Back in 1940, acerbic newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken grumbled that Americans had become “resigned” to the nation’s being drawn into World War II — almost as fully as they were resigned, he added, to “the common cold and monogamy.”
That sarcastic aside is telling historical evidence of everyday sexual mores in Mencken’s bygone era. No moralist, Mencken seldom overestimated the virtue of his fellow Americans. He wasn’t going to peddle pious humbug about people of his time liking monogamy; he knew many suffered lapses even in their “resignation.”
Yet if this virtuoso cynic would matter-of-factly allow that most 1940 Americans grudgingly accepted sex lives thick with boundaries and largely confined to marital monotony — er, monogamy — we can probably assume that many did.
Around the same time, a quite different cultural critic, Christian author C.S. Lewis, observed that historians and anthropologists had revealed societies where it was thought proper for men to have 20 wives, and others where spouses are unashamedly exchanged under certain circumstances. But sexual restrictions of some sort, Lewis asserted, were universal. There had never been a community, he said, where it was thought proper to have sex with just any willing partner who arouses you.
It all sounds rather quaint today, roughly one lifetime since America started turning into the sort of sexual free-for-all the World War II generation had never heard of.
Mencken died in 1956; Lewis, in 1963. In 1953, 27-year-old Hugh Hefner had launched Playboy magazine, giving a kind of literature to the sexual “revolution” — a rare case where the term may not be too strong.
Hefner’s death last month at 91 inspired a decidedly mixed range of reflections, united by at best uncertainty about his final impact.
Was Hefner a liberator or an exploiter? Did he help break off shackles of needless self-denial for both men and women, allowing a new candor and casualness in relations between the sexes and thus opening pathways for feminism to pursue broader equality? Or was he just a pornographer hiding behind the bushes of progressive-sounding social rhetoric to sell dirty pictures — legitimizing, glamorizing, even intellectualizing the mind-set of a predator?
In the end it wasn’t really about Hefner, of course. It’s the social transformation he merely cashed in on — sexual liberation itself and all that it has wrought — that inspires so much ambivalence. And it’s natural it would in our age of sexual assault “epidemics” on campus; with 40 percent of American children now born to single mothers (it was about 5 percent in 1960); amid the crude misogyny of some hit music and the puerile coarseness of much popular television; with our second sexual miscreant in 20 years in the Oval Office and other swine in high places being exposed in rapid and wearying succession. It seems at least debatable whether the repressed and stuffy old world Mencken and Lewis knew had the regulation of sex all wrong while we have it all right in the age of Harvey Weinstein.
Weinstein, the admired movie mogul now exposed as an abuser to the stars, is the latest big-name libertine to facilitate social commentary fixating on the particular sins and evils of an individual — plus those who enabled him and made excuses — rather than ever asking whether something larger has gone wrong with our culture. The list of uniquely wicked sinners just among today’s rich and famous is getting long: Add Trump and Clinton, O’Reilly and Ailes, Spitzer and Weiner, Edwards and Petraeus, Allen and Letterman — and so on and on and on.
Yes, this kind of misconduct among men — especially big shots who figure they can get away with it — was already old news when King David first laid eyes on Bathsheba. But our era has become “resigned” — as if to the common cold — to a kind of sexual anarchy from the White House to the frat house and everywhere in between.
I don’t venture into this subject because I was immune in younger days to the ethos of my times. Like, I believe, a good many contemporaries, I would not relish having to explain every interaction I ever had with a woman to the entire nation.
And there is meanwhile no possible excuse or diverting of blame for the levels of aggression and exploitation involved in some of the prominent scandals of recent years.
But as we stew over one story of male wrongdoing after another, we should at least consider whether our modern society has simply adopted a code of sexual conduct that may not be perfectly designed to regulate male sexuality. While marital infidelity can still produce scandal, our bedrock rule today is that almost any sexual adventure can be accepted — provided consent is given clearly, repeatedly, affirmatively and unequivocally, and there’s no power imbalance or misunderstanding.
Frankly, males, who at least in their prime are driven by an unequivocal biological imperative in this department of life, had trouble staying on the right side of the consent line even back when rigid rules decreed that most sexual explorations (save those within marriage) were wrongful and dangerous. Today, when “consent” is the only speed bump in the road to your every desire — well, we see the results.
Mencken dismissed the idea that society’s demand for sexual restraint had much to do with moral convictions; it was all pure pragmatism, he wrote (and Lewis wouldn’t wholly have disagreed).
Human experience, Mencken said, “is still overwhelming on the side of monogamy; civilized men are in favour of it because they find that it works. And why does it work? Because it is the most effective of all available antidotes to the alarms and terrors of passion. Monogamy, in brief, kills passion — and passion is the most dangerous of all the surviving enemies to what we call civilization … .”
“Passion” may not perfectly describe what’s come so energetically to life in our time. But whatever it is, it’s not entirely without dangers.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.