Deviance in the Time of Abstinence

“…I wouldn’t mind having a conversation that does not include the words dildo, fisting, squirting, orgasm, vibrator, latex, fucking, shibari, or three-way,” writes Brian Alexander at the end of his latest book, America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction. From the aspiring “next teen anal queen” to the mewling man gone fetal on a domme’s lap, a cast of colorful characters, conflicts and contradictions are revealed in the award-winning journalist’s hilariously randy romp through mainstream America — a journey that seriously questions our grasp on what is deviant versus what is normal.

A former altar boy from Ohio, the admittedly “vanilla” Alexander writes with self-deprecating wit and a willingness to engage in America’s sometimes uncomfortable sexual conversation. His earnest questions, both personal and cultural, are what make his gonzo travelogue both so entertaining and so essential to current debates surrounding sexual health services, education and civil rights.

Originally a popular six-part online series of the same name, America Unzipped refers to the millions of average Americans unzipping themselves from religious, societal and familial restraints by carving out formerly forbidden sexual paths. Recruited a few years ago as MSNBC’s Sexploration columnist despite no formal expertise, Alexander was caught off guard by kinky questions from otherwise “normal” readers (such as, “I hear Paris Hilton is into fisting, how do you do it?”). Sensing a “mainstreaming of perversion,” Alexander set off on a quest to answer the burning question: “Who are these people?” What are they seeking and why? Are they happy? And regarding today’s enflamed culture war rhetoric: are they really such a threat?

The author’s traverse across America’s sexual landscape also meant to make sense of the public dissonance in our nation’s cohabitating hypersexual culture and moral crusade: “the way we seem ever more lusty even while we are supposed to be ever more puritanical.” You know, how Jenna Jameson and Pat Robertson both can be household names while each spawning humongous moneymaking industries.

The meat of his book, however, centers on the private dissonance of the folks he meets while immersed as employee or trusted guest in America’s various, mostly well-lit nether regions. Catholic, conservative Republican, military, Midwest churchgoer, married with kids, sheriff, school board member, nurse or small town firefighter – the uniting truth of the countless feasting on life’s vast and varied sexual menu is that public perception and private reality rarely meet.

I totally got off on Alexander’s first five pit stops, which include touring a sex retailer empire founded by an Ivy Leaguer who talks about love, intimacy and permission-giving and funds global family planning charities; participating in a marriage seminar by a once-fallen preacher named Joe Beam on hot Christian sex; working as a “romance consultant” turned “lubrication specialist” at an adult supercenter (his first sale was a Clone-a-Willy kit), and then as the only male Passion Party consultant selling sexual aids to raucous women of the Heartland (including daughter, mom and grandma); and exploring the no-holds-barred virtual world of reality porn, online sex chats and cams, and off-ramp hookups to make your fantasies real. Fantasy – escaping into the sexual realm apart from daily drudgery – is apparently serious business.

The question of taboo drives Alexander’s final three sex tours, in which the author gets up close at a BDSM porn site with the Antioch-educated feminist queer performance artist who likes ropes and electro torture and hangs with sexuality hipsters eager to shock. He attends a fetish convention where he meets a divorced female Southern Baptist spankee who believes in the biblical order of man as head of the household, and later at a bondage seminar meets Sir Arthur, a huge Bill O’Reilly fan, who really hates it “when all the gays are out marching.” Finally the author anti anxiety tugs on black PVC pants to attend a sex club party at the Wet Spot, sees a university dean of libraries named Paradox light naked women on fire, and fights his urge to free a naked sub looking up at him from her cage “like a puppy in the pound.”

Adding a modern dimension to the adage “different strokes for different folks,” America Unzipped underscores what renowned researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey proved 60 years ago in what is still the largest and most diverse body of sexual case studies: there is no such thing as “normal” when it comes to sexual expression. There is no scientific or moral basis for the significant public policy that dictates a mythical sexual norm so universally violated. There certainly is no way to peg political or religious affiliation, occupation, patriotism, social standing, or family and community commitment to what people do behind closed doors.

In demonstrating the often radical disconnect between Americans’ public and private positions on sex, America Unzipped obliterates the binary storylines that drive public debate in our media-conglomerated tabloid age: conservative vs. liberal, traditionalists vs. modernists, Heartland vs. Hollywood, Puritans vs. perverts, straight vs. queer, Godly vs. sinful. The character-driven book upends the worn stereotypes about female sexuality, gender, looks and aging, and dismantles myths entitling marriage, monogamy and family values.

Alexander succeeds in his quest to learn who the sexual explorers reading his column are: they’re “not an extraordinary group of especially perverted people. Their questions are American questions, their curiosity part of the country’s conversation.” He answers the happiness question with more ambivalence but strong support for those “seeking one’s own sexual place” in our impoverished culture.

He also offers that the moral crusaders have lost out to the sexual explorers. But Alexander diminishes the poisonous fallout of the culture war. Sexual deviance may now live on Main Street, USA, but theocons occupy the highest reaches of global power, thanks mostly to rallying against sexual deviance. Advocates of sexual health and justice continue to be attacked and marginalized as the abstinence-only-unless-married industry taps millions more in federal funding.

Alexander concludes that sexual moralizers and experimenters need each other and even feed off of the same outcast state of perceived oppression. Maybe. But many of the “perverts” he paints often cling to the same worldview as the moralizers. As long as they can still get their kink on (pleasure maybe heightened by taboo), most don’t care about the mounting causalities in the theocons’ well-funded, politically potent, sex-obsessed culture war. These are casualties Alexander is well aware of, having penned an award-winning feature for Glamour magazine that outlines the frightening reproductive health and rights damage wielded by purity politics. The power of culture warriors to harm women, youth, ethnic and sexual minorities, the poor and disenfranchised through fear-mongering and misinformation knows no bounds.

Perhaps burned out at the end of his cross-country sex adventure, Alexander says without quite knowing why, “I think we live in a very sick culture.” I’d argue that sexually, we’re a childish culture, one that can’t move beyond our consumer-based reality or marital ideal, beyond smut or sanctimony.

True moral bankruptcy as a nation lies in our legislating against other sexual and gender minorities while winking at the more disturbing goings on in our neighbors’ marital homes. It’s time we stand up for sexual health education, services and civil rights so everyone can pleasure with dignity — or without, as we choose.

Culture war general Pat Robertson has said that our society “has gone too far toward sexual freedom.” Well, freedom requires grownups — even if they sometimes escape to the Wet Spot’s play space or aftercare.

Author’s note: This piece was originally published on RH Reality Check in 2008.