God, I miss repression.
I miss the quaint idea that graphic sexual description can be all right in some places, but not in others (criminal trials and doctors’ offices, yes; dinner parties and prime-time television, no). I miss the common social practice of ignoring, or at least euphemizing, acts that consenting adults can do perfectly well in private without mentioning in public. I miss the standards whereby it would have been considered in prohibitively poor taste for a glossy, general-interest magazine to print the following quote—which, to his credit, my editor was indeed loath to reproduce here, but agreed on the grounds that it would be hard to bemoan just how gross things have gotten without actually showing just how gross things have gotten:
“‘He told me to pull my underwear down and pull out my tampon, and we went at it with me pressed against his Escalade ... he did it from the back.”
At one time, such a line would only be found in the kind of periodical that comes in a brown paper wrapper, off a very high shelf in the 7-Eleven. In our time, it can be found in an article written by a major journalist (Mark Seal) in a major publication (Vanity Fair).
The article is about the compulsive adulteries of Tiger Woods, and the above account is from “sweet, ivory-skinned” Florida waitress Mindy Lawton, just one of several enthusiastically informative mistresses. Although the piece inexplicably neglects to enlighten us as to the brand or absorbency level of Lawton’s feminine protection, it does feature a full-page photo of her lolling a cherry with her tongue, presumably so as to help the reader to imagine her handling the golf great’s maleness, which is, of course, duly denoted (“Wow,” testifies Mindy. “It was the biggest I’ve ever seen.”)
My problem with all this is not that Vanity Fair is any more salacious than its pop-culture peers. My problem is that it’s not. In fact, this particular piece merely happened to hit me in the same way that, every once in a while, a person can answer a cell phone in New York to hear a voice from New Delhi and, despite having received many such calls before, feel freshly struck by just how amazing that is. Like instantaneous transglobal telecommunication, remarkably crude discourse about sex has become so ubiquitous that most of us don’t even notice it anymore, let alone object.
But you know something? I object.
In doing so, I am not calling for a return to the hypocritical good old days, when a personal problem denied was considered a personal problem solved, and illicit acts that were never reported were equated with illicit acts that never occurred. On balance, given a choice between placing America’s marital, mental, and sexual dysfunctions on center stage in all their cringe-making glory or shoving them back into the closet where they used to fester, I would go with center stage. But that is not a choice that needs to be made. The current trend of all-too-full disclosure isn't about freedom or candor; it's about voyeurism and self-exploitation. Just because we no longer wish to live in a society that treats inevitable human failings as occasions of irretrievable shame does not mean that we need to live in a society that treats pathetic and revolting behavior as a book-and-movie deal waiting to happen.
Back in 1949, the fact that she was impregnated by one man while married to another nearly destroyed the career of Ingrid Bergman, a cultural figure of towering merit. Decades later, a pirated sex tape ignited the career of Paris Hilton, a cultural figure of no discernible merit whatsoever. Must we really accept that there is no midpoint between these two?
Ironically, the same issue of Vanity Fair that reveals Woods’ favorite lacy-lingerie color (cherry red) features Grace Kelly on the cover. Apparently, nearly 30 years after her untimely death, the princess who personified a decidedly understated, literally white-gloved sensuality is still a big seller.
Maybe a lot of my fellow Americans miss repression, too.