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Spring 1995
   
The 'L' Word: Love as Taboo
Kay S. Hymowitz
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“I can see no trace of the passions which make for deeper joy," wrote Stendhal about Americans in his 1822 essay "Love." "It is as if the sources of sensibility have dried up among these people. They are just, they are rational, and they are not happy at all." Imagine the Frenchman's horror if he could hear today's Americans speak of l'amour in what Mademoiselle magazine calls this "Post-Idealist, Neo-Pragmatic Era of Relationships." Here is Wanda Urbanska, author of The Singular Generation, describing her peers in their twenties: "We . . . do not have affairs, we have `sexual friendships.' We do not fall in love, we build relationships. We do not date, we `see' each other." A student quoted in a recent article in the Vassar Quarterly adopts the same cool attitude. She doesn't care for the term boyfriend or lover; she speaks instead of "my special friend with whom I spent lots of quality physical time."

Many critics of popular culture decry its heat. But oddly enough, the familiar displays of sex and violence often go hand-in-hand with a distinct lowering of the emotional temperature. We are rarely moved by them—and neither are our heroes or stars. They display cool, tough self-sufficiency in each chiseled muscle and sneering put-down. Sure, the bed-hopping may seem sexy at first, but before long its vacant predictability adds up to a big yawn.

Even rock and roll, once a soulful forum for aching, lonely hearts or ecstatic lovers, is now just as likely to rap or croon a message of tough, don't-need-nobody independence. "You gotta be bad," sings Des'ree in a recent top-ten hit; "you gotta be strong; you gotta be hard; you gotta be tough; you gotta be stronger; you gotta be cool." Her counsel finds visual embodiment in fashion ads, such as that for Calvin Klein One unisex perfume—perfume, of all things, the primal sexual lure!—in which a line of grungy young men and women demonstrate, with snarling mouths and pointed fingers, various permutations of seen-it-all exasperation.

The emotional coolness and self-sufficiency of the Neo-Pragmatic Era of Relationships often finds much more easygoing expression than this. Television comedian Jerry Seinfeld portrays the benign, loopy side of casual sexual friendships in his top-rated series. He, his eccentric buddies, and Elaine, an ex-lover who seems more like his twin sister, drift good-naturedly through a landscape of sexual friendships that inspire about the same level of feeling as the tuna sandwiches Jerry's friend George orders at the local coffee shop. In the 1992 movie Singles, the theme song, "Dyslexic Heart," evokes the sad confusion of the young and disconnected. "For some people, living alone is a nasty hang," shrugs Cliff, one of the movie's slacker heroes, to a girl unaccountably and unsuccessfully pursuing him. "Not me. I'm a self-contained unit."

Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that romantic love is dead in America. After all, for every "Seinfeld" there's a "Mad About You," a comedy series about a devoted newlywed couple. And for every Des'ree there's a Beverly DeAngelis, a romance guru who writes self-help best-sellers with titles like Are You the One for Me?

Still, if love in America is not dead, it is ailing. It is suffering from the phenomenon historian Peter Stearns describes in his book American Cool. American cool disdains intense emotions like grief, jealousy, and love, which leave us vulnerable, in favor of an "emotional style" of smooth detachment. If pop culture gods present an elegant vision of American cool, for ordinary mortals the picture is less glamorous. But the unintended consequences of this banal ideal are the same across the economic spectrum: emotional frustration, alienation, and a sexual scene that recalls the drearier imaginings of Nietzsche or Freud.

American cool goes hand-in-hand with a profoundly rationalistic vision of human relations, which looks with suspicion on mystery, myth, and strong feeling. Powerful cultural trends have combined to produce this general coarsening and flattening of the sensibilities: feminism, which feared that love and equality were incompatible; the scientific rationalism of experts from the helping professions, who have helped advance what Lionel Trilling called our "commitment to mechanical attitudes toward life"; and, above all, America's fierce individualism, whose ideal is the free and adventurous loner.

The beginnings of the disenchantment of love and the rise of American cool are well worth examining if only to gauge the trade-offs we have made during this era of liberation. We've purchased our freedom from inhibition and guilt with a loan from imagination and fantasy. And to gain the array of pleasure once denied the bourgeois soul, we've paid the price of deep feeling.

Feminists mounted the first significant challenge to love's hold on the American imagination. Romantic love is a myth, they argued, a myth inextricably tied up with women's inequality. It reinforces the idea of separate spheres for the sexes, providing a "consolation," as writer Juliet Mitchell put it, for women's "confinement in domesticity." Further, feminists contended, the ideal of love strengthened the myth of weak, dependent womanhood in need of strong male protection. Though this view got some airing as early as the mid-nineteenth century, it took on angry, raw urgency in the early 1970s in works like Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex and Marilyn French's The Women's Room, which called love a "lie to keep women happy in the kitchen so they won't ask to do what men are always doing." Ti-Grace Atkinson went even further: "The psychopathological condition of love is a euphoric state of fantasy in which the victim transforms her oppressor into the redeemer. . . . Love has to be destroyed." Not just a myth and a dangerous illusion, love was a disease in need of a cure.

Some Victorian feminists offered a cure, or at least an antidote, in the form of what they called "rational love." They advocated an "educated" or "organized" union between men and women, a union based on mutual interests and friendly companionship, with knowledge replacing fantasy, and reason superseding untidy passions like jealousy and obsession. In a similar vein, feminists in the 1920s supported the introduction of college marriage courses aimed at dispelling romantic myths with objective, expert knowledge. Companionate marriage—cemented with shared interests, common background, and sexual pleasure rather than strong emotion—became the new rational ideal.

A health and family-life curriculum that the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women is developing exemplifies a contemporary version of this ideal. The curriculum sets up a contrast between bad, illusory "romantic love" and good, clearheaded "nurturing love." The latter entails responsibility, sharing, friendship, pleasure, and "strong feelings." But examples of "What Love Isn't" include jealousy, possessiveness, obsession, dependency, and giving yourself up—that is, just about every extreme of feeling that romantic love may arouse.

The feminist view of the myth of love contained a curious, counterproductive misreading of history. For if love served to subjugate women, it did no less to men. In many countries where romantic love has not been institutionalized, men's philandering is winked at while respectable women are kept veiled and hidden. In its first institutional flowering in the guise of medieval courtly love, stylized passion turned the wandering, brutish young men of the day—who might literally rape an unprotected woman as easily as slay that night's dinner—into sensitive, pining poets. The important point altogether ignored by early progressive reformers and feminists was that it was precisely as a powerful way of sublimating the passions that romantic love was a civilizing force. A man in love was a man subdued.

But a man in rational or nurturing love? As Peter Stearns points out, the changing articles of Esquire magazine suggest just how compelling men would find "organized," "educated" sharing. In the thirties, Esquire endorsed the new companionate marriage recommended by feminists and sociologists, publishing many stories and advice columns exploring what one writer called "Brave New Love" and cautioning against the excesses of romantic passion. But by World War II, the magazine, presaging the arrival of Playboy, dispensed with all love talk and got down to the nitty-gritty: sex. Esquire's trajectory from love to brave new love to sex suggested that lifting the veil of the illusion of love might reveal not the sweet smile of equal, harmonious sexual relations but the predacious grin of raw impulse.

Doctors and health experts, starting at the turn of the century, espoused theories that echoed the feminist disdain for passion and fantasy. Inspired by advances in the understanding and treatment of venereal disease, the medical profession argued against Victorian sexual repressiveness and in favor of a demystification of sex. "Sex mystery prevents progress," announced a book by a social hygienist, as progressive reformers devoted to the eradication of venereal disease called themselves. By releasing "sex mystery" from the murky control of priests and superstition and bringing it under the bright light of science, humanity would enjoy health and progress.

For all their innovativeness, the social hygienists were hardly sexual freethinkers; by and large they believed in the Victorian virtues of chastity and self-restraint. But they began a process of the medicalization and rationalization of sex whose basic assumptions continue to control much current thinking on the subject. They believed that sexual desire could yield easily to the discipline of logic and information; hence they became the first to advocate sex education in the schools. They would probably not be surprised to find that today it is still usually taught in health classes. And they introduced what author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has called the "Scopes trial terms" that continue to make the sex education debate so stubbornly hyperbolic: the scientifically minded, enlightened realists versus the superstitious, religious flat-earthers.

Yet the social hygienists would surely be dismayed by some of what is done in the name of health today. For the idea of rationalized and demystified sex has been stretched to its logical limits, as sex mystery—the dense subject of poets, philosophers, mystics, lyricists, and sacred codes—has given way to sex mechanics.

Nowhere is this robotization of sex more glaring than in the curricula of modern sex educators, the intellectual heirs of the social hygienists. In what may have been a swan song of sexual love in 1959, a sex education manual began: "The end and aim of sex education is developing one's fullest capacity for love." Today nothing could seem more quaint. Most modern sex education programs center on teaching not just health but technical skills—communication skills, decision-making skills, refusal skills, and, of course, condom skills. Some years ago the Massachusetts Department of Public Health produced an AIDS-prevention video in which a hip young nurse distributes flash cards depicting the 14 stages of condom use. The students get together, look at one another's cards, and decide the proper order—which looks like this: "Talk with Partner," "Decision by Both Partners to Have Sex," "Buy the Condom," "Sexual Arousal," "Erection," "Roll Condom On," "Leave Space at Tip (squeeze out air)," "Intercourse," "Orgasm/Ejaculation," "Hold onto Rim," "Withdraw the Penis," "Loss of Erection," "Relaxation," and, finally, an environmental skill, "Throw Condom Out." Note the goosestep courtship suggested to today's robo-lovers: "Talk with Partner, Decision by Both Partners to Have Sex."

Today's sex educator sees his demystifying task as ensuring not only that kids have the information necessary to avoid disease and pregnancy but also that they have "healthy" attitudes toward sex. A healthy student is one who is "relaxed" and "comfortable" in the presence of the erotic and can speak of sex in the same tones and with the same lack of emotion he might bring to a discussion of carburetors. Giggling kids who appear to suffer from embarrassment or reticence, sure signs of "anti-sex" attitudes or irrational hang-ups, must undergo a program of desensitization. One exercise I recently heard about at a private school in Brooklyn attempted such a reeducation, much to the dismay of a number of parents: in a fifth-grade class students were required to pronounce the words for the genitals at increasingly louder volume. Children calculating math problems in nearby classrooms were serenaded by their ten-year-old friends yelling, "Penis! Vagina!!"

The push to rationalize and deintensify sexual desire is so total that some educators even try to reprogram their students' fantasy lives. William A. Fisher, a professor of psychology at the University of Ontario, and Deborah M. Roffman, a sexuality education teacher at the Park School in Brooklandville, Maryland, suggest one way to steer fantasies into conformity with the rational ideal. Because teenagers' sexual fantasies usually don't involve condoms, Fisher and Roffman propose, why not show them "fantasy walk-throughs" in stories, videotapes, or plays, where kids like themselves "successfully perform . . . sex-related preventive behaviors." "Such imagery," they continue, "should enter teenagers' memories as fantasy-based scripts for personally practicing preventive behaviors when or if such behaviors are necessary."

Striking the same chilling, Strangelovian tone of scientific detachment, sex educators object to Hollywood's dream vision of sex not because coupling is ubiquitous or mechanical but because it is "irresponsible" or "unrealistic," with so few references to birth control, diseases, or abortion. More "pro-social messages," according to this line of thinking, would solve the problem of the hypersexed media.

The examples I've cited are extreme; few children are treated to classroom exercises precisely like these. Nevertheless, such examples expose the inadequacy of the terms of the recent culture wars over condom distribution, the Rainbow curriculum, or the promotion of masturbation as a form of safe sex. What's happening is not as simple as a contest between enlightened liberals seeking to liberate sexual life from Puritan repressiveness, and life-denying conservatives who wish to imprison it in a web of moral and religious restrictions. On closer inspection, the sexual liberals turn out to be advancing their own rigid moral strictures. Their Eros lays down an updated Puritan law: pleasure and self-fulfillment, yes; passion, no. The question, it begins to seem, isn't whether a society will codify sexual behavior but how it will do so. "From authority," Philip Rieff has written, "there is no escape"; that authority has simply been transferred from the church to the clinic.

This medicalization of sex has deposed the irrational chimera Love and installed reasonable Health as king. Kids must have "healthy" attitudes; they must make "healthy" decisions. A 1993 Good Housekeeping/CBS poll asked teenagers to give reasons not to have sex. While 85 percent mentioned fear of AIDS or pregnancy, only 4 percent said "not being in love." And although the increasing popularity of abstinence as a value to be taught in the schools may seem like an important shift in the cultural climate, it only perpetuates the medical-scientific mode of sexual thinking. An article entitled "AIDS Disinformation" in Seventeen illustrates the problem: "Seventy-eight percent of women are sexually active by age 19," it announces. "This is not to say that abstinence isn't an important option. It is the only way to be 100 percent sure of not getting HIV through sexual transmission."

Conventional wisdom has it that the hypersexed media encourage kids to "fool around." But this half-truth begs the question of where in today's culture a teenager can find any alternative vision, any language for imagining sex as a potentially powerful union. Many parents today mumble something like, "Be careful." Meanwhile, their own behavior is corrosive to the idealistic longings of adolescence. In her book Erotic Wars, sociologist Lillian Rubin quotes a promiscuous 17-year-old who was 12 when her father left her mother for a younger woman. "I don't want to hear about any of that love stuff," the girl says. "It's garbage, just plain garbage. If a guy wants to make it with a girl, he'll say anything. I just spare them the trouble, that's all. Anyway, what's the big deal?"

Educators second this kind of cynicism when they advise kids only to "talk with partner" or "make healthy, good decisions." On what moral terms should a teen ground this good decision? Here the educators come up empty-handed. A National Guidelines Task Force of sex educators looked into this problem and could offer only platitudes like, "Every person has dignity and self-worth," and the priceless, "All sexual decisions have effects and consequences." Is it any wonder that kids today, stripped of all spiritualizing ideals and with nothing but dismal "health" to replace them, would shrug and ask, "What's the big deal?"

Love's most powerful enemy may well be America's obsession with individual autonomy. The free, self-contained individual—or "unit," as Cliff puts it in Singles—looks with suspicion on emotions that threaten dependence on others, and he celebrates those that glorify his splendid isolation. From this point of view, love might well signal childish weakness. "Clearly, romance can arrive with all its obsession whenever we're feeling incomplete," writes Gloria Steinem in her best-selling 1992 book, Revolution from Within. "The truth is that finding ourselves brings more excitement and well-being than anything romance has to offer." Steinem's prissy rejection of powerful feeling echoes that of some of her precursors, the nineteenth-century feminists. But it goes a step further. From her perspective, the problem is not merely that love's urgent desire for the other can shade into out-of-control obsession. It is that this obsession sweeps us away from life's central project: finding ourselves.

Finding ourselves is a complex task these days. It means not only developing interests and talents but also "exploring" what we have come to call "our sexuality." While sex is an activity or behavior involving another individual, sexuality is a territory of the self. Its logic insists that we are all "self-contained units." Others must not interfere.

Watch Oprah or Donahue, pick up any academic treatise on "gender," flip through any sex education curriculum, or read any self-help book, and the creed of healthy sexuality will stare you in the face. "Sexuality is much more than `sex' or `sexual intercourse,'" explains one sex manual for girls. "It is the entire self as girl or boy or man or woman. . . . Sexuality is a basic part of who we are as a person and affects how we feel about ourselves and all our relationships with others." Though it may affect how we feel about others, it does not necessarily tie us to them, for sexuality is first and foremost a vital arena of self-expression and creativity, a central act in the drama of personal identity. Leah P., married 18 years and interviewed on a National Public Radio show about sex and marriage, admits she would hesitate to have an affair but insists on her autonomy from any rules or institutions or even relationships: "My sexuality belongs to me. I can take it where I choose to. . . . It doesn't belong to my husband; it doesn't belong to my marriage."

The creed of sexuality demands that the individual "explore" or "develop" her sexuality fully by experimenting with different partners, in different positions, at different times of the day, or in different rooms of the house or office. During the seventies, when the novels of Anais Nin and Erica Jong were popular, promiscuity became almost a matter of principle for many women newly liberated from old-fashioned notions of what good girls could and couldn't do. Sexual variety and abundance did not merely promise pleasure; they asserted women's freedom and independence. ("That was the meaning of freedom," thinks Nin's heroine Sabine about a one-night stand in A Spy in the House of Love.) And further: to expand one's sexuality was to expand one's very identity.

But if sex is imagined as a meeting of free, autonomous, and creative selves, each engaged in an act of self-exploration, we are left with a problem: the lover—or partner, the current term and one better evoking the situation—is in danger of becoming an object to be used and played with. The connection between partners can then only be imagined as contractual: two free agents voluntarily and conditionally involved in a mutually agreed-upon activity. Some of our best and most disenchanted bureaucratic minds have gotten to work on this, as exemplified by the 14 Stages of Condom Use and the now famous Antioch College sexual harassment code. "Obtaining consent is an ongoing process in any sexual interaction," the code reads. "Verbal consent should be obtained with each new level of physical or sexual conduct in any given interaction. . . . The request for consent must be specific to each act."

Although it ostensibly prizes freedom and pleasure, the creed of "sexuality" instead produces this sort of leaden, bureaucratic vision of sex. Here, unlike the lover willing to risk opening his heart in hopes of joyful union, the partner becomes a skilled negotiator demanding and accepting conditions for his or her personal pleasure. Hence, "sexuality" inevitably restrains the emotional, truly personal connection between lovers, stifling what Stendhal called the "passions which make for deeper joy." Central to an age of personal health and fulfillment, "sexuality" flattens as well as enriches the self-contained, autonomous individual. It giveth and it taketh away.

How entirely fitting, then, that the latest terrain of the culture wars, highlighted by the firing of Joycelyn Elders, is masturbation. The multiple ironies of teaching the joys of masturbation to teenagers were largely lost in the usual Scopes trial terms of the brouhaha—either you are anti-sex and believe masturbation makes your palms hairy, or you believe, as one Los Angeles school teacher claimed, it is a "way to sexually express yourself without actually having sex." Not least among those ironies is that masturbation does less to enrich sexual life than to advance the project of rational self-sufficiency. No messy emotions here.

Equally ludicrous, but unfortunately dead serious, is the way in which the primacy of the autonomous, self-contained ego freed from the call of passionate love reveals itself in popular culture. "You can find love if you search within yourself," croons Mariah Carey in her 1994 hit song, "Hero." Accompanied by rich orchestral melodies, the video shows her with the quivering lips and outstretched hands usually associated with deep longing for another. "All I really want is to be happy, but the answer lies in me," sings Mary J. Blige in a more recent hit. Camille Paglia may have said more than she realized when she joked about her own gigantic ego: "There's Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet, me and me. It's the love affair of the century!"

At times, the sadness of American detachment seeps through the glossiest of advice columns. One example appears in last September's YM, a teen magazine, in an article entitled "The Six Love Wreckers (and How to Avoid Them)." Five of the six "love wreckers," those things girls do that chase boys away, involve loving too much. They include: "You're too demanding. . . . You're too jealous. . . . You push for a commitment." "Some guys get really uncomfortable when you try to box them in," warns one expert. "Plus, you risk coming off as desperate and needy." "Get a life! . . . Doing your own thing will make him appreciate you more," barks another author, under the headline "You're too dependent." Adult women get similar advice: pronounces a recent Cosmopolitan headline, "Clingy Is Out!"

Jealousy, possessiveness, and dependence are the stuff of our contemporary morality stories. The man in love is neither a hero nor henpecked as he once was; he is now a stalker or wife-abuser, our contemporary villain. Both the mainstream media and teen magazines frequently carry updated gothic tales like "My Ex Tried to Kill Me" or "When a Lover Turns Evil; He Follows You—Spies on You—Loves You to Death." The O. J. Simpson trial fascinates us, in large part because it reminds us of the extremes of these tabooed passions.

In this way, popular culture subverts as well as endorses our tidy scientific-therapeutic view of the human condition. Its current fascination with sadomasochism is a perfect example. A recent article in New York magazine cited many examples, including the fashion photos in Details magazine, Gianni Versace's 1992 fashion show with supermodel Cindy Crawford in bondage getup, and plotlines on soap operas, including "One Life to Live" and—one for the teen set—"Beverly Hills 90210." Though presented as the next stage in a continuing liberation from outdated taboos, the fascination with S&M barely conceals the misery of the robo-lover. Enthusiasts are quick to affirm that S&M sex is "consensual," but with its chains and whips, handcuffs and muzzles, it offers the "partner" one last, desperate chance at surrendering his hardened, encapsulated ego to strong feeling. These sex toys suggest a perverse, high-tech twist on sexual liberation: the man or woman who wants to be dominated and controlled, to give himself up completely to another.

But this interest in S&M reminds us as well that, especially in a rationalized world where a lover's joy pales into pleasure and his tormented longing into co-dependence, irrational fantasy and intense desire will always bubble up. Kids raised in a world without an enriching myth to humanize the Dionysian demons growling and scratching below the surface of civility and to intensify their attachments to another are not a happy sight. For if some teens have reaped the superficial benefits of the new dispensation's relaxation of traditional taboos, all too many suffer from its shallowness.

For girls, the results are not just the widely reported epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Also evident to many working with these young women is a sense of vacant joylessness. Fifteen-year-olds with ten or even more "partners"—sociologist Lillian Rubin interviewed one 16-year-old who said she had "40 or 50"—do not merely fail to find love; ironically, they also fail at the pursuit of pleasure, for they are almost never orgasmic. They promise to become a new generation of embittered women, resentful of men, cynical about love, and ripe for single motherhood.

How could they be otherwise, given the boys they have to contend with? Without any humanizing myth to help quiet the demons, boys have begun to play out the truth of Freud's observation that lust and aggression are deeply intertwined. Reports of young studs "playing rape" in a Yonkers school yard during recess, of nine-year-old sexual harassers and fifth-grade rapists and sodomists, have become too common to pass off as simply anomalous. To be sure, boys have always striven to test their manhood through sexual conquest. But the Spur Posse, a gang of teenage boys from Lakewood, California, are just as surely creatures of a crippled emotional culture. The boys held a contest in which they "hooked up"—a tellingly mechanical phrase—with girls as young as ten. (The winner "scored" 66 girls.)

Dispiriting as they are, these examples don't totally capture the emotional alienation of this Post-Idealist, Neo-Pragmatic Era of Relationships. In his 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch described the recent crop of patients seeking therapy, who, unlike the general run of patients in the past, "tend to cultivate a protective shallowness in emotional relations" and who are "chronically bored, restlessly in search of . . . emotional titillation without involvement and dependence." Therapists today continue to find such emptiness and emotional blankness the most common complaint. In the past, love has had the virtue not only of satisfying our longing for profound connection but of lifting us out of mundane life into enchantment. While it may not have straightened the crooked timber of humanity, it respected and nourished its tortuous imagination. Today more than ever, the sources of that nourishment seem indeed to have dried up.

 

 

 
There’s no shortage of sex in modern life? But love? Today’s culture has made it harder to find, with bad consequences for society.
City Journal Spring 1995.
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