The year in sex

Looking back over a year that looked back over 50 years.

Published December 18, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

In 1998, Kenneth Starr broke an ancient story -- powerful man has sex with star-struck subordinate -- and told us it was news. Everything that followed seemed backwards. In 1999, people struggled to either piece the old sex roles back together or create a new blueprint.

Many of this year's trends, events and commentary in the media and arts shored up and exaggerated the old mores typified by the Clinton-Lewinsky liaison. The most cartoonish was 73-year-old Hugh Hefner pumped up on Viagra, dating Mandy, Brandy, Sandy and Jessica. What better way to prove that a woman is still as much a lifestyle accessory as a hi-fi or a martini shaker than to keep four of them around the house?

Men young enough to be Hef's grandkids also let the dance begin. Viagra guaranteed successful hook-ups for party animals who drink and drug all night, bodybuilders whose steroids pump them up in all the wrong places, porn stars and others who weren't strictly erectile-dysfunctional. Since the drug hit the market last year, doctors in the U.S. have written more than 14 million prescriptions for over 6 million men, and uncounted others are getting the drug via the Internet.

This year several hundred European men died in Thailand, the international hot spot of the sex industry. Viagra, available over the counter there for $27, was found in the bloodstream of a sizeable percentage; most died from cardiac strain. Women found that Viagra engorges the clitoris, so adventurous ladies tuned in and turned on as well.

In Hefworld, the distaff equivalent to drug-assisted priapism isn't Viagra-happy clits but volleyball breasts -- which, in addition to other ills, decrease nipple sensation. Though Jenny McCarthy and Pamela Anderson betrayed the cause by plucking out their implants, poison chestballs remained a popular accessory on starlets and models. Possible presidential candidate Donald Trump reportedly ushered a handful of his imperfect friends -- even some he wasn't fucking! -- to the plastic surgeon, in what could be an early bid for the flat-chested vote. If this is indeed candidate Donald's version of a chicken in every pot, I challenge Ralph Nader to counter with a safer, possibly airbag-based implant.

A man deserves all the on-the-side robo-babes he can get, but the wife at home is, of course, loyal. That one-sided sanctity of marriage found an unexpected advocate in Stanley Kubrick's supposed-to-be-hot "Eyes Wide Shut," which actually shrank from both sex and (female) fantasy. A wife who merely imagines adultery sends her husband into a fevered dream of sexual dread. The premise was as wistfully out of touch as the orgy scene, which could have been a Halloween party at the Playboy mansion except that nobody had fun.

Joining Kubrick in the call to keep sex within marriage was Wendy Shalit, whose bestseller "Return to Modesty" advocates more shame among women and more "honor" among men. If the prize of feminism is the right to be a slut, Shalit declares, she'd rather go back to the good old economics, where women create demand for their sex by withholding supply, as advocated in "The Rules."

Shalit's platform reverberated with her peers. A recent study found that only 40 percent of college freshman believe "if two people really like each other, it's all right for them to have sex even if they've known each other for a very short time," down from 52 percent in 1987. And more than one in four 18- to 24-year-olds call premarital sex "always" or "almost always" wrong -- a 50 percent jump since 1972.

The modesty movement makes sense in light of AIDS and the persistent reality of campus sex for girls -- drunken hook-ups with boys who won't look at you in class the next day. College boys and men in their 20s have grown up accepting women as equals -- and as sexually active -- but macho attitudes about sex linger. The young men seem nervous about playing on a rule-less field against women who could laugh at their penis size or claim date rape or both.

Their anxiety rumbles beneath the bravado of magazines like Details and (because Details was too highbrow?) Maxim. Like Playboy, the new manliness guides tell you what to buy, but they've also lifted the self-loathing lists that tell you what to be -- "10 Signs She Thinks You're Pathetic"; "37 Tricks for Flat Abs" -- from Cosmo and Glamour.

The new himbo mags support Susan Faludi's thesis in "Stiffed" that the "masculinity crisis" is the fault of consumer culture. Faludi points out that Madison Avenue has shaped "femininity" and "masculinity" to sell everything from dishwashers to sports cars, and two 1999 movies made the same argument.

In "Fight Club," Brad Pitt says offhandedly, "I don't think what we need is more women," but he reserves his real bile for Ikea and duvets, foes he attacks by orchestrating fistfights and terrorist pranks from a dirty house. Kevin Spacey's 40ish hero in "American Beauty" also hates "all the stuff" his suffocating job affords him, so he pumps iron, gets the red car he wanted in high school and pursues his daughter's cheerleader friend.

Both movies are unable to conceive of a grown-up masculinity, and Faludi has to go back 50 years to find it. Vanquishing an enemy, conquering a frontier, some "institution of brotherhood" and providing for a family, she argues, are what make a man, and society stole those opportunities. What men have been sold in its place, she says, is "ornamental masculinity." Men of the '90s are trapped where women of the '50s were -- they have nothing to do, no path to fulfillment.

Manhood is now "displayed, not demonstrated," so men define themselves with gym-sculpted bodies and chase notoriety rather than accomplishment. When Naomi Wolfgate broke, it only bolstered Faludi's thesis: The author of "The Beauty Myth" was paid handsomely to dress Al Gore in earth tones and make him an "alpha male." Unless Wolf really meant Gore should pee on the White House lawn or rut with Hillary, "alpha" is as ornamental as maleness gets.

Not everyone looked backwards for their sexual roadmap this year. In its charmingly shallow way, HBO's "Sex and the City" explored the possibilities of sex no longer male-taken and female-proffered. Unlike, say, Ally McBeal, who keeps waiting for hubbo, the four heterosexual women on the HBO sitcom are moving to frontiers settled by gay men, where a network of friends stands in for the nuclear family. In the show's second year, the constant humping is more than ever for its own sake. Unrepentantly promiscuous, marriage-scorning Samantha is emerging as the role model, while prissy Charlotte strives to be better in bed.

A messier, more complex view of woman-driven sex is the no-brakes, no-steering wheel bad trip portrayed in Catherine Breillat's "Romance," billed as "the sexiest movie ever made." Our heroine Marie, frustrated by the beautiful male model boyfriend who won't touch her, grabs herself a variety of sex elsewhere but stays existentially miserable, moaning that she wants to be just a hole and doesn't want to see the face of the men "stuffing my cunt." But just as you want to smack her for being so perverse, mopey and over-philosophical (i.e. French), she communicates some sad-funny or gross-erotic nuance of sex you've never seen in a movie, et voila, you're implicated in her masochism. "Romance" also includes hard-ons, those crucial drivers of a sex scene that male moviemakers hide like the undiscussed elephant in the room.

The unresolvable contradictions in "Romance" make it clear why so many people want to hide in the past. Being a female sexual taker is such virgin territory that I first thought the House of Spartacus was a joke. This establishment in, of all places, Johannesburg, is believed to be the world's first brothel that sells men to women. "Upmarket male conversation, company and escort services" go for #30 ($50) an hour, and sex costs #80 ($130) an hour, according to the BBC.

Gay sex threatens the old ways even more than female-purchased sex, and in 1999 the battle between the patriarchs and the same-sexers ranged from amusing to horrific. Jerry Falwell pushed Tinky Winky out of the toy closet, and San Francisco flirted with the idea of electing the nation's first openly gay mayor. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton backed away from the misbegotten "don't ask, don't tell" gays-in-the-military policy.

Though drag queens have been mainstream for a few years, female-to-male gender dysphoria hit the cineplex in the sympathetic film "Boys Don't Cry." British judges ruled in July that the National Health will cover hormone treatments for transsexuals and also that trannies can stay in the British army in non-combat positions. One wonders how much trail-blazing credit is due Benny Hill and Monty Python.

And by the end of the year Matthew Shepard had become a martyr: The response to his vicious murder permanently changed the political landscape. The Christian right denounced a homophobia it had never before acknowledged, and the push for hate crime legislation, though unsuccessful, moved middle America toward accepting gays as a minority deserving of legal rights and protections. The failure of the craven "gay panic" defense in the trial of Shepard's killers suggested that straight men's primitive fears about gay sex will never dictate public policy the same way again.

From Helen Fisher to Dave Barry, believers in the "essential differences" between men and women generally point to nature: Man is programmed to spread his seed and woman to lure a mate that will protect her young. But starting with the Pill, those laws of nature have been steadily repealed, and in 1999 reproductive science looked more and more like science fiction. Women had babies with dead men, with other women's eggs and after menopause. By most accounts, we are a few years away from human cloning. And as sex moved further from baby production, genes for everything from monogamy to intelligence were isolated, raising the possibility that all differences -- not just those of gender -- may be smoothed out with gene therapy.

We have more data on sex than ever before, yet we're still stumped by basic questions about femininity and masculinity. Are women ruining their chances for sexual and romantic fulfillment by "acting like men"? Do our differences extend beyond hormones and genitals? Do hormones and genitals account for "types" like Clinton the ravenous user and Monica the victim/opportunist/slut? Can the tenets of feminism, as Faludi suggests, help men as well and move us all toward more satisfying and fair relations?

Despite the confusion driving so many people to the past for answers, I think we're getting there. Power struggles won't ever disappear from sex; they will emerge as long as people lie down naked and open each other up. And we'll always want protection from that exhilarating exposure and risk. But we can shed clunky old armor like "all men are dogs" or "she's just a slut" along with the pantyhose and neckties. We won't become sexless without these trappings: Just look at how hot all the sci-fi babes are in their clingy jumpsuits. I see us evolving into a species that has better sex by mating for joy, not gain, and with individuals, not stereotypes. Let's thaw out our cryogenically preserved selves in 2100 and see if I'm right.

By Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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