Identity

How Sex Became a Four-Letter Word

In the 70s, Americans celebrated promiscuity. Today, it terrifies us—and we may never unlearn that fear.

by Bruce Benderson
Dec 22 2016, 9:47am

Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

As I get older, I come closer to an unpleasant but undeniable realization: there's no such thing as progress when it comes to sex.

This wasn't how I saw things as I entered adulthood in the 1970s, a decade marked by the erosion of American religious superstitions and, consequently, dramatically freer sexual attitudes. As the decade wore on, the difference between my generation's approach to sex and that of our parents began to seem more stark. History, I truly believed, was proof that things only get better in the long run. Especially for us gay men, for whom the 70s were a golden age, the last era in which we could have sex without fear.

It took more than a decade for cracks to appear in my hypothesis. At first, even politics couldn't do it. You'd think that the dawn of the Reagan 80s, which heralded a never-before-seen strain of conservatism, would have reined in the gay lifestyle, but for the most part, it didn't. With promiscuity and sexual freedom at the heart of gay culture's many daring cultural innovations, we went on to elevate erotic photography to high art with Mapplethorpe, shepherd the birth of House music at the Paradise Garage, and test publishing's limits with Dennis Cooper's transgressive eroticism.

In my opinion, we also invented the contemporary nightclub, because Studio 54 couldn't have attracted a single celebrity, I believe, without its gay patrons and their fearless promiscuity. Shut down by taxmen in February 1980, 54 defiantly opened under new ownership a year and a half later, and continued to draw New York's biggest stars.

I was also a customer of that club. I would gaze vaingloriously at the social ascendency and acceptance gay men had found since the 60s. With several thousand sexual notches on my belt and the new Mapplethorpe calendar on my desk, I saw no reason to think we wouldn't continue climbing to even greater heights of pleasure; it felt like society was on a fast track to complete sexual liberation. Gays, it seemed to me then, had and always would lead the way—and all this despite the obscure articles I'd seen in newspapers discussing something called "gay cancer."

In almost every community, straight people with a brother, son, or friend touched by the disease came to their bedside and learned the details of their loved one's life. Certainly some were rejected as a result, but many also found compassion and understanding from those closest to them.

It was 1982 when the disease was renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and a chill began to settle over our self-congratulatory scene. As the decade wore on, the promiscuity we had championed would be culled. Police raids shut down our bathhouses. Models turned up for shoots with their own makeup kits. After all, nobody knew how the disease was spread.

But as it ravaged our communities and finally put a damper on the sexual revelry in which we'd indulged, it also propelled an extraordinary cultural change. Families and close friends of those stricken were becoming more familiar with gay lifestyles than ever before; personal accounts of AIDS and its causes gave regular people a vivid glimpse of what it meant to be homosexual. It's indisputable that anti-gay bigotry still prevailed throughout the decade, but though it is rarely mentioned, AIDS played a large role in bringing gay people out of the closet and into the mainstream.

In almost every community, straight people with a brother, son, or friend touched by the disease came to their bedside and learned the details of their loved one's life. Certainly some were rejected as a result, but many also found compassion and understanding from those closest to them. Gradually, society opened its doors to queers.

One might have expected that AIDS would send us homosexuals crawling back into the shadows or hiding our lives from friends and family, but I believe the crisis forced so many to come out that the gay rights movement that followed would have been otherwise impossible. Of course, the rights we gained in the military and marriage and being allowed into public life might not be much of a consolation prize, considering the double-edged sword the plague represented.

And in the years since we won our social prizes, homosexuality and sexuality have become almost unrelated subjects. Gay activism's most vaunted prize—marriage—is indirect proof of that divide.

Certainly, the rise of gay marriage hints at a shift in priorities for gay activists, toward a vision of homosexuality complicit with heteronormative sexual values. No longer will we celebrate the promiscuity and sexual freedom that served as a bedrock of the gay culture that got us here—we've said we now want less sex, not more. Cruising, at least as it existed in long-past eras, is dead; even in our seeming post-HIV age, in which PrEP and undetectable viral loads are the standard-bearers of modern gay health activism, our society and gay culture may never again experience anything like the unbridled sexual freedom we saw in the 70s.

It's an attitude that reaches to the furthest corners of our society, well beyond homosexuality. Sex, in general, has become scarier to us than ever before. We are terrified by it, given it informs our discourse against molestation by priests and the libidos of our presidents. It is more and more referred to as a force that can steal freedom and oppress others. And for me—and many others, I believe—this new sexual repression has debunked the notion that human society always becomes more accepting of pleasure as time goes on.

Weaving through politics and moral values, sex has suddenly become attached to darker things. That trend is still increasing. Whether it will ever be reversed, and whether we will again come to celebrate and embrace sex as our society once did, is up to generations to follow.

This article is part of the VICE series The New Queer. Read the rest of the package here.