Talese has that new journalism style which will be very familiar for those who have read some of his contemporaries, such as Studs Terkel and Joan Didion. His writing style kind of floats from o A couple of my friends read this book and enjoyed it and, after reading Sex at Dawn recently, which provides an evolutionary psychology based argument against monogamy, I became interested in reading this book chronicling American adventures in sexual nonconformity during the so-called sexual revolution.
His writing style kind of floats from one person to the next in the book and it has an interesting rhythm; one moment it focuses in on the tiny details of emotion and setting of a particular event in one small moment of a person's life and in another it will widen its lens to take in the larger historical and legal context everyone is inside of. This changing focus kind of lulls you as the reader into a strange, observatory mode. It is deeply intimate while still feeling somewhat remote and alienated from its subject matter and reads more like a novel than non-fiction in many chapters since there can be such a wealth of details provided about people's inner lives while still being very much in the third person.
Even when Talese brings himself into the book at the very end, he continues to write in the third person and in an odd way, he tells you the fewest details about his own interior life as a witness to all that goes on in the book compared with the depth he goes into telling the life stories of the other major players in the book. I liked reading the book and it did provoke me to meditate about the issues at play because of its style and the variety in the central figures that Talese dwells on.
There are definitely some flaws and limitations to it also though. It is very clear by the time you finish the book that Talese is really primarily interested in the sexual revolution only as it applies to the perspective and lifestyle of the average, white, middle class American male.
Although there are some moments here and there where Talese digresses into the point of view of women in the book, women are clearly far from central to the overall movement of the book as we get comparatively brief glimpses into their worlds and lives and what descriptions he does give us, feel abrupt and not quite sincere. I guess the irony there, is how much women's perspective and pleasure was largely ignored by the sexual revolution itself, much less in journalistic coverage of it.
Similarly there are pretty much no people of color represented at all, male or female. The feminist movement, gay liberation movement, and civil rights movement, which were experiencing simultaneous revolutions and which obviously had a fairly large and direct relationship with the sexual revolution, are all almost totally ignored except for a few, brief asides.
I found myself wondering often what kind of commentary could have been found from people involved in those movements. The absence of homosexuality in the book is especially glaring, considering that it was obviously something that Talese was encountering quite a bit along the way and he even makes certain meandering hints about it several times, but he never fully engages with the issue.
I think Talese was focused on trying to write to a very mainstream audience and I would suspect he felt like including homosexuality into these accounts would be so off-putting to readers that they would no longer be open to any of the other ideas in the book. But reading the book now, within a modern context, the total blinders to what was happening with gays and lesbians at the time is baffling. While heterosexual male sexuality is all around us all the time and often incredibly in your face, what you don't hear often is men's honest, de-machoed self-reflections about what they like about the porn they watch, what attachments they do or do not feel to it, how they experience lust and desire and jealousy, and the kinds of the things they're looking for out of sex.
These are the real goods that straight women are looking for paging through the Cosmo sex advice columns. Much of the book reads like the kind of unflinching conversations about sex that men might have with each other in a world more open to talking honestly about it and I was interested in getting to see behind the curtain in a way that doesn't happen very often.
I also appreciated the way in which the book maintained a certain amount of ambivalence in tone. It doesn't read as an endorsement of the sexual revolution per se and the leaders and radicals he describes are portrayed as real people, with flaws and strengths and three dimensional personalities.
The book doesn't leave you with any easy conclusions or a pat thesis to take away. It is particularly interesting reading this book now, in light of the internet-generated explosion in porn consumption, the increasing mainstreaming of porn, the escalating fight for gay marriage, the growing prominence of polyamory and alternative relationship and family structures, and the declining state of heterosexual marriage.
Its hard to know how related these developments are to some of the questions that emerged during the 70's, especially considering how many of these questions greatly pre-date the 70's and how much technology has changed our lives in such a short amount of time, but I feel like reading this book gave me some interesting context to reflect on. It also made me wonder about where my own history and attitudes would fit, if I tried to write it out into a similar style of narrative.
Dan Savage wrote this thing on the Stranger just the other day: He chalks this up to a lot of broad generalizations about women not being sexually aroused by the nude male bodies of strangers and only being willing to be penetrated by the comfortable known penises of men they have relationships with.
Surely the fact that porn doesn't try very hard to appeal to women's tastes and the increased risk of violence and STIs that women cope with during anonymous straight sex that Dan lists in the quote above, must factor in too. Its weird that Talese would fall back on that kind of rhetoric at the end of the book though, considering how many women he encountered along the course of the book who did enjoy and seek out anonymous sex, who were aggressive, who broke out of those stereotypes when they had a safe space in which to do so.
It makes me think about how, part of the reason the sexual revolution was so much more of a success for men than for women ultimately, is that women have so much more negative shit in their way before they can even think about their desires and attaining total sexual freedom. No wonder reproductive rights and anti-domestic violence and sexual assault work were so important to feminism at the time, and still today.
White middle-class men may have faced religious moral codes and obscenity laws trying to police their thoughts and fantasies, but that's nothing compared to the patriarchal complex of society that attempts to control and regulate the actual bodies of women, working class folks, people of color, and of course GLBTQ people.
In a corresponding way, we have a lot of great infrastructure now supporting the mitigation of the negative things restricting sexual freedom for women- Planned Parenthood, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault advocacy organizations, etc. There is so much more of a flood of positive-side sexual freedom promoters geared toward men though. Porn is absolutely everywhere, turning a 13 billion dollar profit in America, with a majority of men watching it regularly and being more open about that now than maybe ever before.
There is also the continuing boom that the sex work industry has experienced. The only corrolary I can really think of for women, is the growing sex toy industry which has helped women reclaim their bodies and their sexuality for themselves, but which is still pretty small by comparison at least in terms of money spent.
My partner has said before that he thinks that as women gain equality and as the culture becomes more sex positive, more women will be an increasing consumer base for porn and maybe other types of sex work.
It does seem true that more women watch porn now than they did in the past and it's certainly more accessible to women than it used to be. But in some ways, I can't help feeling like there is always going to be something extremely male about those things.
Which makes me question, what would embody and encourage real sexual freedom for women? What kind of media and organizations would cater mostly to women? What would that look like? Is women's supposed "sexual reluctance," really reluctance or is it something else? How would you set non-sexist standards and terms for even building a framework for these things? These are all questions I've thought about for a long time, but something that I find myself wondering more and more these days.