This Comment marks the debut of “Carnal Knowledge,” a regular feature devoted to the subject of sex. Why sex? Like sports and art, sex elaborates, in its expressions and rituals, what it means to be human. Market culture understands this, which is why we have advertising and Paris Hilton. The right understands it, which is why we have porno crackdowns and anti-gay marriage initiatives. Even religious fundamentalists, with their advice columns on “How to Strip for Your Husband,” recognize that there’s more to life than sin, fear and elections; a little mind-blowing sex takes the edge off and is as good an argument for the existence of God as anything. Most acutely, gay liberationists and pro-sex feminists have long understood that sex, religion, economics, power and freedom aren’t discrete little categories; they’re of a piece. Accordingly, “Carnal Knowledge” will explore sex as desire, as work, as play, as the screen against which America projects its fantasies and fears. JoAnn Wypijewski, who has written widely for this and other publications about class, sex and politics on topics such as Madonna, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the Catholic priest scandal and torture at Abu Ghraib, will be our guide. The path she sets here will hardly be straight or narrow, but full of zigs and zags and surprises–like politics, like life. –The Editors
In politics as in pop, legions of little girls jumping out of their panties can’t be wrong. That’s the vital lesson so far of Election ’08. I watched a throng of them in November 2006, teenagers in their short skirts and breathlessness, jumping and jittering, hands to cheeks, screaming for Barack Obama. White and black, they crowded to the front of a rally for Jim Webb in the onetime capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. Jim who? One of the white girls awkwardly told me that she didn’t really know anything about the beet-faced warrior for the white working class running for the Senate, and she wasn’t really there to find out. Obama hadn’t come there to say much about the candidate or Virginia or even that year’s election, either. He glided across the stage like a crooner, one slender hand gracing the microphone, the other extending long fingers to trace the imagined horizon of his hopes and dreams. He must have talked for thirty minutes. It didn’t matter what he said; he smiled a thousand watts, put a little Southern sugar in his voice and mentioned his mama. Webb steamed in the wings as the girls keened, and from somewhere in the crowd grown-ups started calling out, “Obama for President.” He wasn’t yet a candidate. He was Frank Sinatra, so cool he’s hot, a centrifugal force commanding attention so ruthlessly that it appeared effortless, reducing everyone around him to a sidekick, and the girls in the front rows to jelly.
Those girls represented what they always have in America, a cultural longing. By ’07 even the boys were Obama Girls, and their parents were borne along on the energy, feeling young and hip and a little damp in the drawers themselves. “America is back!” Obama told crowds he would announce to the world if they elected him. Hillary and the others didn’t have a chance. They had welded themselves to prosaic needs and familiar lies. Obama recognized a different need, requiring a different lie, a pretty lie, not just “change” but “change you can believe in.” Tell me again. Yes, darling, you really are beautiful… Like someone ground down by years in a bad relationship, America needed a seduction and, then, like the starlet on the crooner’s arm, the reflected shine.
In an earlier era when America was losing a war and “All Systems Fail!” summed up a summer of multiple disasters, journalist Andrew Kopkind could look upon the smoldering cities, the black radicals, white dropouts, free-lovers and acid-trippers, and declare, “In lots of ways, America is swinging.” It isn’t swinging now. It’s desperate and needy, outwardly brash but inwardly a mess and not sexy at all, like Tila Tequila, self-styled bisexual maverick, rejected on her own reality TV show by the contestant she chose for “a shot at love.” In that long, hot summer of 1967 no one confused the whole culture with the white, tight, flailing power structure around LBJ; but today, with no major pole of countercultural revolt, it feels as if America itself is in the Uncool column with the tawdry crimes and embarrassing flubs of President Bush–“Airball!”