Sexplosion! Today’s taboo-breaking sexual renaissance examined, from Miley Cyrus to Lena Dunham

Miley Cyrus photographed by Chris Nicholls
Miley Cyrus photographed by Chris Nicholls

Briefly, in the early 1990s, I was a smut peddler. I edited an anthology called The Girl Wants To, which included art and writing about sex and the body, from Roberta Gregory’s “Bitchy Strips” to Barbara Gowdy’s strange, beautiful account of a young necrophiliac, “We So Seldom Look on Love.” The anthology was part of a growing wave of heated discourse by third-wave feminists—women making sense of sex in the ’90s. These were women who felt the need to write about want, desire, pleasure and other taboo information. Taboo because we were talking about our bodies and sexuality in ways we never had, at least publicly and en masse. Think forward, and think of what even the sweetest pop star imaginable, Katy Perry, is saying in virtually all of her songs: that she is a bi-curious, sexy dream-girl/gurl who refuses to “bite [her] tongue” any longer. Having been pushed down to the ground, she is up and roaring in the old-school manner of  “I Am Woman.” She is Helen Reddy 2.0, in other words: no bowl-cut and cardigan, no dulcet tones, but the same fervent desire to tell us that we, as women, need not suffer oppression lightly; that we are a pride of powerful lions.

Lately, there has been a sea change, with a powerful sense of another killer wave coming—a “sexplosion.” Writer and former Variety editor Robert Hofler used the term in his fascinating book of the same name. But while his exhaustive, illuminating book focuses on the period from 1968-1973, the wild time that followed the sexual revolution, Hofler’s theories suggest that the future of sex will become less “man-made.” And it already has, of course. Female performers are busily upsetting ideas about sex and power, about the naked body and their perceived passivity.

In her graphic song “Pour It Up,” Rihanna sings, “That’s how we ball out,” in a voice that is virtually empty of inflection. And in the controversial video for the song—“The really sad thing is that she thinks she’s being edgy and sexy when in fact she is slowly destroying her soul,” commented one disquieted fan—she sings this chorus as she presides over a strip club, sitting on a throne in a diamond bra, collar and Lana Turner wig, talking like a man, acting like a woman and unsettling our idea of what it means to be either.

Not so long ago, Rihanna was best known for being beaten by her boyfriend. Her video, both high art and glorious excess, hits back hard. She looks meaner now, if far more elegant, and at the same time alluringly playful—something like Madonna in her cabaret-Gaultier days, the holy mother of the third wave. Madonna also played with gender, decorating her suits with slashes, smoking cigars, having both girlfriends and boyfriends and being a magnificent brat. But when feminism lost its cachet, so did she. And so did everyone cool. But the MIA are back—sort of, in new guises and with new demands.

As Britney Spears barks in her oddly puritanical, envelope-pushing song “Work Bitch,” the onus is on us. If we’re going to get what we want and need, if we are filled with longing and desire, we’d “better work, bitch.”

In an interview, Hofler tells me that while it’s taboo in its extreme forms (graphic sex in films, sex with minors), sex still exists, and feminism is changing it. “What Lena Dunham has done with Girls is fairly new,” he says. “Dunham is quite ordinary looking, and while the movies have always featured schlubby guys, from Woody Allen to Adam Sandler, getting beautiful women and having lots of sex, the reverse has not been true. With Girls, Dunham is getting laid all the time.” And it’s about time.

In the 1990s, the third wave went mainstream. Sex and the City, which appeared in 1998, showed us, with particular audacity, how the movement had infiltrated pop. The four Manhattan single lady leads spoke openly about sex, their bodies and their desire to explore both regions with impunity. Still, they were Cinderellas at heart, altar-bound girls obsessed with “the one,” with rakish back stories. Today, their salty talk of bodily fluids seems almost quaint.

The revolution in cable TV has also mainstreamed raunch: We are not so easily astonished by women speaking graphically about sex. The Girls girls are boy-crazy young New Yorkers with huge aspirations and painful obstacles. But they allow themselves to look hideous; they are narcissists who discuss this quality. In Girls, we see a high-end fusion of sex and pop, a huge contribution to the discourse spreading throughout the arts and philosophy (a philosophy that includes Virginie Despentes’s raw, rock-starrish book, King Kong Theory).

The film S#X Acts came out in 2012 to great reviews, though some of them expressed that its unflinching view of female teens’ sexuality—“Every good girl has gotta be bad sometimes,” the soundtrack insists—was, as one put it, “more disturbing than most horror movies.” On the blog Slutever, Aurel Schmidt dressed like a bookworm-punk-tramp hybrid and talked about her fascination with the taboos around sex organs. Fifty Shades of Grey spawned innumerable copycat novels, read casually by all ages and manner of people, and a film-in-progress about highly romantic, pig-dirty sex. Masters of Sex has taken over Showtime to great acclaim, joining the ranks of high-calibre, racy TV shows like Scandal and True Blood.

Rihanna, Britney and Miley Cyrus (who recently told the BBC that she is “one of the biggest feminists in the world”) have all released powerful, porny videos that angered enough people to welcome the phrase “slut-shaming” into the vernacular. Talking and performing about sexuality were not invented at the end of the last century. Every 10 to 20 years, it seems, women start breaking taboos with two-by-fours, followed by a long, latent period in which we bask in or repudiate the same sexy events. And the shamed sluts—from Lindsay Lohan in her Yu Tsai shots for Muse to the tongue-out-of-cheek Cyrus treating the bland Robin Thicke like the droogs treated their victims to, more critically, the mass of teen girls driven to torment and even suicide for alleged promiscuity—are reason enough to keep the conversation alive.

The conversation is about the ideal, in which sexual women are permitted to revel in who they are without fear of reprisal and we get to speak for ourselves, about ourselves, or else. When Miley Cyrus came at us on a wrecking ball, she was saying something similar. No one is criticized more than Cyrus, but she is, as the artist Sophy Pollak pointed out to me, “like our kid—we watched her grow up, and we are now like her scandalized parents.”

In the spirit of the third wave, and of female miscreants everywhere, this nascent movement’s detractors may be seen as the concerned bus driver in the 1996 movie The Craft, who warns the four budding witches to “Watch out for those weirdos” as they sullenly disembark. “Mister,” says the sexy punk sorceress, “we are the weirdos.”

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