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… without tears

Peter Wicks | Wednesday, September 29, 2004

You will probably be relieved to know that, after consultation with my spiritual advisor, I have decided not to turn Englishman Abroad into a biweekly column about sex. Actually my spiritual adviser said “Ask again later,” but by then I’d had time to think about it and realized it would be a bad idea.Nevertheless I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’m swimming against the tide of history. Since 1997 the Berkeley student newspaper has run a regular sex column. Presumably the editors of the Daily Californian got together one day and decided that if there was one thing the Bay Area was lacking it was some frank sexual discussion. Since then student sex columns have multiplied at the epidemic rate that one normally associates with coffee shop franchises. “Sex and the City” style columns have appeared in student papers at Yale, Boston College, New York University, Duke, the Universities of Kansas and Virginia and countless others.Now in some respects this is a development to be welcomed. For one thing, every column about sex is one less column about politics, in which the writer solemnly proclaims, in a manner more befitting an Old Testament prophet, that justice is good and injustice bad.But this trend also has its disturbing aspects, not the least of which is that these columns are a leading cause of puns. I certainly don’t think that a bunch of raunchy columns portend the imminent collapse of civilization, but it will be a dark day when “sexpert” makes its way into The American Heritage Dictionary.To write a sex column requires a certain tone of voice; cool, urbane, jaded. The columnist’s authority depends upon giving the reader the impression that he or (more commonly) she is beyond surprise in sexual matters. There is something depressing about seeing anyone taking pride in their disenchantment, but doubly so when it is a 21-year-old adopting the world-weary tone of Carrie Bradshaw.The best thing that anyone has said about modern sexual mores was said by H.L. Mencken, although he died a long time ago and he thought he was talking about something else. It was Mencken who famously defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Actually, when it comes to sex, it’s the Puritans who are having a good time. According to the most authoritative study of American sexual life, The Chicago Health and Social Life Survey, the most orgasmic group of women are conservative Protestants – which is the sort of statistic that could keep Eve Ensler or Dan Savage awake at night.But leaving the Puritans out of it, the fear that Mencken described is the driving force behind not just the student sex columns but also the flourishing industry of guides and manuals promising to enhance our sexual ecstasy to hitherto unimagined levels, if only we are willing to undergo the sort of training regime that has hitherto only been adopted by gymnasts living under communist governments. The message is: other people are having sex so good it qualifies as a mystical experience. The secrets can be yours provided, of course, that you buy the book.So powerful is the fear of missing out, we don’t even notice the absurdity of what we are being offered. The pop star Sting boasts of eight-hour Tantric couplings. I’m not sure I’d want to go that long without laughing.Hugh Hefner once published a 250,000 word treatise on “The Playboy Philosophy.” A quarter of a million word philosophy of living might seem a trifle overblown coming from a man who has spent the majority of his adult life in his pajamas, but Hefner always thought of himself as offering more than just airbrushed pictures of naked ladies. He was a cultural innovator, preaching a gospel of great sex enjoyed for its own sake. Hefner’s “Philosophy” is by all accounts unreadable, but the implausibly named Malcolm Muggeridge once summed it up neatly in six words; the Playboy philosophy is the promise that “you can have sex without tears.”Muggeridge seemed to think that the complete severance of sex from emotional life was impossible, but I’m not so sure about that. I think it’s perfectly possible, though probably very difficult, to divorce sex from all emotional consequence. I just don’t see anything to envy in those who have accomplished the feat.We sometimes think and speak as if, were it not for the constraints of morality, we would head straight for the Playboy mansion. But leaving all questions of morality aside, I doubt many of us really want to be thick-skinned enough to enjoy Hefner’s paradise. I doubt many of us really want, when we are old, to be able to look back on our lives and say “It was a lot of fun and nothing hurt.”So, while they document our peccadilloes in encyclopedic detail, the student sex columnists will always avoid the questions that are worth asking about sex. Here’s one: Suppose Hefner is right and Muggeridge is wrong; suppose you could have sex without the tears. Would you want it?

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. He can be contacted at [email protected] The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.