The Cuddle Voyeurs
To begin with, yes, I saw the article in the Times Magazine. Yes, the one about “emerging adulthood.” Yes, I get it, I’m 23 and unmarried and uncareered and, I suppose, “emerging,” though I’m not unemployed or living at home. Sure, I have an opinion about it. But I’m not really interested in writing about it at the moment.
I’m more interested in what it doesn’t talk about. The significant topic that the many, many, many attempts to write about people my age—the hopelessly optimistic ones, the endearingly features-y ones, the cruelly condemning ones—almost always avoid when prognosticating about the first generation to grow up with the Internet.
That topic is this: almost without exception, all of my male friends (and I can’t speak to my female friends, only because I haven’t asked many of them) have looked at porn.
And not just once or twice.
Probably, on average, tens of thousands of images and I would say hundreds of hours of explicit pornographic video content.
The formative effect that this must have had on our development can’t be easily overstated. While I think that the differences between my growing up and my father’s are often exaggerated (am I really more “mediated” or “alienated” than he was?), in this case, the distinction is measurable and stark. At best, his exposure to female sexuality was a swiped Playboy or two; more likely, it was a pin-up in lingerie. For us, it’s all out there: every act, ordinary and grotesque; every combination of partners, human, animal, vegetable and mineral; every part and position and function. While I have personally taken great pains not to see it all (assiduously avoiding screenings of “Two Girls One Cup,” for instance), it’s all there, and I’ve seen enough—endlessly more than my father clutching a picture of Brigitte Bardot in her swimsuit could have possibly imagined.
Porn’s defenders, from Hefner and Flynt on down, describe it as the ultimate form of free expression, an extension of the sexual liberation of the ’60s. To them, my generation’s frequent trade in and general lack of disdain for porn must signal a final victory over the censors, over sexual repression.
I say “them” as if I’m a porn detractor—I’m not, I’m just not sure I buy that line. Foucault talks about exactly that kind of argument in History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. We love to pretend like talking about sex is somehow liberating it, but, he argues, our endless discourse about sex does just the opposite. It’s an attempt to quarantine the fundamentally extra-rational fact of human sexuality, to tame it with language, with reason, to categorize and contain and understand it. Porn sites have dozens or hundreds of genres and sub-genres, a full taxonomy of what was once just “sex.” Or consider “LGBTIQ,” the sprawling acronym that’s meant to take in the categories of non-hetero. Rather than taking sexuality for the messy, undifferentiable spectrum that we might romantically idealize it to be, we generate more and more letters to carve up and define it.
One consequence of this enormous prolixity of sexual discourse—and it’s just one small one, I’m sure there are many, and I’m convinced that better thinkers than I should devote more of their brainpower to it—touches on another much-discussed New York Times article from earlier this year, a cover story of the Book Review by Katie Roiphe called “The Naked and the Conflicted.” In it, she argues that generally speaking, the trend among acclaimed young male novelists of this generation is to write sex scenes fraught with anxiety and often chastity, especially in contrast to the Bellows and Roths and Updikes who wrote of sex that was brutal and lurid and violent and tender and ultimately, to Roiphe, more compelling of a read.
“Prototypical,” she writes, “is a scene in Dave Eggers’s road trip novel, ‘You Shall Know Our Velocity,’ where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: ‘Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm’; or the relationship in Benjamin Kunkel’s ‘Indecision’: ‘We were sleeping together brother-sister style and mostly refraining from outright sex.’”
I won’t get into the debate about whether the novelists of my parents’ generation are unduly ignored or denigrated. But I will say that I think it makes sense that intimacy in the new novel is often anxious about the sex and heavy on the cuddling. What more could be written about sex, after everything that’s been seen, and seen, and seen? Sorted and filtered and tagged and seen?
For all our exposure to everything sexually imaginable, one thing that’s still foreign, that might have a shred of magic left, is a quiet semi-sexual snuggle. I’m sure it won’t be long before there are SpoonCams on the internet (for all I know, there already are), but for the moment, this sort of intimacy is as exciting in its way as the overtly and harshly erotic was for the post-Chatterley novelists—the one small parcel of uncolonized land where our novelists, and we ourselves, can take refuge.