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Spurn of the Screw

Listening to what passes for cultural criticism on the right, one would think that the sexual revolution of the 1960s had been unambiguously bad for Americans. Abortion-on-demand, illegitimate children, unwed mothers, deadbeat dads, no-fault divorce, pornographic popular culture, emotionally barren Charlotte Simmons-style dorm-room hook-ups--the list of maladies social conservatives trace to the sexual revolution is long. It is also, for these same conservatives, deeply troubling, because the benefits of that revolution have been so few. Indeed, many on the right have a hard time naming any good consequences from the loosening of sexual morality and behavior over the past five decades. Where nearly all conservatives have retrospectively come to accept the moral legitimacy of the civil rights movement, and a few even grudgingly concede that the anti-war protesters of the '60s may have had a point, to this day most conservatives agree that American men and women were much better off in the sexual world of the 1950s.

And that's why Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach, is so useful. Quite apart from the question of its worth as literature, the book makes a crucially important cultural and historic point. By imaginatively transporting us back into the vanished sexual world that preceded the heyday of the 1960s, McEwan exposes right-wing nostalgia for what it is--a one-sided polemic designed to delegitimize the sexual revolution by obscuring the ignorance, shame, and suffering that often accompanied sex in the "good ol' days." The novel thus restores much-needed balance to a polarizing topic by helping us to understand what motivated the sexual revolution in the first place.

On Chesil Beach tells the story of a single disastrous day in the lives of English newlyweds Edward and Florence in July 1962. It is their wedding night, the bride and her bridegroom are both virgins, and each looks forward with dread to consummating their marriage in their seaside hotel room on the English Channel. While Edward's terror is mixed with intense sexual longing and anticipation, performance anxiety colors nearly all of his thoughts about intercourse with his new wife. Florence's dread is much less ambivalent--"a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness." As a passionate violinist accustomed to sublimating erotic desire into her love of music, Florence has never truly experienced physical arousal. Her clumsy attempts at sexual experimentation with Edward--kissing, awkward groping--have left her cold. And now the thought of "penetration" (a clinical term she encountered in a sex handbook for young brides) fills her with apprehension and revulsion.

We know about these worries because McEwan's narrator alternates between the two characters, successively revealing their mental states to the reader far more truthfully than they ever reveal themselves to each other. Indeed, Edward and Florence barely communicate at all, and least of all about their sexual hopes and fears. Sex is a black hole in their relationship, a mysterious, seemingly omnipotent force pulling them together with such intensity that it threatens, at the same time, to tear them apart. Ashamed to own up to their overpowering longings and aversions, constrained by "a thousand unacknowledged rules" about sexual propriety and countless other matters, Edward and Florence resign themselves to fumbling around in silence.

If the source of their reticence is shame and the fear of transgressing conventions, these anxieties are compounded by ignorance. Willing to entertain the possibility that her lack of desire for her new husband is a defect, Florence accepts that she might be "frigid"--the accepted term for a woman completely lacking in sexual drive. Yet in judging herself so harshly, Florence forgets the fleeting moment during what passes for foreplay between the clumsy lovers, when Edward's insistent touch on her upper thigh undeniably elicited the "beginnings of desire." The reader has every reason to suspect that her arousal would have intensified further if Edward had continued his caresses with a modicum of patience.

But patience proves to be impossible for Edward. Having honorably restrained himself through their courtship, and having foolishly been "entirely chaste with himself" for "over a week" prior to their wedding in order to be "in top form for his bride," Edward is beside himself with desire on his wedding night, incapable of holding back. His incapacity is so complete, in fact, that it leads directly to the emotionally calamitous scene at the heart of the novel--when Edward's premature ejaculation sends a mortified Florence (whose sex handbook no doubt neglected to describe the messy reality of the male orgasm) fleeing to the beach in nauseated shock.

The conflagration that follows this event holds up an ironic mirror to the supposed sex-obsession of our own time. It was actually the world prior to the sexual revolution, McEwan means us to conclude, that was obsessively focused on sex, elevating it into an activity of almost unspeakable gravity and grandeur. To consummate a marriage was not merely a fulfillment of eros or an experience of shared intimacy and pleasure. It was a matter of spiritual, even cosmic, significance. As Edward twice notes--once to himself and once to Florence--the vicar who presided at their wedding ceremony included in their vows the declaration that "with my body I thee worship"--a variation on the traditional Christian notion that marriage creates an eternal "one flesh union" between husband and wife. It is no small achievement that McEwan helps us to understand how the failure properly to fulfill this promised union, when mixed with extraordinarily high spiritual expectations and an unhealthy dose of humiliation, could convince a young couple--as it convinces Edward and Florence--that their marriage is stillborn.

Yet it is also clear that McEwan considers this conclusion a terrible waste. In a brief coda to the novel, in which the narrator quickly fill us in on crucial details about Edward's and Florence's separate futures, we learn that they continued to love each other--or at least their memories of each other, and what might have been between them--from a distance for the rest of their lives. We also learn that the world in which the failed lovers soon find themselves, one marked by "the sudden guiltless elevation of sensual pleasure," has problems of its own. Edward spends much of the '60s, for instance, like a "confused and happy child," both delighted and bewildered by the "uncomplicated willingness of so many beautiful women." Yet his prolonged childhood ultimately issues in a form of maturity that men in earlier ages rarely achieved--a healthy appreciation for the intense, intimate pleasures of sex, along with a balanced and modest perspective about its proper place in a fulfilling human life.

Do the prudish critics who make up the social-conservative right possess the same degree of maturity? One wonders. The world bequeathed to us by the sexual revolution is undeniably complicated and confusing, and the challenges we face as a consequence of these complications and confusions are real. But no less real was the toll exacted--in physical and psychological suffering--by the status quo ante. Until social conservatives admit this fact--until, that is, they acknowledge that many people needed to be sexually liberated and are much better off today as a result of it--the rest of us will have a hard time treating their laments as anything more than the impotent cries of moral fuddy-duddies.