Putting sex back in the closet where it belongs

In today’s Marin IJ, there was a little squiblet asking people what they like about summer.  One 24 year old man was blunt — women in their summer clothes, he said, are what makes summer good.  By that he meant young women in almost no clothes.  He’s certainly right about the clothes.  Summer attire for girls here — nice, middle-class girls — consists of super-short shorts and tank tops.  That’s pretty much it.

Thinking about how even nice girls put all the merchandise on display, I couldn’t help but remembering JB Priestley’s book Lost Empires, which is now better remembered for the 1986 Masterpiece Theater adaptation starring a very young Colin Firth.  Colin Firth plays Richard Herncastle, a young man in pre-WWI Britain who finds himself traveling with musical hall performers.  Some are good, some are sleazy, all are rather interesting, and one is a beautiful older woman (in her late 20s or early 30s) who casts her eye on this innocent young man.

Both book and TV series are written as reminiscences by an elderly Richard Herncastle, writing in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and looking back upon his youth.  In the book, and maybe in the TV show (I simply can’t remember over a distance of so many years), Herncastle makes a point I’ve never forgotten:  His first glimpse of the older woman naked completely overwhelms him.  In those days, women’s flesh was suggested, not flaunted, and it was a magical moment to see that pearlescent skin for the very first time.  He went on to say that modern young men, reared on endless vistas of naked female flesh, have lost something special.

Although less romantic and graceful in tone, Woody Allen (the man who turned his son into his brother-in-law) made a similar point when he was still funny:  “The psychiatrist asked me if I thought sex was dirty and I said, ‘It is if you’re doing it right.'”  Up until recently, at least, part of the pleasure of sex was how intensely private Western culture made it.   Animals do it in fields.  Civilized humans start with public romance draped in mystery, and then go to an intense privacy that should, ideally, be shared only by the two people most intimately involved.

Old movies, constrained by the Hayes Code, pulsated with sexual excitement without ever going beyond chaste kisses.  Rather than seeing Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh doing a boring and embarrassing simulation of sex amongst skillfully draped blankets, with suitably hazy lighting, we got to see a nighttime shot of the manly Rhett carrying Scarlett upstairs, followed by a morning shot of a kittenish Scarlett smiling with satisfaction in her bed.  Adults got it; children, thankfully, didn’t.  Most people still remember the excitement of that scene although, by modern movie standards, nothing actually happened.

An equally romantic scene, yet one that shows nothing, occurs in the wonderful 1934 version of The Merry Widow, with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. The two meet at Maxim’s in Paris, and the virtuous widow leaves the amorous Danilov with the strong impression that she’s one of the light skirts who frequents Maxim’s. Some singing, a chaste kiss (by modern standards), and some flirtation that leads . . . nowhere. It’s ridiculously romantic — and, again, I think more romantic than watching some body doubles writhe obligingly under some sheets on behalf of the big named stars.

I know I’m old-fashioned, but I do think young people, especially young women, would benefit so much from a more chaste society. I’m not advocating imposed burqas (God forbid!). I am saying, though, that young people could discover that a culture of romance and respect is much more exciting than a culture of sex.

With that in mind, I’m not at all surprised that one of the hottest acts in the Western world right now is Britain’s One Direction. These young guys have figured out that if they sing songs about admiration, the girls will find them and buy their music: