing “condoms as matter-of-factly as the weather” and maintaining same-sex relationships outside of their marriage.
The moment was July 1995 – mere months after the Republican Party seized Congress on a wave of revulsion with liberal deficits and decadence, and a year before Bill Clinton would opportunistically sign the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. Citing R.E.M., Roseanne, and Melrose Place, the article described a “bisexual moment,” which it envisioned as a curious offshoot of multiculturalism, with bisexuals asserting their status as yet another identity group with its own politics and institutions. There were “bi cable shows, bi web sites, bi newsletters and magazines,” as well as “Bi Women of Color, Bi Adult Children of Alcoholics, Bi Star Trekkies.” You know when you’ve been damaged by alcoholism and science fiction, you’ve hit the mainstream.
Such news coverage serves up sexual minorities as a bit of exotic titillation while purporting to educate the general public and ease the subjects’ path to acceptance. Another bedroom curiosity to grace the pages of Newsweek in the Nineties, for instance, was the virgin. Eleven years before Steve Carell made chastity (kind of) cool, a 1994 article tapped into the religious conservative zeitgeist with a look at the latest act of youthful rebellion: refusing to fornicate. “A lot of kids are putting off sex, and not because they can’t get a date,” the magazine declared. “They’ve decided to wait, and they’re proud o sf their chastity, not embarrassed by it. Suddenly, virgin geek is giving way to virgin chic.” Virgin chic never hit the runways of Milan or the bocce courts of Brooklyn, but the magazine did accurately forecast the rise of a cottage industry that promoted chastity pledges and “True Love Waits” rings. (The Southern Baptists founded the TLW movement just a year before, in 1993 – a harbinger, perhaps, of the Moral Majority’s subsequent rise to power.)
Of course, the mass media do not look to sexual rebels only for the sake of voyeurism or amusement. The shameful history of fearmongering about gays and lesbians in the American media is well documented, from the first mention of homosexuality in Newsweek (a 1947 article that warned of deranged, feminine men infiltrating the US military) to a 1969 piece in Time that asked “Are Homosexuals Sick?” The magazine answered its own question ten years later, with a snarky comment on the American Psychological Association’s “highly political” decision to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness. It was a “bit like dermatologists voting to ordain that acne is indeed a skin blemish, but only if the acne sufferer thinks it is.” Such pejorative treatment might be unsurprising for the 1940s or even the 1970s, but the continued vilification of gays and lesbians throughout the 1980s and 1990s is harder to understand. Part of the problem undoubtedly owed to media panic over the AIDS epidemic, which was initially termed Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), but an inert conservatism about sexual values, even on the part of the so-called “liberal media” is undoubtedly more to blame. How else to explain the rather prurient interest Newsweek seemed to take in Lori and Steven’s extramarital liaisons with members of their own genders in 1995, or the surprise the magazine expressed, forty years after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was released, that monogamy might not be everyone’s cup of tea?
Public discussion of sex is often tinged with a kind of amateur futurism. (Is there any other kind?) Changes in sexual behavior are easily read as signs of things to come; young people are often the ones seen to be experimenting sexually, and sex is tied up with reproduction and the making of the next generation. Perhaps sex functions as a channel for people’s anxieties about the future, especially the shared fortunes of the collective. Last August Newsweek gave us “Are We Facing a Genderless Future?” a piece about transpeople that seems to treat sexuality like peak oil, as if traditional gender roles were a kind of scarce and diminishing national resource. The essay takes for granted the conceit that underlies the convictions of religious traditionalists – that sexual norms have always been fixed in the way envisioned by the Moral Majority or the National Organization of Marriage, and any reconfiguration of those norms perverts a tradition of ancient vintage. In fact, no bygone era of conformity ever existed. Scholars such as Nan Boyd and Daniel Hurewitz have documented the many fluid ways that Americans expressed their gender and sexuality in the early twentieth century, from female impersonation in vaudeville to the “homophile” activism of the Mattachine Society.
Talk of a “genderless future” suggests a world in which people are so unmoored from tradition that it is no longer possible to sustain any distinctive gender roles. The idea of gender itself collapses and loses meaning. The implication – that some people asking for respect and security in their own identities would somehow affect everyone else’s gender – reminds one of the supposed threat that state recognition of gay marriages would pose to the “institution” of heterosexual marriage. Like Anita Bryant, who stoked conservative fears that gay men were insatiable savages who could not resist the urge to molest everyone’s children in the 1970s, we still find it difficult to separate the sexual expression of others from our own sense of self and security. Perhaps these concerns are rooted in the very social nature of sex itself, or the public dimensions of gender as performance and marker of status. If this is so, then a future without gender is as hard to imagine as a future without sex – or a future where sexual anxiety does not work itself out in public. Given the state of its finances, though, Newsweek may not be around to carry on this proud tradition. Someone will.
Alex Sayf Cummings