The attitude of the sexual revolution – that apart from consent, there are no rules governing sexual behaviour – lifted the constraints on the libido. This gave permission for sex to be divorced from intimacy, a process that has reached its zenith in recent years.
We are now beginning to understand that free love exacts heavy price, one unwittingly exposed by author and libertarian, Catherine Millet. The publisher describers her best selling memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., as a “manifesto of our times – when the sexual equality of women is a reality and where love and sex have gone their own separate ways.”
Is this not what men, in their raw state, have always wanted, to separate copulation from intimacy? Is not every counsellor’s room witness to a stream of torn relationships in which she wants more intimacy and he wants more penetration?
In the world of Catherine Millet, women have entered the universe of sex constructed by men – primordial, unsocialised men driven by their ids – in which all finer feelings frown in a sea of testosterone. One begins to suspect that the sexual taboos of the past served not so much to oppress women but to protect them from the predatory urges of the unleashed male libido.
This is the new “democracy of pleasure’, in the words of Ovidie, the French porn star and author who describes herself as a feminist, artist and philosopher. Ovidie starred in the mainstream film The Pornographer, of which one critic said, “No film in the history of cinema had portrayed oral sex with such a superb sense of existential weariness and melancholy.” The subtext of all porn is boredom, the mechanization of sex stripped of its excitement and mystery, reduced to what one person does to another – or, more commonly, what he does to her. Sex in porn is not the exploration of one with another; it is an act of relief, like defecation (indeed, on some internet sites the two are combined).
Perhaps we should accept this if such an attitude were confined to porn videos and sex sites on the net. But depersonalized, indiscriminate sex has crept into the cultural mainstream, so that the symbols, styles and even personnel of the pornographic genre are cropping up on television, in newspapers and in films. In Italy a porn star ran for parliament with the aim of normalizing the genre, and the international media treated it as light-hearted relief from the usual dull political fare. Even respectable global corporations such as telecommunications carriers have companies that make porn videos.
The novels of Michel Houellebecq mirror the turmoil of sexual politics rippling through Western cultures. His work has been called pornographic, yet, unlike Millet, Houellebecq has a purpose with his eroticism. For his characters, sex is an antidote to the meaninglessness of modern life, but the novels are also a meditation on that lack of meaning. They are a subtle journey into the vain quest for happiness in a post-scarcity world in which the promises of plenty, and the freedoms won in the 1960s and 1970s, have left a new barrenness.
If all has failed us and there is nothing left to believe in, why not fuck till we drop? Whereas Millet puts her orifices on display, Houellebcq shows us his doubts. While Millet is still playing out the fantasies of sexual freedom, Houellebecq is waring of its perils: “The sexual revolution was to destroy the last unit separating the individual from the market.”