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The never-ending charm of sexual revolution nostalgia


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.