Amanda Marcotte makes a very interesting observation about the continued popularity of the movie Dirty Dancing:
I have to say that actually its popularity probably has little to do with its “innocence” and more to do with its lack of it. What immediately comes across is that this is an extremely sexy movie. But it’s sexy in a way that you almost never see in movies—from a sex-positive, feminist-minded, heterosexual point of view…. Attention is lavished on Patrick Swayze’s body, of course, but it’s more than that. Most sex in most movies, at least dramas, is shown as deadly serious, but the sex in this movie is mostly playful and filled with laughter. The overly serious portrayal of sex in movies tends to feel sex negative to me, because it discounts how much of sex is just about joy, pleasure, and fun. There’s also a strong focus on the female longing for actual sex…..Most portrayals of straight female sexuality root it in the longing for male approval and romance, but this movie portrayals sexual desire as its own thing that women possess—the animal need to touch and to have. Jennifer Grey’s name in the movie is “Baby”, but it takes on ironic tone, since she takes to fucking like a duck to water….Most romantic movies are about a woman submitting to a man in some fashion, but this movie shows erotic love as empowering…
On top of it all, the movie stands against a gazillion social messages that shame women for their sexuality, and it does it with confidence. Until the cheeseball ending, there’s no sense really that the main couple are going to last past the end credits, and that’s okay. Having a fling and an adventure without it meaning that you’re a dirty slut who will be heartbroken for life is normalized.
While I think the U.S., as a whole, has made significant progress on race and gay rights since the 80s (in the 80s, it was openly acceptable to use gay as a slur–everywhere), we have backslid in absolute terms when it comes to human sexuality. Some of that can be chalked up to the AIDS epidemic, but there’s a lot more at work that just that.
In the 80s, there was a great deal of hyperventilating by conservatives about teenage sex (even as teenage pregnancy rates were decreasing). Some of this was tied into legitimate concerns–when teenagers should start engaging in sexual activities is, well, controversial. And some of the concern was racist and tied into fears of a rapidly breeding underclass, composed of those people, best epitomized by The Bell Curve.
But the important point to note is that this conflict was about teenage sex. There was a general understanding that consenting adults, you know, did things. And as long as nobody was fornicating in the public square, people understood that’s what adults do (TEH GAY SEX was not included in this, of course). After all, we are a nation of sluts and have been so for many decades.
But as the theopolitical right gained prominence, fears of teenage sex were replaced by concerns about premarital sex. The changeover has been subtle, in that many readers implicitly assume this is referring to teenage sex. But it’s not, at least when the theopolitical conservatives use the phrase. They don’t want unmarried people of any age to have sex, especially enjoyable sex (they should feel slutty and ashamed).
This, of course, is rank hypocrisy. Many notable conservatives with a strong theopolitical bent have either never married (e.g., Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham) or married well into adulthood (e.g., Ross Douthat was 28 when he married). Does anyone think they’re virgins? (I hope not–even I’m not that cruel).
It also seems to be part of an authoritarian trend, and religious conservatives have an authoritarian streak a mile wide, that infantilizes adults. Don’t worry Big Daddy Government will protect you. Be Good Boys and Girls. In this worldview, as Amanda notes, sex is about submission to an established order, not something positive and liberating.
While language is no substitute for action, it is important to ask conservatives when they are talking about premarital sex, if they are referring to consenting adults, or just kids. Because the Coalition of the Sane would be much better off politically–not to mention sexually–if we did.