when I was 15, my older brother wandered in from a long night of carousing to find my boyfriend and me snuggled into my single bed fast asleep. Though my young Romeo was supposed to stay in the guest room, we often fell asleep after our frantic adolescent orgasms. My brother rushed into my parents' bedroom and woke them with the scandalous news. "I trust Carol to do what's right for her," said my mother. My father barely opened his eyes. "I just hope she's got contradiction," he managed to mumble incoherently before falling back asleep. "But she's only 15!" my brother cried, "Don't you know what 15-year-olds do nowadays?"
My parents ignored his hysteria and my hanky-panky. Since my brother had come of age, they'd served in the Peace Corps, joined a religious cult and studied P.E.T. (Parent Effectiveness Training). My mother became a feminist and my father lost his patriarchal grip on the family. The year was 1978 and their lackadaisical reaction could not have occurred without the cultural upsurge known as the sexual revolution. While I slept in sweet, guilt-free defilement in the other room, history had spun its invisible thread through another American home.
Though everyone agrees that the sexual revolution actually happened, most Americans have very different perceptions of it, depending on how it did or didn't affect their lives. Two recent books, "Sexplorations: Journeys to the Erogenous Zone" by Anka Radakovich, former sex columnist for Details magazine, and "What Wild Ecstasy" by John Heidenry, former editor of Penthouse Forum, have tackled the many facets of the erotic uprising and our current attitudes toward it. Both prove just how difficult it is to capture and define a revolution comprising so many essentially private acts.
In a recent TV interview, conservative talk show host Judith Regan confronted self-styled "sexual anthropologist" Radakovich with a 1950s maxim. "The theme of my show is: Why buy the cow, if you can get the milk for free?" Regan queried, "What do you say to that?"
Radakovich, who was there promoting her book as a wild ride through sexual extremes, looked a little stunned, then played right into Regan's anti-sex hand. It was true, she conceded, sometimes women don't get respect from men once they have slept with them. The sexual revolution did lead some people to overdo it sexually and to lose track of what's important -- namely love and self-respect. Instead of the naughty sexpert of the '90s, Radakovich came off sounding tentative and eager to please. When Regan asked her what conclusions she drew from her years of "research," Radakovich went out on a limb, stating that most men want sexy women, and most women want something more meaningful.
In an era when the publishing industry has an insatiable appetite for sex-related confessionals, Radakovich is the perfect poster child for post-revolutionary excess/ambivalence. On the one hand, she harbors a voyeuristic fascination with all things sexual -- the more deviant and ridiculous the better. She travels to S&M clubs, goes undercover in Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings, attends wife-swapping conventions and hosts a "Win a Date with Anka Contest." She's even launched seductions just to write about them, and then recounted the trysts for her readers in a saucy, tossed-off tone. While in training as a dominatrix and whipping her first slave, she observes, "At this point it hit me that I was spanking a guy who looked like Frank Perdue ('It takes a tough man to tenderize a chicken')." Everything -- from watching her friends group grope to dating a born-again Christian -- is treated with a mix of breathless exclamation points and jaded aplomb.
On the other hand, Radakovich often admits to not getting nearly enough sex herself and describes some of the people she writes about flippantly, characterizing them as types: "The Marin County Guy," "The Rajneesh Guy," "Mr. Long-Haired Rock Guy," "Over-sexed Ken-doll/ski bum (lifer)." When she dismisses swinging as "institutionalized cheating," her rah-rah-go-bed-'em philosophy cracks to reveal old-fashioned moral judgment throbbing just below the surface.
That Radakovich calls herself a sexual anthropologist only underscores her distance from the people she has chosen as her subjects, and indicates how far the mainstream has moved away from the days of popular sexploration. In its tales of group marriage, nudism, cross-dressing, pornography and other wellsprings of horniness, "Sexplorations" titillates and amuses but never provokes intellectual arousal. Hearing a man recount how his compulsive masturbating caused him to lose his job, her only response is imagining the sufferer's excuse: "Boss, I can't come to work to day, because I sprained my wrist." As a columnist, Radakovich is bold, funny and revealing, but in a full-length book, her talents of concision and cleverness conspire against her, making the material feel as thin and insubstantial as the wee negligees she wears in the photos that kick off each chapter. Representing the generation that grew up knowing that everything had already been done with Kama Sutra zeal, Anka avoids embarrassing herself with anything approaching an earnest belief.
When a bodybuilder asks Radakovich to join in a bit of group sex, instead of prompting embarrassment, self-reflection or enthusiasm, the moment is only fodder for punning. "Although this guy had an incredible (to believe) body, I was definitely tempted to 'pull his muscle.' But I passed. Call me old fashioned, but I didn't want to be the twentieth rep in his third set." Like many of her contemporaries who have made a name for themselves as bad-girl writers, for Radakovich, sex may be more of a tool to bushwhack a path to career success than a key to ecstasy. Faced with Judith Regan's anti-sex cant, Radakovich proved that -- despite her declarations that she's a sex-positive feminist -- she stands for little more than snappy copy.
Reading John Heidenry's "What Wild Ecstasy" after "Sexplorations" illustrates just how short a distance we've traveled since Kinsey began questioning men about their experiences with bestiality in the 1950s and Masters and Johnson began filming women masturbating in the name of scientific knowledge. Radakovich now carries out her own version of their experiments on a less ambitious scale. Although her mass Gen-X readership may consider her daring or even cutting edge, little do they know how well-trod her libidinal forays actually are.
"What Wild Ecstasy" traces the rise of the sexual revolution, focusing on scientific investigators like Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, founding fathers of porn like Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione, and the cult of free love as embodied by porn star/performance artist Annie Sprinkle and author Marco Vassi. In mapping the revolution's decline, Heidenry recounts the numerous converging forces that ultimately doomed erotic experimentation: the rise of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, the Christian right, anti-porn feminists, internal corruption in the porn industry and sexual burnout among an aging population of boomers.
Whether he is charting debates over female orgasm or gay rights activism, Heidenry's multi-threaded, densely anecdotal narrative makes for absorbing reading for anyone interested in sexuality or pop culture. He tells it through the stories of many individuals -- focusing as much on their personal lives as their contributions to history. This intimate, tactile approach to history reminds us that no matter what people proclaim about sex publicly, their experiences sometimes run along very different paths: Christian televangelists hire prostitutes; sexual liberationists revert to celibacy. Any history of sexuality must look not only at sexual mores but at the intimate lives of real people.
Some of the book's most compelling passages relate sex industry gossip. Here Heidenry exhibits a storytelling flair and a refusal to resort to stereotypes. From the abusive manager/pimp Chuck Traynor, who forced his wife, Linda Lovelace, into prostitution, to the angelic Annie Sprinkle, who emerges from pornography to resurrect herself as a performance artist, these chapters are alternately horrifying and inspiring -- and ultimately challenge us to revisit our two-dimensional notions of the sexual revolution.
Throughout, Heidenry strives to relate the often extravagant and loathsome behavior of many of his subjects with a minimum of moralizing. Then, suddenly, in his excoriating passages about anti-porn feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, he launches into a diatribe. He describes Dworkin as propagating a "radical man-hating ideology" -- a common enough characterization but one that Dworkin has gone to great lengths to dispel. He ludicrously describes MacKinnon as the "Robespierre to Dworkin's pamphleteering, emotional Marat in the feminist Reign of Terror against men that was to wash over the country in the coming decade." (Remember the guillotine in every town square, folks?) After Heidenry has described the insensitivity and brutality of many pornographers' treatment of the women in their lives (forced fellatio, rampant infidelity and in one case changing the locks to shut a wife out of the family business) in neutral, non-judgmental prose, it looks like sheer bias when he decides to go ballistic on this topic.
And, for all the color he brings to the tales he tells, Heidenry eschews the kind of analysis that would make this book more than a roller-coaster ride through an erotic wonderland. We learn about the news-making sex scandals and controversies of the day, but little about the subtler and perhaps more significant changes in ordinary people's sex lives. He sidesteps innumerable questions -- such as how the sexual revolution related to the economy, the civil rights movement or the average suburban family, and confines his own conclusions to the last two pages of the book and a brief preface. Here we learn that he believes that although the sexual revolution failed, we are poised on the verge of another that will be "worldwide, affecting all nations, large and small, rich and poor, and will strike at the very heart of deeply ingrained anti-sexual traditions whether cultural, tribal or religious."
Heidenry's background as an editor of Penthouse probably accounts for the book's heavy focus on the lurid peccadilloes of sex industry impresarios. Seen through this prism, the sexual revolution appears as a byproduct of pornography rather than its cultural impetus. In the end, Heidenry's version of the sexual revolution -- while riveting -- feels oddly uninhabited by regular people. We hear public voices from journalism, science, the sex industry and politics loudly declaring their various, often contradictory truths, while we are left to imagine (and remember) how individual acts of intimacy, happening below the sheets, wound up making history.