September 30, 2019

Article: On Sex, Modernity, and the Crisis of Girlhood

Photo by Sally Mann


ex. It is, at once, our greatest pleasure and primordial curse, an animal contract we explore, suppress, exploit, and attempt escaping from one century to the next. The predominant source of this struggle rests in the fantasy of transcendence from the material—a wedge fashioned between flesh and spirit. Medieval canonical codes defining immoral and perverse sexual acts and thoughts resulted, naturally, in a heightened preoccupation with sex and sexuality in civilization down through the centuries—proliferating a distorted obsession with it in politics, psychiatry, medicine, and jurisprudence in Western society to this day.

Sex didn’t begin in 1963, as Philip Larkin’s poem Annus Mirabilis insinuates. We humans and our early ancestors have been having sex for millions of years without the need of religious or societal injunctions, but somewhere along that timeline we began to complicate it with exactly these things: superstitions, unrealistic religious dogma, and an obsession with medicalizing anything beyond the strict boundaries of enforced convention. This culminated in what might be called the darkest age of sexual dysfunction: the stifling conventions, ordinances, reticence, and crude science of the Victorian order. Once slipping out of its complete grip, we arrived upon the first relevant point of the sexual revolution’s modern timeline: the reform of the 1920’s, in which a focus on glamour, leisure, women’s suffrage, and the liberal mingling of the sexes were a part.

The post-World War II era of the 1950s ushered in the rise of suburban culture in America. Consumer production flourished, with Bernaysian advertisers selling an idealized way of life to men and women. If we look back to this often romanticized time captured in surviving film and print media, we see a very different world from our own. Its close ties between naive consumerism, conformity, and antiquated mores is, at once, quaintly charming and eye opening, and we see we see how far we’ve come. When people think about returning to traditional life, in fact, they often time travel back to this particular era in their minds, but in truth the beginnings of these values date back to…

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