“When we can no longer stand to raise the children here among the fleshpots of Babylon,” I like to tell myself, “we can always retreat to the Heartland.” This is mostly romantic nonsense, of course, because they get cable TV in the heartland too, and take their cues from it. When all Americans participate in the same popular culture, there’s no such thing as getting away from it all.
You’d think I’d have learned this by now, but every time my wife and I go to my Louisiana hometown (pop. 2,400, or thereabouts), and get caught up on the local gossip, I am genuinely shocked by the stories we hear of the sexual derring-do that people have got up to.
Maybe my need to believe in my own personal Lake Wobegon, a good place to escape with my family to, causes me to be scandalized by the fact that the sexual revolution, 40 years on, is alive and kicking in my hometown. Tom Wolfe was writing about this stuff in the 1970s. In his well-known essay about what he christened the “Me Decade,” Wolfe observed, “It is an odd experience to be in De Kalb, Illinois, in the very corncrib of America, and have some conventional-looking housewife (not housewife, damn it!) come up to you and ask: ‘Is there much tripling [a sexual threesome] going on in New York?’” I have been told by people who were there that wife-swapping “key parties” were not unknown to the middle class in my southern hometown in Seventies. So what’s new? Not much, ah reckon.
Still, it stopped me in my tracks to learn on my most-recent visit that a popular pastime among local women these days is to gather for sex-toy parties. Tupperware shmupperware, bring on the vibrators! The ladies are coming together now to examine plastic phalluses, battery-operated devices, flavored unguents, scented creams, and all sorts of erotic bric-a-brac that used to be euphemized as “marital aids.” The idea is to examine the merchandise in a party setting, then retreat one at a time into a backroom with the hostess/dealer to place an order. The merchandise is delivered discreetly at a later date.
“Get outta here, you’re making that up!” I told my local friend, laughing at the sheer tackiness of it. I thought that kind of thing was something that downtown freaky-deaks and women’s-studies harridans did for fun. Do normal women really stand around somebody’s living room licking numbing creams and passing around vibrating fake penises among their friends, all in an air of conviviality, then admit to their friends to buying the stuff?
Actually, my little Candide, they do. As it turns out, this sort of thing is a pretty big deal nowadays. Home sex-toy parties — usually, but not always, all-woman affairs — are all the rage now among, well, normal people (as distinct from the sort of exotic species you move off to the Big City to meet). Clients and distributors say that these events take the shame out of purchasing “sex toys” (a telling euphemism, given that swinging has now been rechristened “play,” to give it an air of childhood innocence). The idea is: Why should a woman have to slink around to a dirty bookstore to examine and purchase these things, when she can do so with friends, and in the comfort of someone’s home?
Mind you, the morality of using these doohickeys is not really my business or yours. What’s interesting to me, though, is the willingness of average middle-class women to make a lively social event out of something so personal and private as their intimate lives. Jodi Stuck, the owner of Spice It Up Parties, says sex-toy parties began four to six years ago, as women’s curiosity was spurred by the increasing eroticization of popular culture.
“You can’t pick up a Redbook, a Cosmo, a Marie Claire, or any woman’s magazine without continually seeing articles about lotions, toys, books, videos, you name it,” she told me. “It has been a stigma for a long time, but it is all openly accepted now.” This is supposed to be a good thing.
The sexually frank HBO series Sex and the City also has a lot to do with it, apparently. The fashionable women of the program, who behave in ways that would be called slutty were they living in Alabama trailer parks instead of Manhattan apartments, have helped legitimize the idea among the show’s female viewers that women can and should do whatever it takes to achieve sexual satisfaction. When one of the characters pronounced a vibrator called the “Rampant Rabbit” her favorite, sales of the device shot up in England (I am told that the Rampant Rabbit is popular on the bayou as well).
Going through the recent news clips reporting this phenomenon, some of which place the sex-toy fad in context of the skyrocketing use of pornography in the home and on the Internet as part of the middle class’s quotidian sex life, you see married women partygoers eagerly anticipating that the lotions and machines will return excitement to their sex lives (for some it’s a preemptive strike in the marital bedroom: many of these parties are given as bachelorette showers; as if the right thing to do is to load the bride-to-be up with an arsenal of buzzers, pokers, plugs, and protuberances to fight off boredom in the bedroom). To be sure, the pain many women and men suffer within their marriages as they deal with sexual letdown is real, and it’s no bad thing for them to be able to discuss it, within respectable bounds, as a way of getting help. Still, it’s kind of poignant to ponder the conviction of couples, between whom nary a tender word or genuine emotional intimacy may have passed in years, that coital exhilaration will return by prodding each other’s orifices with Artoo Detoo.
Again, there are worse things in the world to worry about than Rampant Rabbit and his reptilian cousin, Licking Lizard (I’m not making these names up, by the way). However, when the novelty of that technique wears off, and the expected state of bliss has not arrived in the marital bed, what will you do to fend off boredom? Pornographic videos? Bondage gear? Swinging? Another spouse?
There’s a deeper malaise undergirding this, I think, and more than anything else it has to do with the media — cable TV, movies, magazines — and what it does to our frames of reference. Media completely screws up your idea of normal, and creates unrealistic expectations for what constitutes a meaningful and happy life. This can be particularly hard on people from small towns and rural areas, where life is slower. I was an adolescent when we got cable in our house, and the message I got from the dazzling myriad of channels coming through the TV set was: Life Is Elsewhere. You have only one life to live, kid, and you deserve more fun and excitement than you’re having now.
A professor friend of mine who used to teach college in Appalachia wrote to me recently: “When I moved to the Tennessee mountains, I was always stunned at how much kids raised there could not see the beauty that was all around them, and all of the amazing kid stuff there was to do in mountains and lakes and waterfalls and music and everything. A small place, but a wonderful place. But the students from there said they never, ever thought of that. They were comparing their lives with MTV, and advertising, and HBO, and the products of New York and Los Angeles.”
He’s onto something. Tom Wolfe, writing a generation ago, found the philosophical locus of the Me Generation in the advertising slogan, “If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a [fill in the blank].” In that was the belief that what matters most is the autonomous Self, and the fulfillment of its desires. The culture accepted that revolutionary dogma, and used it as a justification for casting aside restraints built up over countless generations of human experience. On top of that, pile 40 years of media propaganda arguing in one form or another, and against the wisdom and experience of the ages, that life is meaningless without good sex all the time. And so we talk endlessly about sex, assured by the experts on TV and at Cosmo that we’ll finally reach the New Jerusalem if only we could overcome our Repression.
Does it seem to you that many people are much better off for all the fevered exertions of the last 40 years? Are the adult children of the key-party generation bound to make the same mistakes as our parents? Look, I don’t want to make a big deal about the sex-toy party fad, but I do wonder why otherwise sensible grownups are persuaded to surrender their dignity by attending social events built around the sale of masturbatory devices. When Rampant Rabbit is welcomed and openly feted by small-town America, the loss of a sense of decorum, of propriety and vulgarity, surely means something. Really now: What’s up with that, doc?