After 31 novels, Philip Roth has announced his retirement.
With all due respect to the person who channeled Fifty Shades of Grey, Roth is America's greatest sex writer.
He covered sexuality in almost all its manifestations. The masturbation in Portnoy's Complaint made him a household name. A quarter-century later, Sabbath's Theater brought us an old man masturbating over his dead lover's grave.
The Breast parodied men's obsession by bringing us a man turned into a giant mammary. More seriously, Deception used a brilliant device to examine an equally common obsession. In it, a novelist's wife discovers the diary in which he describes his affair—no, he says, it's notes for his next novel, about a novelist who has an affair.
In book after book, Roth examined longing—not the romantic, wonderfully melancholy version of second-rate novels, but the longing that erodes self-respect, that creates resentment (at both self and other), that challenges self-image. Over and over, Roth examined a particularly cruel version of longing: older men needing younger women, even while they know that day by day, they have less and less to offer their would-be lovers.
Roth talked about sex as it really is for people—messy, irrational, loaded with contradictory feelings and needs. He described the kinds of arousal that "normal" people are not supposed to feel: over sniffing used panties, over hearing about one's lover's lovers. He knew "normal" sexual sadism inside and out. When Mickey Sabbath's lover of 13 years suddenly insists he become monogamous with her, he insists she start sleeping with her husband—an equally repulsive and ridiculous demand.
Perhaps most impressively, Roth wrote unblinkingly about the ways people use sex to distance death. "With the lover, everyday life recedes," he writes in Deception. As I often see with my patients, many of Roth's characters pursue sex not primarily for its pleasure, but to push away loneliness, to feel youthful or special, to remember who they are in the unrelenting face of a pitiless aging process.
Because Roth didn't write about every sexual perspective equally, he was sometimes branded a male chauvinist. That's like criticizing Shakespeare for not writing chamber music, or the Rolling Stones for not writing, well, chamber music. Let genius do what it will do.
Yesterday was World AIDS Day, and the National Football League proudly showed its support by weakly urging viewers to…"get more information." Apparently, our great nation is not prepared to hear the word "condom" even on World AIDS Day. Roth did not respect any such taboos, and for this we are the richer. His complete disrespect for propriety has been honored with the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award (twice), and Man Booker Prize.
He also received the first Sexual Intelligence Award in 2001.
It was an easy call.
General David Petraeus resigned as head of the CIA today. He said it was because he had engaged in an extramarital affair.
America's leaders quickly announced how regretful they were, and what a big loss the country had just suffered. President Obama said that "through his lifetime of service, David Petraeus has made our country safer and stronger."
Senator John McCain, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Petraeus one of "America's greatest military heroes." Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said "I wish President Obama had not accepted this resignation…I would have stood up for him, I wanted him to continue."
Currently, adultery is against military regulations if the conduct is shown to be detrimental to, or brings discredit upon, the armed forces. Such a subjective standard is easily used to punish or exonerate; typically, it's to punish. In fact, other federal agencies forbid adultery as well. The State Department recently added adultery to its list of banned activities. Yes, you could lose your job as a translator, teacher, or construction worker if you break your marital vows.
So given his obvious breach of military rules, why didn't America's leaders want Petraeus to resign? And if this is simply a familiar (if spectacular) case of a good man who made a mistake, why not change the rules for mere mortals?
Historically, the justification for the regulations was blackmail: "Give us America's nuclear secrets or we tell your wife about your girlfriend." But once someone outs himself, that possibility vanishes. And remember, that was the argument against allowing homosexuals in government or the military.
In fact, it's against military regulations to have a consensual open marriage. And in that case—since there's no marital secret—there's no more risk of blackmail than there is for any other secret: My father was a bookie. My grandmother is a whore. My brother can't read. My sister voted for George Bush. Whatever.
The idea that infidelity indicates a special character weakness is old-fashioned, unscientific, and moralistic in the extreme. Concepts like this are a poor way to run a country. But even if you believe that the maritally unfaithful can't be trusted to execute important civic responsibilities, what about consensual non-monogamy? There's no betrayal, so there is no character flaw. And with no chance for blackmail, how can we justify regulations against it?
Oh, you're a soldier or a spy and you're single? Do what you want, as long as it's consensual. But note that the State Department is more stringent. They can fire you for "engaging in public or promiscuous sexual relations." "Public," "promiscuous"—that's nice and vague.
So if you're going to join the Army or the CIA, don't marry. If you already are, get divorced. You wouldn't want to lose your job over a private, non-job mistake.
Some day, the idea that you could get bounced from the military because of infidelity will seem as destructive as the idea that you could get bounced from the military because of homosexuality.
Shame on America. The greatest military power on earth, and we're afraid of sex.
I'm finishing up a week in Hong Kong, training psychologists and sex education teachers.
In some ways, Hong Kong is similar to India—part Asian, part Western/British. They drive on the left here, almost everyone speaks English, and the street names recall Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Connaught, the Prince of Wales, and other colonial icons.
Of course, Hong Kong is now part of the People's Republic of China, which gives every historical reference, every financial transaction, and every conversation about media, culture, or the internet an added frisson. Hong Kongers are proud but practical, independent but not stupid. Both China and the locals want to keep the money spigot wide open, but conflict between the systems is inevitable, especially when Hong Kong is completely interdependent with capitalist troublemakers in Europe, America, and Japan.
When it comes to sexuality, Hong Kong is interesting, even unique in some ways. Just a few notes:
- Prostitution here is legal. But brothels are illegal, as is pimping. And so sex workers aren't supposed to advertise. The city features "love hotels" that rent by the hour.
- The age of consent here is 16. This has lots of implications, because developmentally, most people are quite different at 16 than they are at 18. China's age of consent is 18, and so some men who cross the border for business or tourism pursue these younger sex workers.
- One kind of sex work that has gotten lots of attention lately is "compensated dating." This involves teens (usually, but not always, girls) going on "dates" with men they pick up in certain neighborhoods, generally involving a meal, perhaps shopping, and often some kind of sex—discretely followed by a gift or more shopping. The kids often say they do it because they need the cash to keep up with their peers' high tech gadgets. And they loudly proclaim that it's not prostitution because the sex is supposedly optional, which they can turn down any time for any reason.
Veteran sexologist Dr. Angela Ng says this is a growing phenomenon, and that some of these kids inevitably get involved in other risky behaviors.
- As in China, there are virtually no displays of sexy affection in public. Parents and grandparents fuss endlessly with small children in strollers on every street in the city, but parents rarely touch teens in public, and never touch each other—in restaurants, streetcars, streetcorners, even cars. One therapist in my seminar asked rhetorically, "how can couples expect to be comfortable with physical intimacy when they have so little practice?"
- Girlie bars: very big here. I strolled down Lockhart Road one night, which is like San Francisco's Tenderloin District in its heyday—on steroids. I passed bar after bar after bar, each one with a bikini-clad 22-year-old and an old mama-san sitting out front. Occasionally one of them would grab my elbow and urge me to come through the red velvet curtain to sample the wondrous young women (and even more wondrously-priced drinks). As with many local businesses, each proprietor burned incense and fake paper money in front of their entrance to bring good luck.
- Massage parlors: very big here. A big part of the male-oriented business culture.
- Sex education: Program content and teacher training are decided on a school-by-school basis, which leads to a chaotic heterogeneity. I lectured an audience composed of teachers, government officials, family planning staff, and other professionals. I talked about the specifics of the most effective American programs, as well as the features of the worst programs. I also talked about parents' anxiety, and—most importantly—the needs of young people. Those in attendance were very appreciative of the nuts and bolts of my talk.
Dr. Susan Fan of the Hong Kong Family Planning Association asked if I thought homosexuality should be discussed in sex education class. "Actually, no," I said. "Sex ed programs should discuss sexual diversity, which includes sexual orientation, sexual identity, and confusing fantasies, along with homosexuality and same-gender experimentation." Putting homosexuality in this sort of context makes it more understandable for kids, as well as making programs less vulnerable to religious attacks.
- Premarital sex: Frowned upon, but not rare. On the other hand, young people here start sex later than kids in the West do, and they have fewer partners before marriage. As in many places around the world, teen girls and young women here wear short skirts and high heels—but, unlike in the West, this isn't considered a sexual statement or invitation.
In Hong Kong, it can be hard to tell the virgins from the hookers. What a perfect metaphor for this complex, fascinating place.
Even if you don't watch porn—even if you think porn should be illegal—you still get the benefits of the porn industry's fight to safeguard your freedoms as an American. And this goes way beyond your right to watch porn, to areas of privacy, capricious taxation, and elsewhere.
Here's the latest.
Say you produce adult porn films for a living (go with me on this). You, the government, and society all agree that only adults should act in such films. And in fact, the adult film industry has an amazing record of accidentally employing almost no underage actors/actresses girls in the last 30 years—a far better record than the number of oil spills, crashes, or explosions in any other industry.
So it's illegal for underage people to act in adult films. No problem. The government goes a step further, and requires age documentation of every participant in adult films. You must prove you're an adult. No problem.
One day you decide to make a film featuring only 50-year-olds. All participants must prove they're adults, and they do. But the government has this law (called "2257") about record-keeping, unique to the adult film industry. They can come into your office unannounced, with no warrant or even probable cause, asking for the IDs of the 50-year-olds in the film; if you don't have them handy right there, you can be prosecuted and sent to jail. You can go to jail not because you have underage actors in your film, but because you can't prove that three 50-year-olds are over 18.
This law isn't keeping underage talent out of films—because they haven't been in commercial films to begin with. It's simple harassment of a legal industry, which no other industry has to suffer. It's an unconstitutional invasion of privacy—government agents coming into your premises unannounced not because they have a reasonable cause, but because the law allows them.
So here's the big news—the porn industry has challenged this law, the government asked the case to be dismissed, and a federal judge refused.
In this case, the porn industry is protecting all Americans' rights—to be, as the Fourth Amendment says, "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."
Here are just three other ways (there are many others) the porn industry protects your rights, whether you watch porn or not:
- Fighting arbitrary zoning: Cities and counties around the country try to prevent adult bookstores from opening by inventing discriminatory zoning rules—which are also used to prevent swing clubs, education centers, and religious centers from opening.
- Fighting taxes based on content: Several states now tax strip clubs more than other forms of live entertainment. If they can do this, they can levy extra taxes on any form of communication they want to discourage (such as violent video games or religious newspapers).
- Fighting government agencies advancing a moral agenda: Even though there is no HIV problem in the adult film industry (you're safer sleeping with a porn actress/actor than a stranger you meet in a bar), Los Angeles County plans to require condoms and dental dams on all porn shoots. If they can do this, they can supervise any legal activity of which they disapprove, such as fashion shows, church bake sales, and campus protests.
So whether you watch porn or not, whether you think porn is evil or not—this holiday season, give thanks that, in addition to making films, porn producers are protecting your rights.