Curtis Smith takes us on a personal romp through the decades of the sexual revolution.
Fourth grade. I spread the newspaper over our cable-knit rug. The Philadelphia Bulletin, our afternoon daily, a dinosaur unaware of its looming extinction. The comics waited in the back, Peanuts, Beetle Bailey. I flipped a few pages to the entertainment section, my fingers gray with smudged ink. An ad for the Trocadero’s burlesque, women in spangles and feathers. An ad for I am Curious Yellow, a blond woman, mod bangs. In her eyes, a language I was just beginning to comprehend.
That same year, perhaps the next. A chilly afternoon, the sun low. I stood with two boys on a Belmont Avenue corner. Their faces are lost; all that remains is the space made secret by our huddled bodies. One boy unfolded a page torn from a magazine. Playboy—I knew the name, the illicit reputation, its high and sheltered spot atop the drugstore magazine rack. This was my first peek beneath the cover. The edges were ragged, the fold lines etched like scarred leather. The glossy sheen had been dulled by repeated fingerings. The scene was dim, reds and browns, sunshine snared in gauzy curtains. The woman’s head was missing, a victim of the hasty tear. Black hair grazed bare shoulders. There were breasts, large breasts made modest by a bikini’s band of untanned white. Below her navel, she grasped a white shirt. Her grip was weak, little more than a pinch. Her woman’s triangle lurked behind the sheer material.
Cars passed. Afternoon traffic. Calls from the playground. In my head, an emptiness, an erasing, as if the surrounding lives and houses and bustle had fallen away, silently and completely, leaving me in an uneasy euphoria, the last man standing on a wind-swept plain.
A strong hand pushed us aside and snatched the picture. The violence sent me crashing back to the moment. Billy was older, junior high perhaps. He’d been kicked out of so many schools it was hard to tell. Crazy Billy, a neighborhood boogey man, our Boo Radley. Red hair, freckles, his face often contorted in anger or inappropriate laughter. He wore hiking boots, the laces untied and tongues flapping; his coat unzipped, as if he were in such a tizzy he couldn’t be bothered with such trivialities. In a year or two, he’d take a kitchen knife to his stomach and be gone for good.
“How would you like it if that was your mother?” he barked. He crumpled the picture, shoved the balled mass into his pocket, and stormed up the street.
My son, now eight, sits beside me on the couch. Bedtime looms, and as he eats his nightly snack, I flip through the channels. For a moment, I pause on Glee. I’ve never seen the show; I’m decidedly outside its targeted demographic. On the screen, a half-naked couple tumbles onto a bed.
I click the remote. My son turns to me. On his face an odd smile. “Is that what you and mom do after I’m asleep?”
I sat by the window and watched the familiar corner of my bus stop slide past. I was fourteen, and I was riding further up the route to hang with an older boy. More kids departed, the bus almost empty. I looked out the frosted window. I’d crisscrossed these streets on foot and bike. I knew the alleys and backyard shortcuts. But today I’d lingered past my normal stop. I was going someplace new, and the knowledge turned the familiar exotic.
Victor sat opposite me. We weren’t friends really. Recently we’d teamed up for some pickup basketball games. We said Hey when we passed in the hallways. Victor was one of the bus’s charismatic characters, a boy who snuck cigarettes in the rear, who voiced his opinions in loud, profane displays. When his temper flared, which it often did, all notions of humor and composure vanished. Twice I’d watched the bus driver roughhouse him up the narrow aisle and shove him to the curb. Unrepentant, Victor screamed, his face red, his eyes wild, shaking his fist and cursing as we pulled away.
Victor was going to take me to his friend’s new townhouse, a tract that had claimed our neighborhood’s last bit of wilderness, a scrub field where we’d once hunted toads and garter snakes. Set against our neighborhood’s turn-of-the-century brick doubles and postage-stamp yards, the new townhomes, with their dishwashers and air conditioning, seemed absolutely futuristic. During their construction, we sometimes snuck onto the site. We stood beneath the skeletal frames, the stars above, the sawdust slippery beneath our sneakers. Now the development’s first phase was completed, and come evening, the lot filled with cars newer and fancier than any on my block.
At the last stop, I followed Victor off the bus. Cold again today, the snow still deep after last week’s blizzard, the sky bright and cloudless. The sun hurt my eyes, a glaring off snow and windows. Even our exhaled breath sparkled, flecks of moisture ignited by the crisp shine. We clambered over a curbside of cinder-crusted snow and crossed a busy street.
Victor opened the gold-plated mailbox and retrieved the day’s letters and magazines. Leaning forward, he slid the key he wore around his neck into the lock. Warm inside, dim. Wood paneling. Blood-red carpet. Victor tapped flakes into the largest fish tank I’d ever seen. I stooped to spy into the glass, fascinated by the unreal colors, the spiked fins and dulled rhythms. In the living room, a large TV. A top-of-the-line stereo. Victor grabbed a beer from the refrigerator behind the bar. No, thanks, I said. Victor shrugged, popped the top, and sipped the foam.
He disappeared, and I sank into the couch’s plush cushions. From upstairs came the sounds of Victor’s rooting. Only now did I wonder what kind of relationship Victor had with the man who owned this house. The thought made me uncomfortable, and I was considering an early exit when Victor bounded down the stairs with a crazy smile, a handful of small cylindrical tins, and an 8mm projector.
“You’re not going to believe this.” He set the projector on the coffee table. With nimble tucks and tugs, he threaded the film and cast the first jittery frames upon the wall before shutting off the motor.
Victor drew the curtains, the darkness complete save a few brilliant slivers. I didn’t know what to expect, a cartoon perhaps, not Saturday-morning fare but something edgier, something underground, like the antiwar animations my hip youth-group leader had shown us. Later, I would understand the brutality of Victor’s film, the tattooed men in leather masks, the woman bound, sometimes gagged, the scene shot in a living room, the woman’s orifices prodded with fireplace tools, the red meat close-ups. As it had on the street corner when I’d stared at a naked, headless woman, a sense of loneliness swept over me, my thoughts robbed of all but the most elemental touchstones. That experience had kindled something alien yet warm. Today, a different emptiness claimed me, this one as cold as the winter that crouched just outside the townhome’s metal door.
The film lasted no more than ten minutes. The last frames sputtered through the cogs and sprockets. Once free, the tail end slapped the projector, a frantic rhythm, a rectangle of white on the wall, Victor’s shadow passing as he went to pull back the curtains. I felt pale, drained, and I feared the white-light flood would betray the sickness I was sure I wore on my face. I made an excuse to leave. I stood, my legs wobbly, my books clutched like a life jacket. “Later,” I said, trying to sound cool. “Thanks.” The closing door eclipsed Victor’s face. The image of leaving him inside that house only intensified my unease.
I stopped at the park on my way home. I felt as if I’d been beat up, gut-punched, my ears ringing. I wiped snow off a swing and sat. The play of sun on undisturbed snow made my eyes tear. I stayed there, rocking gently, until I caught my breath.
The final months of college. I lay in bed, drifting. Downstairs, a small party, my roommates’ voices. Darts thumped into a cork board. The Clash played, “London Calling.” I was groggily aware when two of my friends burst into my room.
They were shadows, the hall light behind them harsh. They brought the scents of beer and cigarettes. They carried the phone, its cord snaking behind them. “Curt! Curt!” They handed me the receiver. The push-button dial glowed. “It’s your mother!”
I played along. I brought the phone to my ear and listened to the recording, a young, breathless woman. She cooed about the wetness of her pussy. She moaned. Yes, she wanted to be fucked hard. Just like that. Yes, yes . . .
Bedtime for my son. Behind us, an evening of homework and reading, Frisbee throwing at the local park. Teeth have been brushed, toys put away, goodnight kisses exchanged. “Love you,” my wife and I say, shushing him toward the stairs. “Sweet dreams.”
Halfway up, he pauses. He studies us then asks: “Are you going to play Glee club later tonight?”
The movies were already rolling by the time I arrived at the bachelor party. I was twenty-five, and gone were last generation’s 8mm projectors, replaced by the VCR, and odd, the moment’s juxtaposition, this basement rec room, the children’s toys piled in a corner box, the close-up of slapping genitalia on the same screen that had shown the Super Bowl and The Wizard of Oz.
The host handed me a shot before I could take off my jacket. I was surrounded by my coworkers, even my boss. A less-than-stellar performance tomorrow would be tolerated with a wink and a smile. Strata of cigar smoke, a haze tinted blue by the TV light. On the screen, a naked woman in a cowboy hat.
Plans were made. We piled into cars, shouting directions in the dark, all of with beers in hand. Cool wind rushed through the windows. We busted balls, as happy to be a joke’s brunt as its teller. We laughed too loud, sang along with the radio’s cheesy power ballads. The married guy next to me asked how often I was getting laid. We almost missed the turnoff into the poorly lit lot. The tires screeched. We slid in our seats, shoulders smashing, beers spilling.
Car doors slammed. Our numbers rejoined, we crossed the macadam, united by purpose and the easy swagger of alcohol. The club’s entrance sat just off the darkened highway. Trucks passed, stirred gusts of sooty air, the rumble stealing our voices. We stepped through one door and into a cramped hallway. Here, we encountered a choice: a door to the left, another to the right. I was near the line’s end. We funneled left, and word passed down—the other door led to the titty bar, the cover higher, the men allowed to touch and more. A man exited the door to the right, and I was offered a peek inside. I exchanged glances with the burly bouncer seated just inside. Behind him, a woman danced tableside. She was short, pudgy around the middle. Her black hair shimmied over her bare shoulders. A man in a beard and trucker’s hat took a sip of whiskey and brought his lips to her breast. The door closed.
We claimed a table in the other bar. There was a stage, a beaded curtain. There was no stripping, just naked dancing, shimmying that often seemed tuned to a different beat than the one blaring over the crackling speakers. The dancers came and went. When the women weren’t on stage, they worked the crowd. Up close, they became like all women, their voices making them human, a pin to the balloon of lust, their nakedness reduced to an odd, if pleasant, distraction. I talked to one of the girls. She was young, my age perhaps. She smiled at my jokes. I tried to keep my eyes on her face. In my head, a drunk’s fantasy, not of sex but of rescue, money for a bus ticket home, an offer of a place to stay while she figured out a new path. I said nothing.
The night disintegrated into a blur. We spent too much for tepid beer. A blond girl disappeared behind the beaded curtain and a brunette took her place. Our wallets emptied. There was a car ride, a stop at a diner. I woke the next morning, woozy and head-pounding, dressed in clothes that carried the bar’s scent.
I no longer have to leave the house to interact with the sex industry. Every fetish imaginable lurks in my cable feed. I Google “Literary Novel Publishers” and get less than twenty results. “Anal fisting” nets 12,900,000.
In 1970, Hair was banned in Boston. Last month, the touring revival performed at our local theater. Ours is a deeply conservative area, but there were no protests, only a sense of nostalgia. At the high school where I teach, kids wore the Hair T-shirts their parents had bought them.
Shock isn’t a constant like the speed of sound or the boiling point of water. I am Curious Yellow would barely raise an eyebrow today. The sex act is accepted, a shifting of cultural norms that’s led from Rickie and Lucy’s separate beds to Snookie’s drunken hookups. In terms of the sex business, the milestones of shock, once bridged, have been swiftly trampled into dust. Bare breasts no longer shock. Pubic hair no longer shocks. Thirty years ago, Hustler found its mainstream niche, largely due to its full-on, lip-baring layouts. Then came hard dicks. Insertion. Money shots. Modern porn has given us the ubiquitous facial.
The sexual revolution has left us more comfortable with our bodies. We talk openly with our partners. We appreciate sexual health. We care about the shared duality of experience. But pornography, despite the arguments of First Amendment lawyers, isn’t about freedom of expression. Pornography is about money. The producer who taps into the next wave of shock will earn more in a year than a schoolteacher will in twenty. Cruise today’s X-rated offerings, and I’m afraid the stabs at this golden calf are ebbing toward degradation, toward a tacit—sometimes explicit—brutality. This, I’m sure, isn’t the cultural landscape envisioned by the early champions of the sexual revolution.
A society that embraces capitalism is driven by human desires and the price tags we’re willing to put on them. Pornography flourishes not because of the easily identifiable “them” of its producers and stars. Pornography exists because the shadowy “us” and the unspoken hungers we harbor, the shameful urges we regulate to secrecy and hard drives.
I sit with my son at the computer. He works the mouse and keyboard with ease. This afternoon, we’re on YouTube again. In the past, he’s cycled through other fascinations, and together, we’ve watched and rewatched clips on Godzilla, Manfred von Richthofen, the Titanic, the Revolutionary War. Today we return to his latest obsession: the Roman Empire.
A video begins, and I leave to get a glass of water. When I return, I pause in the study’s doorway. He’s maximized the view, the back of his head eclipsing the image of Roman catapults. I remember myself at his age, how I loved my family’s set of encyclopedias, especially the passages with photographs and illustrations. The difference of course is that my son is only a few clicks away from a headlong plunge into an unregulated, often murky sea, and swirling not far beneath the surface waits the current of the modern sex industry.
He hits pause. “Watch this, Dad.”
I squeeze beside him. Soon he’ll be too big to share a seat with. Before that day, we’ll talk about the ways people love each other. And we’ll have a talk about the value of information, about the gifts of living in a society where we are free to speak and express. We will discuss the importance of discerning between the valuable, the neutral, and the exploitive. I will share the story of Crazy Billy and the picture torn out of Playboy, an introduction to the shadowy intersection of commerce and lust that will seem as antiquated to his generation as silent movies were to mine.
On the screen, the catapult is ratcheted back. The arm is released, a violent escape. The boulder takes to the sky.
My son turns to me, a smile on his face. “Pretty cool, huh?”