Magazine | November 27, 2017, Issue

The Left’s Sexual Counterrevolution

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page with Lori Maddox (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
So many abusers among the liberated

‘I saw the greatest music ever. I got to hang out with some of the most amazing, most beautiful, most charismatic men in the world. I went to concerts in limos with police escorts. Am I going to regret this? No.”

Lori Maddox, quoted above, was 14 years old when she began her sexual relationship with rock star David Bowie. She began the night a virgin and by the end of it was involved in a ménage à trois with another underage girl. She would soon move on to a relationship with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, who at 28 was precisely twice her age and who courted her by having the band’s manager kidnap her. That same manager was responsible for an infamous episode in which members of the band tied up a young fan and sodomized her with a mud shark. (He disputes the popular version of that story — it was, he says, a red snapper. The girl was a redhead, you see.) Ted Nugent, conservatives’ favorite rock star, was in a long-term relationship with an underage girl and, being unable to legally marry her, became her legal guardian (she claims; he denies the allegations). Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler did much the same thing, taking legal custody of a 16-year-old girl he would later impregnate and pressure into an abortion. Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones dated a 13-year-old when he was in his forties. Iggy Pop had a 13-year-old girlfriend. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis — the golden age of rock-’n’-roll is full of adult men having public relationships with underage girls. Chuck Berry went to prison for transporting an underage girl across state lines for sexual purposes and later faced child-abuse charges related to the possession of child pornography. The charges were dropped as part of a plea deal.

None of that was exactly a secret. Iggy Pop wrote a song about having sex with a 13-year-old, and Ted Nugent had a hit with the confessional “Jail Bait.” Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin. These men were not only welcome in high society, they were among its most sought-after adornments. Ted Nugent is a Fox News regular; David Bowie was offered (and rejected) a knighthood. Jimmy Page is a Commander of the British Empire. Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton felt obliged to offer public statements on the death of Chuck Berry.

Roman Polanski is still welcome in polite society.

“Transgressive” sexuality has long been a part of the pop-radical worldview, and there was a kind of informal hierarchy to it: Rock stars were given an indulgence to pursue a kind of Romantic — but hardly romantic — version of the Byronic sexual persona. This was especially true during the era wistfully referred to as “post-pill, pre-plague,” though the emergence of HIV took some of the luster off extreme promiscuity. Rock stars were the cultural storm troopers of the 1960s and 1970s liberationist movements, whose glamour and charisma were effective weapons against bourgeois notions of marriage and sexuality and all that awful old repressive patriarchal dead-white-guy stuff that went with them. The word “transgressive” still appears in the title of about every third gender-studies thesis.

Along with rock stars, there were Hollywood stars: Polanski and his underage girls, the impeccably progressive Sean Penn and his domestic violence (charges dropped), Warren Beatty and his relentless consumption, Errol Flynn and his statutory-rape case. Then there are the writers: Norman Mailer, occasional patron of transvestite prostitutes, according to his wife, whom he drunkenly stabbed at a party launching his New York City mayoral campaign; Gore Vidal and his sexual shenanigans; Walt Whitman, for that matter. The stories these figures told themselves about their habits — the myth of a cultural revolution they created — are really quite something to behold. Fantasizing about the United States descending into fascism, Norman Mailer wrote: “One perk for the White House, therefore, should America become an international military machine huge enough to conquer all adversaries, is that American sexual freedom, all that gay, feminist, lesbian, transvestite hullabaloo, will be seen as too much of a luxury and will be put back in the closet again. Commitment, patriotism, and dedication will become all-pervasive national values again (with all the hypocrisy attendant).”

This from a guy who nearly murdered his wife for calling him a “faggot.”

The so-called sexual revolution was never about women’s liberation — it was about men’s liberation: from marriage, from fatherhood, from courtesy, from responsibility, from adulthood. In celebrity culture, where the sexual revolution came into its fullest form, what actually happened was not anything like the mad orgiastic and egalitarian free-for-all of the liberationist imagination but rather an exaggeration of the most ancient of sex roles: powerful men pursuing virgins (or at least the seemingly virginal) in the belief that they are — in Ted Nugent’s words — “clean.” Whatever the aspirations of Mailer’s gay feminist hullabaloo, what the sexual revolution produced wasn’t an erotic regime that was more egalitarian but one that was more strictly and radically hierarchical: rock stars literally put on pedestals above their adoring fans and young women who not only were willing but considered it a privilege to offer themselves up sexually in exchange for access, however momentary, to those limousines and back-stage passes.

“The culture was different back then,” said Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, serial sexual predator and accused rapist.

He isn’t wrong about that.

The sexual dynamic of the 1970s rock-groupie scene or in Hollywood until the day before yesterday — powerful older men using their positions to pursue sex with attractive young women socially, economically, and professionally subordinate to them; attractive young women participating in the transaction in order to secure relationships with high-status men or access to their milieu — wasn’t a radical break from the past, but the opposite: a deepening of the ordinary sexual dynamic that had marked high-society life for centuries. When Charles Dickens was exposed for stepping out on the mother of his ten children with an 18-year-old mistress, he didn’t hang his head in shame: He staged a publicity campaign complaining that his wife had grown fat, and he called her an unloveable “donkey.” He even published a letter in the Times defending himself. Victorian propriety notwithstanding, he wasn’t run out of town on a rail but instead remained one of the most celebrated men of letters of his time.

For much of history, the expectation that there would be a power discrepancy between men and women in romantic relationships, including marriage, and that this discrepancy would generally be in the man’s favor, was taken as natural. (Which is not the same thing as desirable, nor should it be understood to justify the actual coercion and exploitation characteristic of many of the relationships discussed herein.) Indeed, one of the stock characters of English and European literature is the emasculated man who enters into a marriage in which his wife’s fortune or position causes that relationship to be inverted, usually to unhappy effect. In Hollywood or on the rock-concert circuit, that discrepancy was dramatic: Either you were Harvey Weinstein or you were a nobody hoping that Harvey Weinstein would put you in a movie or at least introduce you to the right agent. In the music world, you were either on the stage or in the crowd. But in the more mundane world of middle-class life influenced by the bourgeois values that Mailer et al. held in such intense contempt, that power discrepancy had a perversely egalitarian effect. It wasn’t unusual for a powerful man to marry an attractive woman who had no particular social status or income. It wasn’t unusual for the chairman of the board to marry a secretary (or to have an affair with one). Marriage across economic lines was far more common than marriage across racial lines or other less permeable social borders. The recent reversal of that is one of the drivers of household economic inequality in the United States.

Today, a man working as $200,000-a-year lawyer or corporate executive is very likely to be married to a woman with a similar educational background, similar professional achievements, and similar social status. There is not only a growing expectation of social and economic equality within relationships but also a growing belief that relationships not characterized by such equality or near-equality are suspect, possibly exploitative. Setting aside the more extreme allegations against Weinstein et al. — which go well beyond boorish behavior and into rape — there is a quietly emerging consensus that a man in such a position cannot have a non-exploitative sexual relationship of any kind with a woman in an inferior position (and not only those in formally inferior positions, such as subordinate employees, but those who are simply in a relatively weak social or economic position) because the discrepancy in power makes genuine consent impossible. Washington correspondent David Corn of Mother Jones, recently put through the wringer of sexual-harassment allegations, was accused of behavior that “felt sexual and domineering.” Corn denies this and says he is merely “exuberant.” The word “domineering” turned up more than once to describe behavior that was not explicitly sexual but might have been interpreted that way. Corn might be a creepy fellow, but the complaints about him are as much concerned with his position and the privileges associated with it as about his behavior. Corn is a pretty big deal in the world of Mother Jones, and it’s hard to be “domineering” if you aren’t.

Forty years ago, the Left’s fondest hope was that the sexual outlaws of stage and screen would wreck bourgeois sexual propriety beyond repair. The radicals got their wish, to a great extent. But their cultural heirs are not happy with the results, and now a slightly modified version of bourgeois propriety is all the rage over at Mother Jones and among Hollywood progressives.

Emphasis on rage.

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