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How Did Sex Become So Boring?

Once a political act, it's now all about self-discovery

David McNew / Getty Images

In 2008, veteran feminist Germaine Greer took to the pages of The Guardian ostensibly to remark upon a newly released biography of the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, but her critique quickly swerved into a skewering of the poet himself. Greer’s complaint with Rimbaud had nothing to do with the form of his poetry, but rather with the content: that Rimbaud’s purported obsession with anal sex shaped his oeuvre into something relentlessly boring. "To suggest that anyone would worship an anus is a consciously outrageous contrivance," Greer wrote. "This is the point at which I lose patience, because a preference for the anus is actually as banal and ridiculous as any other sexual fixation."

Nevermind that Rimbaud probably wasn't as obsessed with anal sex as Greer claims; the verse she cites was written by Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud’s periodic lover, and the poet's best-known work does not meditate on anal sex. Greer's greater error was to ignore the political significance of poetry about anal sex. Writing so boldly on such a taboo subject in Rimbaud’s day could have serious consequences for a person’s life and career. Thus Greer’s sneer that Rimbaud and Verlaine were little more than “two drunks trying to scandalise their equally middle-class drinking companions by advertising their sexual preference” is something of a backward reading. Doubtlessly drunks and almost certainly fond of scandal, Rimbaud and Verlaine nonetheless lived before a time of “sexual preferences,” in which sex is considered a matter of personal taste. They lived, in other words, before sex was boring.

In Rimbaud and Verlaine's world, for better or worse, sex had stakes. It reflected upon a person's social standing—building status or destroying reputations—and had a decidedly political edge, influencing distributions of power. Art that took society to task for its commitment to such matrices of sex and power, as the poetry of Rimbaud and his contemporaries did, was therefore risky and intriguing. That's why, in the poem Greer cites, Rimbaud and Verlaine don't merely write that they like anal sex (the poem is far from titillating) but that there is something beautiful about it.

If such a sentiment seems annoying rather than captivating, it's precisely because sexuality today has been largely reduced to a series of individual consumer choices, and insisting upon the beauty of one sex act over another now seems like vehemently declaring the goodness of one clothing brand over another: Keep it to yourself; it’s just your opinion.

Consider the place of sexual taboos in today’s mainstream art and literature. The big kink show of the moment, 50 Shades of Grey, seems on some level to have politics written all over it, and yet it is completely unaware of its own political entanglements. Whatever meager taboo lingered around whips and cuffs and yes-sir-no-ma’am lingo dissolved the moment the 50 Shades books hit the mass market, subsequently joined by tie-in products ranging from dominatrix-led gym sessions to cosmetics to paddles and blindfolds. Rather than using its treatment of ersatz sexual taboos as a commentary on society, the 50 Shades franchise seeks to literally sell its sexuality as a consumer good, nothing more than a selection from a store by an individual person.

Robin Rinaldi’s recently released memoir, The Wild Oats Project: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost, follows in the same vein. Rinaldi's journey, about pausing her marriage to spend a year having sex with strangers, treats sexual exploration as an avenue to self-discovery (and as the title states, it’s just one woman’s quest). Something powerfully political could have been made of a similar story in another time, when a recounting of a woman’s extra-marital affairs had some kind of political valence, or said something interesting about the structure of the family or determination of women’s lives. But Rinaldi’s book is about a person trying on experiences and taking them off as they no longer suit her; it’s a story about affecting different sexual poses until the individual self, which is now presumed to exist in its entirety hidden away inside us all, is finally excavated. Reviewing the book at The Washington Post, Carlos Lozada wondered if “maybe sometimes ‘empowerment’ is just another word for self-absorption,” and in contemporary sex literature the swapping of the two ideas is blatant and bleak: Empowerment is a political concept, but preening over one’s unique self—constructed of consumer choices and preferences, and carefully selected experiences—is totally apolitical, and entirely boring.

Even our modern orgies are expressed in terms of consumption and experience. In a New York Post article last week about Killing Kittens, a for-profit orgy circuit, a woman described the orgies as “like Eyes Wide Shut, but realistic,” referring to the 1999 film by Stanley Kubrick. The company's founder, Emma Sayle, described its conception as "a time when 'Sex and the City' had just launched and suddenly there were these girls talking about vibrators on national television. The female sexual revolution thing was going on.” And she explained that, rather than just orgies, her company's sex parties are “a place where females can try whatever they want to try. . . it’s about an experience.” In other words, even raucous group sex arrangements are, these days, just tired re-hashings of pop cultural precedents, a bland miming of mass market movies and television shows not in an effort to prove anything or pose any serious questions, but only to play out some story about one’s self through different types of consumption.

Greer might have been off the mark on Rimbaud, but her exasperation with him seems to me a fair response to much of contemporary mainstream cultural productions concerned with sex: There isn’t really space anymore for sex, especially formerly taboo sex, to be adduced as much other than a statement about one’s self, or the discovery thereof. Whatever protagonists or narrators choose to do sexually, it’s all really a matter of trying various experiences out toward some greater understanding of themselves as a unique individual, which is perhaps the most insipidly apolitical narrative imaginable. Rimbaud and Verlaine may have been adolescent and wild, but they at least seemed to have some project in mind that involved the rest of us; today’s sex writers seem to only wish that we could all be who we are, which of course, we already are. It is an extremely low-stakes project for everyone involved.