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The never-ending charm of sexual revolution nostalgia

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Whatever became of the Frigid Woman? Along with the infantile paralytic and the thalidomide baby, that female eunuch once haunted the American landscape; a walking, joyless rebuke to our unhealthy, uncaring, medically and morally primitive society.

Unlike those other two, it's not clear the Frigid Woman, defined by her inability to attain orgasm, ever really existed, or if so in what numbers, or even from what she was suffering. It could have been hysteria, penis envy, or some form of psychosomatic vaginosis; or maybe it was just the accumulated guilt and uptightness brought on by tens of thousands of years of the whole hung-up, Apollonian, unfreaky, blue-nosed, Judeo-Christian, puritanical establishment.

The Frigid Woman's condition was given respectful attention in texts like G.S. MacVaugh's Frigidity: Analysis and Treatment and the renowned psychologist Albert Ellis' New Cures for Frigidity. The prospect of healing the Frigid Woman figured in art-house classics like Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour and crossover porn hits like Gerard Damiano's Deep Throat.

Then suddenly, suspiciously close to the time the sexual revolution peaked, the Frigid Woman vanished. Along with nymphomania and the virgin/whore complex, her disease no longer existed, another relic from the ungroovy dark ages. Was she cured by the no-strings, gettin' down, good-vibrating, out-front love fest of the late sixties and early seventies? Or did she cure herself through a reaction to that love fest, by fighting off the open-shirted horndog males unleashed by the sexual revolution?

Two recent entertainments try to recreate the complexity of that era of self-conscious sexual liberation. The CBS series Swingtown attempts to bring '70s-era suburban wife-swapping to mainstream television. And on a much smaller budget, Anna Biller's independent film Viva salutes classic softcore cinema such as Radley Metzger's Camille 2000 and Herschel Gordon Lewis' Suburban Roulette. Neither could be accused of making a big cultural splash. Swingtown has gone largely unwatched and, as of this writing, appears headed for cancellation; Viva, despite its uncannily precise rendition of the look, sound, mood, and arch dialogue of its models, made a few film festival appearances and earned mixed reviews.

But the relative daring of both raises a question: In a world where amp-lover and plushy-fetish porn is as near as your web browser, why does the cutting edge of erotic exploration seem to be found in material that's nearly four decades old?

The appeal may be simple style envy. Swingtown luxuriates in the Super Seventies vibe to a degree that is bracing even after many years of Me Decade nostalgia. Some viewers, this one included, have had a hard time getting up to speed with the three couples at the center of the show, who fit too neatly into a continuum from free love to hidebound tradition (i.e., there's one enthusiastic open marriage, a pair of lovably nervous erotic explorers, and one set of cramped, Stepfordesque squares). But who (other than Nielsen viewers, apparently) could say no to the milieu of plaited hair, randy airline pilots, swingers parties, and paneled kitchens? Viva, an even more finely wrought piece of art, aims not for the look of the period but for the look of the period's movies: the high-key, pseudo-Technicolor lighting scheme and spare, colorful set design a handful of us have been missing ever since Dragnet went off the air; nudge-nudge wink-wink dialogue delivered in the flattest possible tones; and the way everybody's always got a cocktail in one hand a cigarette in the other.

What both capture is a sense of the sexual revolution as a product of middle age, a phenomenon not strictly of the baby boomers but of people just a few years older, who were still young enough to grok the counterculture but too old to commit to it in earnest. And there really is something exquisite in that dilemma. For a taste of what people may have felt they were missing, refer to a new coffee table book called Spaced Out: Radical Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties, with text by Alastair Gordon and the most impressive collection of counterculture photos I've ever seen. If you like buckyballs and buck-naked hippies, you'll love this book. You may love it even if you don't. I yield to nobody in my contempt for hippies, but after this tour through the earnest, fleshly delights of out-front, no-hangups freakdom, I must admit it: These really were the beautiful people.

I always suspect that what was driving the suburban swingers who (at least in popular imagination) hit the key party circuit a few years later was a sense of having missed the party, that great opening up of consciousness and legs that marked the blessed-out sixties. Everybody has been plagued by the sense that somebody somewhere is getting laid in ecstatic new ways while you're slaving over a hot stove. But suburbanites in the early seventies had actual reason to believe it.

This is why I think the unleashing of the Frigid Woman is the key to this story, the explanation for why the sexual revolution contained both new vistas of freedom and the seeds of its own undoing. For all that loosening up ultimately contained just more male insistence, a sense that the real problem with society was that women just weren't putting out enough! The journey to sexual liberation was sold as a step forward for women, but it was also a clever way to eliminate the option of saying no. And while "frigidity" was a phenomenon that had been discussed for decades, it reached crash velocity just when the promise of balling your way through to the other side seemed believable. It turned out women weren't having a problem achieving orgasm at all: They just couldn't do it with you.

What's left of that heady experience, particularly for those of us born too late to get in on the action the first time around? You could say the journey has been completed in the Housewives and the City entertainment genre of frank and sexually free women. You can find the evidence all over the bestseller lists—novels full of breathless detail about Manolo shoes, Pilates-toned figures, fiery redheads, cussing bitches with hearts of gold, lovely Korean-American gal pals, arrogant but sexy assholes, and giggly revelations over white wine.

I'm pretty sure this is, in fact, the kind of stuff many women like to read about or watch, but it's not as clear that these entertainments, with their pathetic plots about finding a Mr. Darcy figure among the studs and a fetish for clothes and accessories that borders on paraphilia, represent much of a step forward. In last year's The Infidelity Pact by Carrie Karasyov, an almost perfectly average example of the genre, the line between naughty dish and practically Islamic notions of sexual purity is erased. The temptation to copulate outside the bonds of marriage is viewed exclusively through a lens of deception and injury, the sexy asshole character is quickly unmasked as "sick," a "freak," and the "devil," and the lazy workings of the plot end with its group of women sexual adventurers fleeing back to their boring marital shells. The lesson is the same one we all learned at the beginning of the Reagan era: I've been to paradise but I've never been to me.

It's hard not to think there's something missing in this age of freedom. The original sexual revolution may have ended in plenty of bad humping with stinky hippies and gold-chained lotharios, but there was romance in the search for a new consciousness, and in the naïve idea that you could get there by fucking. Is the idea totally dead? How could such a beautiful notion not live on? Maybe what these modern, catty, gossipy chicks really need is a man who can take them to the next level, make them feel the way a woman's meant to feel. Your place or mine?

Tim Cavanaugh is opinion Web editor at The Los Angeles Times.

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  1. Was that a young Ron Jeremy?

  2. The answer is simple. Baby Boomers are getting old, and they are the ones in charge of major entertainment decisions. Unfettered sexuality is primarily new and exciting to teenagers and young people who are first exploring it, the 60s and 70s was when these people first did it.

    In 30 years we’ll be nostalgic about the social/sexual revolution the internet started in allowing strangers to cyber across the country.

  3. Swingtown has gone largely unwatched and, as of this writing, appears headed for cancellation

    Oh noes! I love that show. Not for swinging, more about the
    The appeal may be simple style envy. Swingtown luxuriates in the Super Seventies vibe to a degree that is bracing even after many years of Me Decade nostalgia … But who (other than Nielsen viewers, apparently) could say no to the milieu of plaited hair, randy airline pilots, swingers parties, and paneled kitchens?

    BTW I’m more interested in the plots revolving around the kids. Probably because I was a kid in the 70’s

    When I get my dream house I’m going to do the kitchen in 70’s style, all the appliances in avocado!

  4. I think people didn’t watch the show because most people aren’t into swinging. Swinging requires jettisoning all sexual jealousy and that’s just really, really hard for most people. Plus, swinging is for moderately or better looking people, as people who aren’t attractive don’t get asked to the next party.

  5. I dunno Episiarch. Judging from the swingers that get time on Real Sex, swingers will take anyone who doesn’t need a forklift to get to the party.

  6. I love the headline allusion, Hildy.

  7. And I love your nick, Episiarch. Great thread for allusions.

  8. Sex. I’ve heard about that hobby. Seems like it’s been going on a long time.

    Porn. I’ve heard about that one too.* Seems like it’s been going on for a long time as well.

    Is there any reason I should read the article?

    * Full disclosure, I’m 52 and certain there are practices that I am unversed in. I’d like to keep it that way. Lesbian biker nuns is about as kinky as I get.

  9. I’m 52 and certain there are practices that I am unversed in.

    My kids now have kids, so I’m a born-again virgin.

  10. swingtown is headed for cancellation cuz it is hideously bad! i could barely get thru the first episode. i hate these period shows/movies that have to constantly and artificially remind you of what period they are a part of. typical dialogue:

    “oh hi, just carrying my pet rocks and roller skating past the jimmy carter rally and the bicentennial celebration to pick up my leisure suit at the dry cleaners while listenting to the captain and tennille on my AM transistor radio…damn this stagflation!”

  11. For some reason, this topic reminds me of Gunther

  12. “pick up my leisure suit at the dry cleaners”

    They went in the washer / dryer; therein lay the beauty…

  13. jimmy’s typical dialogue is FAIL. The show is basically Desprate Housewives in the 70’s. He doesn’t like the 70’s references, I think they’re the whole fun, but they aren’t crammed into every line.

    My biggest nit pick with show dialogue: “I’ll go make some decaf.” Nobody drank decaf in the 70’s! They drank Sanka.

  14. uyewfguisdh,
    Good catch! That got right by me.

  15. My biggest nit pick with show dialogue: “I’ll go make some decaf.” Nobody drank decaf in the 70’s! They drank Sanka.

    Maybe they should have people writing the show who actually were alive in the 70’s.

  16. Nixon-Ford-Carter . . . It doesn’t get any better than that 😉

  17. Searle began marketing The Pill in the early 60s. AIDS was first reported in the U.S. in the early 80s. That gives a ? 20 year window when casual, unprotected sex could be held to be relatively free of serious physical consequences. Yeah, one might catch an STD, but a trip the clinic and a course of antibiotics dealt with that. If The Pill failed, abortions became legal in the 70s.

    Kevin

  18. Sexier than nudity is the act of getting nude. In that vein, it’s not the sexual liberation that’s enticing, but the movement from frigid to puttin’ out.

  19. Maybe the slogan for the Libertarian party should be “Free markets, Free minds, Free sex”. It could really help attracting people to the cause and make the rallies a lot more interesting!

  20. Swingtown: Right show, wrong venue.

    I can’t help think it would be much more entertaining if they could do more than crack open the door to the party room. Not just so the audience could see more sex (although that wouldn’t hurt) but because that’s where the swinging took place. Show us how a husband reacts the first time he watches his wife get her cookies with someone else.

    A show about 70s swingers on CBS? Give me a break. It’s like live theater doing a war story. Most of the fighting has to take place off-stage.

    The first time the curious couple goes off with the swingers, and it was “Let’s go someplace more private.” [Fadeout]

    Give me a break.

    Showtime/HBO, please?

  21. Tim,

    You ought to look at demographics for a clue to women’s attitudes towards sex. Men in short supply (war or other reasons)? Women go wild.

    Demographics
    More Demographics

  22. The idea of sexual liberation as being just having sex with more *people* to be the problem here. The new paradigm isn’t putting out more, it’s having a wider variety of sexual experience, at least in the sense of what’s on the table, and find out what works for each person. Start reading Dan Savage’s Savage Love column in the Stranger to get an idea. Sure, there’s anonymous sex, polyamory, swinging and consensual non-monogamy, but there’s also all sorts of kinks and fetishes that are played out monogamously. And having a wider palette means more people are going to find what turns their crank.

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