The Alarmingly Casual Nature of Casual Sex
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
February 24, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 19
Larger than Life, Less than Human
By Marlene Nadle
This is the age of pop sex. Of two dimensional relationships played out by comic strip people with comic strip emotions. Of sex that is larger than life and less than human.
In our cool world, feelings have been eliminated by choice and incapacity. Bodies have become things to be cultivated like the announcer's voice that persuades us we can sell our irridescent fingernails and squeaky clean hair to the boy next door. And sex has become just a huge, swinging, pop art image. Simplified. Often repeated. And isolated from everything else.
Cool and impersonal sex is increasing, and so are cool and impersonal people, according to psychoanalyst Nina Vas Dias.
These pop people are turning up more and more as dates, lovers, friends, and fiances.
"It's not just the hipster who is cool and impersonal," said a student at CCNY. "He is just more honest about not feeling than other people. He'll just say, 'I got needs, you got needs. Let's forget the bull and go to bed, Baby.'
"There really isn't that much difference between him and the more subtle All-American fraternity boy cruising the party for a chick he can make. For both of them, and for the boys on Madison Avenue, the chick is just a commodity -- a thing you get power over."
The people who practice sex in its purest form, without any pretense of emotion, are as varied as their reasons for doing it.
There are the kids from the Midwest who, according to one former University of Minnesota coed, indulge in Wesson-Oil-slicked orgies because they are afraid of being considered hicks and want to act the way people in the East do.
There are the empiricists who say, "I want to see if there is anything in this kind of sex before I put it down."
There are the neo-pagan sensualists who seek salvation in a good orgasm.
There are the logicians who reason, "I want experience. Experience depends on the number of times I screw. Therefore I have to keep screwing."
There are the nihilists who, after what they have seen, don't believe in the possibility of any real relationships and, therefore, don't expect much of sex except physical satisfaction.
There are perennial understudies playing one-nighters while waiting for their chance at love. One girl explained, "When there is nobody around who matters, sometimes you just have to reach out to somebody. Physical contact is better than no contact at all, although it can make things worse."
There are the love by association people. They begin with sex and hope feelings will follow. "The kids figure," said a boy at NYU, "that people who love go to bed and if they go to bed they'll have to love. When the theory doesn't work, most of the 17-year-old girls I know just pack up their diaphragms and try it with somebody else."
The method is pragmatic. "People have to have sex as a way to approach one another because they don't know how to get through any other way," another student said.
This plan seems to have some merits. It's probably better than trying to find the right person by letting a computer match you up, as a group did this week at Spark's Pub. It's certainly more fun than reading Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving," that book of first aid for the isolated.
However, the people who use the "sex first -- feelings later" approach are too optimistic.
As a senior at Columbia said, "Getting the sex is simple. But you only hope to God that when you get all done making love, you can talk to the girl."
A more common variety of pop sex is Let's-Pretend-We're-in-Love.
These relationships are easy to spot, an NYU sophomore said. "When you're sitting around the dorm and she starts repeating the Johnny-and-I-did-this and Johnny-and-I-did-that routine, you know there can't be much in the thing or she wouldn't have to talk about it so damn much."
"The kids really work at convincing themselves it's love. Some do it to justify sleeping together, but most try to use love as an antidote. After they spend the day being a number at the bank, bakery, and bookstore, they want to cling very tightly to another person. Too tightly. After a while it gets to be a possessive you-belong-to-me kind of thing and they break up. Or, if they're really scared, they marry."
The frightened people going through the motions of loving and the people who don't even know how to pretend still comprise a minor portion of the relationships in the younger generation, professionals seem to agree. But the trend is extremely significant, said analyst and author Rollo May, "and it is the one that is spreading."
Even in the place where you'd least expect it, in the civil rights movement where people talk about the need for love, there is little real involvement on the personal level, said one new arrival on the Lower East Side.
"Many of the people on the left don't seem to care how you are. I mean how you really are. If you say I'm sick today or I'm worried, they'll just brush it off and start talking about the movement or politics.
"When you reach out to touch their arm or something when you're talking, if you're the same sex, they'll pull back because they figure you're queer. If you're of the opposite sex they'll think you're hustling them."
This non-involvement on the deep, personal, human level seems to carry over into sexual relations. It is at once a pose and a real inability.
Sometimes there's a real breakthrough. One girl said, "It's so nice to be sleeping with someone I don't have to pretend to be casual about."
The casual pose is not just a matter of hang-ups in a few individual cases, according to Dr. Vas Dias. She continued:
"Many of the more sensitive, disillusioned, and bitter rebels are hobbled by their own opposition to anything phony, including phony sentimentality. They are not willing to risk having their actions interpreted that way.
"Many of them are also so afraid of being hurt that they hold back their feelings and any demonstration of them."
But many on the left, unlike the hipsters on the fringe, are at least struggling toward other possibilities, toward more human alternatives. The struggle isn't easy.
"There are layers and layers of fear to dig through -- and stalls like that," said a girl in SNCC.
Depersonalized sex is not the only thing that concerns psychologists, like Elsa Robinson, Assistant Dean at NYU's Washington Square College.
"I'm worried about the whole breakdown of intimacy," she said. "How can we expect people to be lovers when they don't know how to be friends?
"Kids, now, have few bull sessions. Few passionate reunions. Few arms flung around one another in public. Or emotions that flow so freely they're unaware of place.
"When they have problems they come to me. I ask them if they talked to their roommates. To their friends. And they look at me like I'm some kind of nut for expecting them to talk to anyone about something so personal."
Despite the fact that people seem less able to handle intimate relationships, they are pressured into involvements. Preached permissiveness in the authoritative tones of Hugh Heffner [sic] and Helen Gurley Brown, people are expected to perform -- at least sexually.
For the generation after the sexual revolution, causal sex doesn't seem to be much of a question. But it doesn't seem to be much of an answer, either.
Recently in New York, more than 50 students stood through a jammed discussion of the sexual revolution sponsored by the League for Sexual Freedom. It turned into large scale group therapy as they fumbled for some understanding of themselves and the new codes.
Invited to share their opinions about sex, one boy said, "Most women are hung up, orgasmically speaking."
"How many women have you had?" someone asked.
"About 50. Maybe five per cent had a healthy attitude toward sex."
"Where did you find so many healthy ones?" a girl asked.
Another boy, looking for some meaning or guideline to use in dealing with casual sex, asked a Negro if he would go to bed with a bigot.
"Yeah, if the bigot turned me on," said the Negro.
With that answer, the meeting split into two screaming groups. There were the hedonists yelling that you had to take your pleasure where you find it. The humanists argued that what person was mattered, that you couldn't act as if people were things and just use them.
The protest against pop sex and pop relationships is also being made by other students in other ways.
On some campuses it has taken a pretty extreme form. Some of the farthest-out groups, said Rollo May, have become ascetics as their way of rebelling against sex that has no meaning.
On other campuses the protest against dehumanization has taken related forms.
At Berkeley the fight is against the impersonal university. In the civil rights movement, on campus and off, the fight is against America's indifference to black humanity. Or there is the purely personal kind of protest against the cool world that makes it possible and even necessary.
That kind of protest was made by a University of Connecticut coed about herself and a Yalie that ended:
"And so I yield myself completely to him.
"Society says I should
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.