When Free Love Died

Why the sexual revolution plays only in reruns


Whatever became of the Frigid Woman? Along with the Infantile Paralytic and the Thalidomide Baby, the female eunuch once haunted the American dreamscape as a walking, joyless rebuke to our unhealthy, uncaring, uninteresting, and morally primitive society.

Unlike the other two medical archetypes, it's not clear the Frigid Woman, defined by her inability to attain orgasm, ever really existed. Or if so in what numbers, and suffering from which particular malady. 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, blue-nosed, Judeo-Christian, puritanical establishment.

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

Then suddenly, suspiciously close to the time that the sexual revolution peaked, the Frigid Woman just 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 '60s and early '70s? Or did she cure herself by fighting off the open-shirted horn dog males unleashed by the Summer of Love?

Two recent entertainments try to recreate the complexity of that era of self-conscious sexual liberation. The CBS series Swingtown attempts to bring '70s suburban wife swapping to mainstream television. On a much smaller budget, Anna Biller's independent film Viva salutes classic soft-core cinema. Neither could be accused of making a big cultural splash. Swingtown, largely unwatched, appears headed for cancellation; Viva, despite its uncannily precise rendition of the look, sound, mood, and arch dialogue of its subject, made just a few film festival and theatrical appearances and earned mixed reviews.

But the relative daring of both pieces raises a question: In a world where amputee and plush-toy porn is as near as your Web browser, why does the cutting edge of fictionalized erotic exploration seem to be found on material that's more than three decades old?

Maybe it's simple style envy. Swingtown luxuriates in the Super '70s vibe to a degree that's bracing even after years of Me Decade nostalgia. Who (other than Nielsen viewers, apparently) could say no to the milieu of plaited hair, randy airline pilots, swinger parties, and paneled kitchens? Viva aims not for the look of the period but for the look of the period's movies: the high-key, pseudo-Technicolor lighting and spare, colorful set design that 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; characters who always have a cocktail in one hand and 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, still young enough to grok the counterculture but too old to commit to it in earnest. There is something exquisite in that dilemma. Sure, we've all been plagued by the sense that somebody somewhere is getting laid in ecstatic new ways while we're slaving over a hot stove. But suburbanites in the early '70s had actual reason to believe it.

That is why the Frigid Woman is the key to this mystery, the explanation for why the sexual revolution contained both new vistas of freedom and the seeds of its own undoing. 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 critical mass just when the promise of balling your way through to the other side began to seem 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? You could say the journey has been completed in the Housewives and the City entertainment genre of sexually liberated 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 wines.

I'm pretty sure this is, in fact, the kind of stuff many women like to read or watch, but it's not as clear that these entertainments, with their pathetic plots about finding Mr. Darcy among the studs and fetishes for accessories that border on paraphilia, represent much of a step forward. In Carrie Karasyov's 2007 novel The Infidelity Pact, an almost perfectly average example of the genre, the line between naughtiness 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 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 learned at the beginning of the Reagan era: I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me.

The original sexual revolution may have ended in bad humping with stinky hippies and gold-chained lotharios, but there was romance in the search for a new consciousness, and in the naive notion that you could get there by copulating. How could such a beautiful idea 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 Web editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial pages.