The year in sex

Affairs! Mommy porn! Gay marriage! A look back at the moments that defined our sexual culture in 2012

Topics: Best of 2012, Sex, Kristen Stewart, 50 Shades of Grey, David Petraeus, Sandra Fluke, Editor's Picks,

The year in sex (Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart/Salon)

It was a good year for sex (it always is). Whether it was K-Stew’s infidelity or kinky “mommy porn,” we just couldn’t stop talking about it. Here’s a handy guide to what defined our sexual culture in 2012.

Infidelity, sex tapes and scandal – oh my!

You would think it was 1998 from our shock at the power of sex to take down powerful men. But no, it’s 2012, and we still find ourselves shaking our heads at the thought that David Petraeus could risk his position as head of the CIA by carrying on an extramarital affair with his biographer, that a team of Secret Service agents could put their jobs on the line for a Colombian prostitute or that Chinese politicians could be captured in flagrante at a sex party or fall for a so-called “honey trap.” We’re astounded that Kristen Stewart could possibly desire more than Edward Cullen himself or that 76-year-old Fred Willard could be arrested at an adult theater. And when our upstanding neighbors are revealed to be clients of the “Zumba prostitute,” we still clasp our pearls.

But a Hulk Hogan sex tape filmed by a man whose legal name is Bubba the Love Sponge? I think we all saw that coming.

We’re a little confused about consent

Note the change of category. There are sex scandals and then there is sexual abuse, but we seem to be still figuring out the difference (see headlines re: the “Elmo Sex Scandal,” the “Penn State Sex Scandal,” the “Air Force Sex Scandal”). This is one sexual category where our shock is actually warranted — if only we could learn to better tell the difference between K-Stew straying from R-Patz with an adult man and Kevin Clash allegedly abusing underage boys. And, while we’re on the topic of cluelessness about consent, let’s not forget former Rep. Todd Akin’s enraging comments about “legitimate rape” and Daniel Tosh’s jokes about an audience member getting gang raped.

Voters, jocks and POTUS defend gay marriage

We may be in denial about the failures of monogamy, but at least Americans are beginning to recognize that same-sex couples should have the same right as heterosexuals to have their unions, and adultery, recognized by the state. In 2012, not only did President Barack Obama announce his support for same-sex marriage, but three states supported gay marriage ballot initiatives, and Minnesota struck down a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions. Perhaps not as monumental on the policy front but important nonetheless, we saw R&B crooner Frank Ocean come out and straight jocks speak out against homophobia. At least one researcher this year made the claim that homophobia is disappearing. But we also saw plenty of evidence that it’s disappearance is far from past-tense.

“It makes her a slut, right?”

Of course it’s inevitable that as we sexually mature as a culture — especially when it comes to women’s rights — we’ll see some angsty prepubescent tantrums. Case in point: Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for wanting health insurance coverage for birth control. It wasn’t just right-wing shock jocks: We had legitimate GOP presidential candidates talking about outlawing birth control. We even saw the advancement of abstinence-only education — for real! — in 2012. For just one example, Tennessee passed a bill to “exclusively and emphatically” promote abstinence until marriage and allow parents to sue teachers for promoting “gateway sexual activity.” The Department of Health and Human Services quietly added an ab-only program to its list of approved “evidence-based” sex-ed programs.

Ladies got jokes!

Ah, but much of the backlash backfired, with women using mockery like never before to challenge the assault on women’s bodies and sexuality. (For example, in response to Oklahoma’s “personhood” measure, state Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre protested with a sign reading, “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d fuck a senator.”) Female lawmakers even proposed satirical bills in response to very real attempts at restricting women’s reproductive rights. Oklahoma state Sen. Constance Johnson drafted a bill declaring that “any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.”

The next big porn star? You

It was a year of yet more attempts at remaking porn — by making it more ethical, more realistic and more digestible. Then there were other attempts focused on turning everyday people into unwitting porn stars; and that’s not to mention the rise of “cappers,” web creeps who attempt to con young women, and often minors, into flashing their breasts on camera and then distribute the image far and wide. GOP candidates spoke out against porn, threatening to revive obscenity prosecutions and even ban it. Meanwhile, the adult industry continued to resist calls for enforced condom use only to see the passage of a ballot measure requiring rubbers on shoots in Los Angeles.

Fifty shades of “mommy porn”

I suppose I should acknowledge the handcuffed, leather-clad elephant in the room: “Fifty Shades of Grey.” That hundreds of millions of women the world over might delight in a mildly kinky tale (that otherwise follows a completely traditional romantic script) came as a shock this year — or at least you would gather as much from the feverish headlines about the shocking revelation of “mommy porn.” This was apparently a mysterious phenomenon in need of in-depth analysis, namely from the likes of Katie Roiphe, who blamed the whole thing on feminism. A flurry of trend stories followed — about how the book had inspired baby names, a spike in sex toy and lingerie sales and, of course, lots of kinky sex.

Thanks to E.L. James, we will all have to explain to future generations that, no, BDSM was not invented in 2012.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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