Last Night in Paradise
YEARS AGO, A friend visiting from Texas toured an exhibit of conceptual art at the Walker. She looked at the bent wire, the empty frames, mistook a fuse box on the wall for part of the exhibition, studied earnestly the bad work someone else had been paid a lot of money to produce, and pronounced in regard to the merits of the work, "Pay me, motherfucker."
The episode came back to me while I was reading Last Night in Paradise, Katie Roiphe's latest polemic--though that word suggests a greater rhetorical force and coherence than this book musters. Roiphe made a name for herself in 1993 with The Morning After, a book that argued, among other things, that date rape was a feminist myth and that feminism was trying to make sex scary. Now, having earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton University, Roiphe has returned to opine that sex is just, uh, scary. And should be, she seems to say--though it's tough to ferret out a thesis from this textual morass of personal anecdote and unsubstantiated assertion.
Roiphe's argument seems to be that Americans are witnessing a backlash against the sexual revolution, prompted in part by the spread of HIV and herpes, but even more profoundly rooted in what Roiphe claims is an innate desire for limits on sex (preferably the kind Jane Austen presents, to judge from the frequency with which Roiphe invokes the novelist's version of courtship).
If desire is to have meaning, Roiphe contends, it must have limits. Thus, she envies Anna Karenina, whose adulterous affair is ennobled, in Roiphe's reckoning, by the fact that social disapprobation compels Anna to dive under a train. That Tolstoy's novel might be a critique of society's sexual double-standard--it opens, after all, with an insouciantly adulterous husband--is lost on the author, who reads it as evidence of a time when love was still romantic.
Not only does Roiphe fail to acknowledge that the limits she calls for on sex pertain principally to women, but her analysis almost entirely ignores the larger social and historical context in which this sex-phobia occurs. According to her, a general sense of contemporary anxiety, and the promotion of safe sex in particular, are a reaction to the libertinism of the '60s and '70s: "It's as if all the wildness and confusion [of the sexual revolution] led to a sweeping desire for physical safety, for seat belts and air bags, for anti-smoking ordinances, whole-grain breads, low-fat milk, running magazines, health clubs, and anything else that might protect us from the intangible violence being done to the American family."
In her preoccupation with the sexual revolution, Roiphe fails to grasp the significance of other revolutionary movements from the '60s and '70s, such as feminism, the Civil Rights movement, gay rights, increased mobility, stagflation, etc. (To be fair, a single paragraph, mid-book, describes the more general instability of the era, which is summed up as drugs, Charles Manson, and Vietnam--I'm not making this up.) Nor does she speculate whether there might be more than sex behind the current appeals for a return to so-called traditional values, such as (female) virginity before marriage and monogamous heterosexual marriage.
Most egregious is Roiphe's claim that the response to AIDS was simply a backlash against sexual promiscuity, which het-washes the epidemic in an ugly way. She dedicates a chapter each to basketball star Magic Johnson and Alison Gertz, and makes only the briefest allusion to the disease's links to homosexuality--and none whatsoever to IV drug use. By pretending that HIV has been an equal-opportunity virus, Roiphe concludes that safe-sex campaigns are a sex-phobic response to the sexual revolution, rather than the result of gay activists' efforts to maintain a sex-positive ethos in the face of devastation.
One might appreciate the chutzpah of such reductive and bold claims if Roiphe made even a passingly good effort to substantiate her assertions, but she doesn't. Her analysis weaves drunkenly (to borrow one of the author's stylistic tics) from personal anecdote to gross generalization ("One night stands were the real epidemic") to the briefest and vaguest citations of evidence (she actually strings together a series of unidentified quotes, supposedly drawn from newspapers and said to be representative of American attitudes; elsewhere she describes "a sea change in the country's values," based on two stories published in Newsweek and Time in 1987).
There is a good book to be written about the anti-sexual revolution underway in the U.S., with its corseting of desire, commodification of "transgressive" sexualities, and fear of the body. Roiphe's is not it. Maybe I should propose one--I, too, am white, female, Ivy League-educated, reasonably photogenic. Why can't I speak for the nation? Message to Little, Brown: "Pay me, motherfucker."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.