by Brian Alexander
Three Rivers Press, 2008
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D. on Sep 29th 2009
As Alexander notes at the end of America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction, "American sexual hypocrisy is a cliché, and an old one at that" (295). And yet we continue to be fascinated with that hypocrisy, hackneyed and clichéd though it may be, perhaps particularly when someone like Ted Haggard or Eliot Spitzer, known as anti-sex crusaders, get caught with their pants down. Alexander doesn't focus on the sex lives of famous people, however. His aim is directed instead towards regular folks, often from America's heartland. From his background as a sex columnist, first at Glamour magazine, and nofw at MSNBC.com, Alexander became convinced that there existed a large percentage of Americans who were engaging in a variety of rather unconventional sexual practices, at least according to the mores of his childhood. "So," he says, "I wanted to know who these sexual explorers were; if the scene had really changed as much as I thought, and if so, why so many people were doing what they were doing; what influences were inspiring them; and most important, if they were finding any happiness by doing it" (13).
In a series of chapters that follow Alexander around the country doing various jobs, and attending different events, he does just this. In Chapter 1, for example, he describes his time working in an Adam and Eve sex shop, one of the new breed of such shops that have moved out of the sleazier parts of town into the big box store suburbs, in clean, well lighted shops that market themselves primarily towards women looking for everything from lubricants to vibrators and pornographic movies. They see themselves as in the business of "permission giving," (22) allowing people to explore and expand their sexual desires. In this, they have been tremendously successful. According to Phil Harvey, who owns and runs a $106 million/year pornography and sex toy business, "There are now fifty thousand porn titles cranked out of Southern California every year. The national sexual dialogue has changed. Like the appetite for sex toys" (36).
How do we square this fact, however, with the increasingly fundamentalist turn America has undergone in the past decades? Indeed, folks like Jerry Falwell and his "Moral Majority" believed they had changed the sexual climate of America away from the secular obsession with sex, and "joined hands and hearts to reclaim America for God" (291). But according to Alexander, while America has retained its religious heritage, many Christian Americans, including fundamentalists, have found ways to couple their religious beliefs with more liberal attitudes towards sex. Consider, for example, the case of Pastor Joe Beam who travels around the country giving sex seminars to fundamentalist Christians. In essence, he argues, through what many would say is a selective reading of the Bible and a heavy reliance upon the Song of Solomon, that "the secular world has nothing to offer you that you cannot have within the bonds of your marriage" (53). So while adultery may be out, performing cunnilingus on your wife, for example, is, he claims, actually endorsed in the Bible: "I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate" (53).
Clearly, however, current sexual activity in America has extended far beyond married folks having oral sex together, or even of them including porn movies and the occasional vibrator or butt plug in their sex lives. Many Americans have now moved on to different paraphilias and/or fetishes, both within and without the parameters of marriage. Alexander explores this over several chapters, concentrating particularly on bondage and sado-masochism (BDSM). Here, he introduces the notion that part of the appeal of these practices may well be that they promote the idea amongst it practitioners that they are rebellious individualists unsusceptible to the pressures placed upon them by mainstream (or 'vanilla') society, a theme as American of course as apple pie or its basis in Puritanism and evangelical religion. As an example, Alexander describes a group of fetish conventioneers at the end of a long night of revelry, waiting outside for a ride being heckled by some passersby: "Freaks! What a bunch of fuckin' freaks!" To which the assembled group replied proudly: "'Yeah! We're freaks! Betchur ass!' and they remained enlivened, standing outside the Hyatt hotel in downtown Tampa, their sin reaffirmed…" (261). On this picture, not only does 'non-conformist' sex occur in America despite the country's evangelical anti-sex attitudes, it occurs because of it as a rebellious backlash against it. In other words, America's current sexual 'deviance' could not exist without its anti-sex attitudes. Poor Jerry Falwell would be rolling over in his grave.
In the final chapter, Alexander considers directly the issue referred to in his book's sub-title. Namely, has America's new sexuality brought about increased satisfaction? Has it made them happy? To answer this question properly, he thinks, requires that we ask what current Americans are really looking for in their pursuit of sex. His answer is that they are really looking for an escape from American (or more broadly, 'Western') culture, which is increasingly characterized by bewildering technology and increased loss of community, leading to a sense of personal isolation. Sex, then, provides them with a way in which they can connect with others and escape their loneliness. Hence, though many practicing 'unconventional' sex would deny it, they are still looking for intimacy and indeed for love, regardless what sexual package it is found in.
Having said that, however, Alexander claims that many within and indeed at the forefront of the sexual revolution in America are increasingly bored with it. "That is why I think the sex explosion is just about over. People will still watch porn, and we will certainly still have sex, and some people will still want to be tied up as some people always have, but the hypersaturation of it all is about to fizzle" (302). Whether he is right in his prediction depends on a lot of things, including whether he is correct in his description of what Americans are truly seeking. Luckily, however, his claim can be empirically tested and time will ultimately tell.
© 2009 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Philosophy & Religious Studies, Cape Breton University