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History of the Sexual Century

WHAT WILD ECSTASY
The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Revolution
By John Heidenry
Simon & Schuster

Some 30 years into the so-called sexual revolution, near the end of what might as well be designated the sexual century as anything else, veterans of its intricate physical skirmishes and pitched rhetorical battles are left with one question: Just how important is sex, anyway?

Of course, to declare this the sexual century--playfully, for argument and fun's sake--is not to anticipate enthusiastic assent. Few would deny that never before did such a vast array of women and men think so much about the concept of sex, or that the era's profusion of sexual representations was unparalleled. Clearly, in no previous epoch of Western culture did so many put so much time and effort into the pursuit and perfection of genital pleasure, its polymorphous correlatives, and the psychodrama that surrounds them. But the commentators who devote more than a condescending glance to these trends are usually dismayed by them. Right, left, or center, they want to tell us that modern sex is at best the opiate of the people, wrecking the family, marriage, romance, love itself. The commercialization of sex suffers special opprobrium, whether in advertising and popular culture, where promises of impossible bliss further cheapen dubious goods and entertainments, or in the sale of sexual products per se--manuals, men's magazines, porn loops, mail-order underwear. As a final blow, some sages top off these animadversions by announcing that the harder sex consumers try, the less fun they end up having. Tsk, tsk--poor buggers don't even come good.

John Heidenry, a former editor at the Penthouse spinoff Forum, can't resist his own autumnal wistfulness about the diminishing returns of the sexual round. But his engrossing, authoritative survey of modern sex's issues and players offers support to ordinary folks who are damn well glad they lost their virginity earlier than their parents did, who have concluded that the 20th-century vogue for fellatio and cunnilingus is good for one's affective relationships, psychological equilibrium, and skin tone. It's not that he advances either argument, but that he writes calmly and knowledgeably from a credible place where they're home truths. Heidenry doesn't mince words about the foolishness to which most of his many subjects occasionally succumb. He's scathing about the likes of cocaine-scamming porn star John Holmes and wife-beating sex promoter Chuck Traynor as well as his natural enemies, the money-grubbing moralists of the antisex reaction. But most of his life stories and thumbnail portraits display a human tolerance that reflects well on the sexual tolerance he preaches. Even such oft-ridiculed figures as Andrea Dworkin and Gay Talese get what any neutral observer would adjudge their fair due.

In short, Heidenry's book performs the useful function of naturalizing liberal sexual mores without implying that they're beyond criticism. Just because it's so unfailingly open-minded, it should make anybody with second thoughts about paths not taken think again. From entrepreneurs like self-made porn king Reuben Sturman and self-created playboy Hugh Hefner to adventurers like the prostitute-turned-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle and the late pornographer Marco Vassi, Heidenry's principals have paid for their treasure-house of orgasms with strange, perilous, difficult lives. The curse extends to William Masters, who warned that overwork was inimical to a good sex life but didn't take a day off for 50 years. And Johns Hopkins's John Money, a bisexual who helped make the world bearable for transsexuals by exploring such concepts as "paraphilia" and "lovemaps," was himself unable to form the erotic bond he craved after the painful end of a passionate relationship. One may be impressed by the Dutch anarchist Willem de Ridder, who has learned to achieve whole-body orgasm at will via a shallow-breathing technique he picked up from his old lover Sprinkle. But only the fanatically sex-positive would want to be de Ridder. There are other things to do with one's Úlan vital--getting the kids to school, say, or watching television.

Heidenry's regard for John Money reflects two of his thematic concerns. Knowing sex as he does, he understands how uncontrollably it resists stereotype, and thus feels for those on its margins. He devotes a moving chapter to a transsexual from Indiana, is clear on the victimization of Deep Throat's Linda Lovelace, and details gay and lesbian liberation and the s&m scene with unequivocal sympathy (although he also holds that s&m, with its commingling of blood and semen, was a hothouse of HIV, as was female circumcision in Africa). He focuses on Sprinkle and Vassi--the latter of whom he reports, quite credibly, was "cursed, or blessed, with a libido of monstrous proportions and a sexual imagination and spirit of erotic adventure such as befall few men or women in a generation, or maybe a century"--because he regards them, also credibly, as innovative geniuses. But even in their radically atypical voracity Heidenry sees a search not only for pleasure but for love, portraying Vassi's inability to complete that search as tragic, comic, and pathetic all at once. And that is why he honors Money's idea of the "lovemap," which holds that gender identity is determined not by who you can have sex with but who you can fall in love with.

Anyone who glances through Mr. Heidenry's notes on sources will be aware that much of his research isn't primary--especially in the later parts of his story, he's content to collate the reporting of others. What's most striking about this method is that it affirms the value of such declasse journals as Forum, Penthouse, Hustler and Screw, without whose uninhibited attention much of this information would have been lost to history. Yet despite what you might conclude from complaints by authors whose work Mr. Heidenry relied upon--most vociferously his former Forum boss Philip Nobile, whom Heidenry praises almost unstintingly--Mr. Heidenry adds something to the work he appropriates. There's a warmth to his book that is rarely apparent in the sex mags, where the tone tends toward a snide knowingness even shallower than the sophistication it pretends to.

It's also worth noting that for Heidenry, the century's "third sexual revolution," from the Sixties to now, succeeded insofar as it freed women from millennia of repression, and failed insofar as it didn't. Thus, even if "simple aversion to sex" has become a major concern of sex therapy only because "relatively `easy' problems" like premature ejaculation are now solved at home, he believes that in the end the revolution failed. Many women would look askance at Heidenry's do-her feminism, in which the genitally explicit erotica of filmmaker Candida Royalle is hailed as a relief from a hard-core phallic narcissism whose worst sin is that it is "dreary" and "outdated." And his Reichian thesis that "`sexually awakened women . . . would mean the complete collapse of the authoritarian ideology'" seems a tad tautological. Nevertheless, What Wild Ecstasy makes an excellent case for the humane notion that sex can and should be exactly as important as you want it to be.

New York Times Book Review, 1997