After my post last week on whether "sexual liberation" leads to monogamy, Amanda Marcotte and I twittered briefly about the myth of progress in sexual mores. The progress myth goes like this: Once upon a time, all was repression, imposed by religion/patriarchy/the establishment/your-nominee-here. But that theory is wrong: As with all fashions, libertinism comes and goes, alternating with restriction. Think the wild 1920s, then the marry-young 1950s (whose unexpected procreativity literally gave birth to the baby boom), then the swinging 1970s, then the Just-Say-No 1980s.
Then I discovered that Ariel Levy laid out the evidence for this view far more thoroughly in her book essay in the last New Yorker. It's fascinating to see her find evidence of various sexual revolutions dating back to 18th century, and she suggests that the pattern dates back much further. Check out this parenthetical aside about a device invented in the 1880s as a treatment for female illness:
The vibrator was made available as an over-the-counter treatment two decades later, when it was the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, the fan, the toaster, and the teakettle; it remains the machine most important to a great many smoothly functioning households.
I'm not certain where she gets her evidence about the vibrator's contemporary popularity; perhaps her research is more complete than my own. But I love the way she states the key thesis, which I've long shared:
We seem to have a peculiar urge to believe that the way we have sex, the thing that got us all here, is unprecedented. It's like the familiar difficulty people have imagining that their parents had sex. The reason sex can be revolutionized again and again is that we're reluctant to believe our ancestors could have known and felt what we know and feel. Yet what has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the covers.
Nothing? Not even...? Oh well, I'll just keep that to myself, for now.
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