I’d like to take a moment to talk with you about sex.
Particularly, I’d like to relay a bit of news about the vagina. Ah — that word, surely the most unlyric for that lyric organ; I promise I won’t use it again.
I bring it up only because of the bittersweet news out of Mount Holyoke College that its annual performance of The Vagina Monologues has been canceled because it excludes “trans” women who — strictly speaking — have penises.
“At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” explained a member of the school’s theater board in an e-mail captured by the group Campus Reform. “Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “You promised not to use the V-word again.” Well, I didn’t use it. I mentioned it as part of a name, so get off my jock.
More to the point, here’s this play that was, upon its release, a transgressive, boldly feminist work. And now, in less than a Bieber’s age, it has become backward. Chauvinistic even. What a wonderful reminder that we are all bigots by tomorrow’s standards. What an elegant display of the PC ouroboros eating itself.
But do you doubt the Monologues will come back, this time with more penises and less conceptual coherence, and that its earnest defenders will declare it braver, bolder, transgressiver?
Way back in 1976, the French theorist Michel Foucault understood that this feeling of breaking free from old oppression is the high that such monologists, tugging at the fetters of the Victorian order, chase. In his History of Sexuality, Foucault writes, “What sustains our eagerness to speak of sex in terms of repression is doubtless this opportunity to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and promise bliss, to link together enlightenment, liberation, and manifold pleasures.” Moreover, this thoroughly modern craving to proselytize on sex
serves as a support for the ancient form — so familiar and important in the West — of preaching.
A great sexual sermon . . . has swept through our societies over the last decades; it has chastised the old order, denounced hypocrisy, and praised the rights of the immediate and the real; it has made people dream of a New City. The Franciscans are called to mind.
But if Foucault understood that the evangelizing of sex has substituted for religion in the modern West — that the evangelizers of increasingly transgressive sex are seeking, as it were, a rapturous experience — he also understood how decidedly odd it is that they bleat on, loudly and vulgarly and from every possible perch, about how uptight we all are. “By what spiral did we come to affirm that sex is negated? What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?” How is it, Foucault might ask, that the endless discussion of every act of Gomorrahism on HBO’s Girls is taken as evidence that we’re a nation of cowards on sex?
The short answer is that it’s about what everything in politics and culture is about: power. The sexual revolutions of the Sixties and Seventies promised a leveling of hierarchies, an embrace of copulative pluralism. But the lure of a sexual “New City” was a false horizon. Our discourse on sex is not some dialectic heading toward a satisfying . . . climax. As with history full stop, there is no “right side” of sexual history, no such thing as a Free Love.
Instead of a liberation, the sexual revolution was a coup d’état, and the new boss is only superficially unlike the old one. To wit, the hooha brouhaha at Mount Holyoke is not some mind-freeing breakout, but a skirmish in a doctrinal civil war so brutal and byzantine that it makes Moscow in the Twenties look like a dorm-room bull session. Indeed, the fight between “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” — who think transgenderism is another tool of the patriarchy — and the inclusionary faction — who think a woman is as a woman does — has become so pitched that The New Yorker recently published a 4,000-word dispatch from its front lines. The tone of the piece, by former Nation scribe Michelle Goldberg, is both grave and studiously neutral, as if she were waiting to see whether Franco would take Barcelona.
The new regime has unsurprisingly erected its capital over the ruins of the revolution that birthed it, inside the American university. There you will find Harvard sponsoring a workshop called “Anal Sex 101” as its deepest minds nod thoughtfully in favor of “affirmative consent” laws so arch that they enjoy support from many religious conservatives.
Foucault didn’t live long enough to see how far around the bend we’d go, but I doubt he’d be surprised.
Under our new sexual order, every transgression returns as a regulation — thus one Salon writer’s recent reflection on the conditions under which incest should be sanctioned. And by contrast, every old oppression returns as a fetish. How else to explain the hegemony achieved by Fifty Shades of Grey in the erotic imaginations of — if the sales slips are to be believed — 100 million people? Here is a bit of smut about the complete subjugation of a weak woman by a powerful man, rendered innocuous by ritualizing it, bracketing it off as a “kink,” relegating it to whispers in bedrooms. The patriarchy, with safe words.
The fruit of the sexual revolution is not “anything goes,” but a new contrivance of sexual codes every bit as complex and constrictive as the finest Victorian corset.
And it is these New Victorians who are now in charge. Gird your loins.
– Mr. Foster is a political consultant and a former news editor of National Review Online.