One day, when the living nightmare of the 2016 election has passed, and Donald Trump has been sent into the wilderness of Gehenna, America is going to need to work out its shit on the subject of sex. You know, a "national conversation" like the ones we've had about war and race. Sex is no less pressing an issue. It's arguably the most elemental issue. And it hasn't in all of recorded history received the full airing it deserves (the closest we may've come was during the era from 1950-1970 (roughly, Alfred Kinsey through Elvira Madigan). Sex is the ultimate elephant in the room. And we are like the blind men in the timeless parable, trying to identify the elephant by its constituent parts (tusks, trunk, tail, ears, etc.) and forever failing to recognize the entire creature.
I almost lost it the other day when the cable news networks went 24/7 with the latest salacious revelations about Trump's bygone victims ("shoved against the wall...tongue down my throat," "he was like an octopus...all over me at once"), and then felt they had to give--if not equal time, at least lip service to Trump's dredging up of the Clinton era scandals, as if there were some moral equivalence between Bill and Monica's low-rent Abelard and Heloise story and Trump's predation. Talk about experiencing cognitive dissonance. The clash of righteous tongue-clucking and titillation made me want to dive under a pillow. But somewhere in between the two sets of grainy flashbacks to the 70's, 80's, and 90's, there emerged a common theme: sex is a dirty business.
It's gotten so topsy-turvy out there that the Trump campaign's latest Hail Mary is to suggest that the election of Hillary Clinton will perpetuate 'rape culture,' a term brought into the lexicon by 70's second wave feminists for whom Trump is the quintessence of toxic masculinity. Why? Because electing Hillary means dismissing the grievances of the coffee shop sirens her husband despoiled back in Arkansas. You see what they're doing, right? They're co-opting the language of the left and weaponizing it in service of Trump, just like they did with issues like trade and working class misery. How is anyone supposed to follow the convolutions of this election? But no matter how you slice it, sex comes out badly.
And that's too bad, because sex (and its consequences, like love and babies) is one of the things--along with music, great wine, and poetry--that makes life in this sublunar world tolerable. Hard to believe that we once displayed our copies of THE JOY OF SEX (1972) proudly on the coffee table, to be thumbed through even by visiting moms. Sex these days isn't just joyless, it's utilitarian. An app, like Uber or Task Rabbit. Swipe and shag.
My own attitudes about sex and its rightful place in the social order fall somewhere between Aldous Huxley's utopian final novel, ISLAND (1962), in which adolescents receive tuition in sexual pleasure as part of their high school education, the matriarchal Court of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Poitiers (1168-1173), where love was the highest art and seduction was practiced with equal skill by men and women, and the Gospel of Leonard Cohen, who paraphrased the Zohar (13th c., with purported 2nd century mystical Jewish origin) this way: "...it says in Kabbalah that, unless Adam and Eve face each other and join their parts, God does not sit on his throne." But I don't expect America to go that far. I would happily settle for a more nuanced, grown-up understanding of human sexuality.
Sex is messy and kaleidoscopic. It's always some version of the Rashomon story. If it weren't, it wouldn't have been the subject of human drama from Genesis to the 'Romance of the Rose' to Anais Nin to 'Fifty Shades of Grey' (the title of which is its most profound literary conceit). Right now, we're engaged--on campus, in the courts of law, on the evening news, and in the bedroom--in an earnest if hopelessly elusive quest to draw clean lines (not gray, and not blurred) with regard to precisely what constitutes consent or the absence thereof, but sex doesn't like to be scrubbed too much. It is a flower that opens most readily in soft light. It will confound any effort at complete comprehension.
There is a poster making the rounds of the web, probably originating with one of the few Trump supporters who can frame a reasonably coherent question, on which the familiar one-sheet image of Dakota Johnson (as Anastasia Steele), wrists bound and pinned against the wall by Jamie Dornan (as Christian Grey), is overlaid with the following text: "If American women are so outraged at Donald Trump's naughty words, then who in the hell bought 80 million copies of 50 Shades Of Grey?" I know, I know. It's a clumsily drawn parallel and not exactly Socratic enquiry. Anyone who stops to think about Trump's "locker room banter" knows that it isn't the naughty words but the beast lurking behind them that we find reprehensible. But somewhere in that question is a pointer to the mixed message about sexual behavior that deeply confuses an enormous number of heterosexual men (and women) and cries out for a discussion stripped of political dogma. After all, why do we obsess, fantasize, fetishize, dream, pine and grieve so much about something that, when exposed to the cold light of day (or news cameras), almost always makes us look bad?
Consider poor Ken Bone. He didn't even get a week of glory.