A lot happens in a year, events ripe for exploration but athwart the deadline of a column scheduled to appear only six out of fifty-two weeks. Such was the case in 2009, and I had planned on reviewing The Year in Sex, plumbing the meaning of some of the bigger stories that slipped past, when fresh events intervened: Vanity Fair plastered its February cover with a portrait of Tiger Woods that blends classic beefcake with the essence of a police artist’s perp drawing; and death came calling.
I’ll get to death in a moment, but first the really morbid subject. That picture of Tiger, grim-faced and naked except for a ski cap, sums up the major sexual theme not just of the past year but of our time, the sexual being as offender. Tiger coerced no child, copped no plea, jumped no bail, whacked no white woman. It doesn’t matter. He had merely to bust up the prison of his own image, and the black Escalade became the white Bronco, Tiger became “the new O.J.,” with the difference that this time some people cheered domestic violence, wishing out loud that the club-wielding Elin had given her bloodied husband more of a beating.
When mere horn dogs can so easily acquire the tincture of criminality and whet the taste for punishment, it’s clear that ordinary rules of judgment have been suspended. And so, plucking just a few headlines from the recent past, it cannot matter that Michael Jackson was acquitted of child molestation, since he was frequently remembered in death as a pedophile. It cannot matter what happened all those years ago between Roman Polanski and Samantha Geimer in a mansion on Mulholland Drive, just as it cannot matter whether others who plead guilty to a sex charge really did it, or whether evidence to convict was nonsense, or whether the guilty serve their time. They can never “pay their debt to society.” Guilt is the presumption, forever. One who pleads on the promise of a deal can no more realistically retract that plea than the ex-cons and wrongly accused can shed the label “sex offender.” Martha Coakley says she still believes the Amiraults–whom she helped put away on preposterous charges of daycare horror and who were later vindicated–are guilty. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court suggests it may not let other convictions stand on repressed memory alone but it has no problem doing so in the case of defrocked priest Paul Shanley (another prosecution initiated by Coakley), ignoring the reams of scientific research offered by the defense. And dozens of people who have done their time are still living under a bridge in Miami, quaking in the unwonted cold, because the city’s residency requirements for sex offenders afford no other place for them. Perhaps the Supreme Court will feel the tug of constitutional duty and rule this year in US v. Comstock that the federal government may not authorize indefinite civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” persons beyond their prison term, as provided in the odious Adam Walsh Child Protection Act. But the definition of sexual danger has become endlessly elastic. Like the terrorist, the sex offender is a new category of human being. Fear will probably stick around a while.
Into this gloom, death comes as a rescuing angel, bearing memories of an erotic world that now seems a different dimension entirely. Teddy Pendergrass, a symbol of ’70s soul who helped to shape that world, died January 13. He was only 59, not all that much older than kids like me in the 1970s, picking our way toward consciousness with little more than the culture as our guide. The newspaper obituaries all remembered him as a sexual icon, and for the women who attended his Ladies Only concerts, licking chocolate Teddy Bear lollipops and throwing panties onto the stage, he may have been mainly that. To me, he was a groove master and soul stirrer, a sexual educator when that was something I wouldn’t have even recognized. “Wake up everybody,” he sang with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, a song as much about living in your skin as in political time. Music was Teddy’s text, and with it he taught us how to come into our nature, to feel not only the fire but also the texture of sensual things–the need in his voice, the lushness of Philadelphia sound, the mix of power and vulnerability that defined the sexual being as lover.