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Is This All There Is? : SEXING THE MILLENNIUM: Women and the Sexual Revolution, By Linda Grant (Grove/Atlantic: $22; 282 pp.)

October 23, 1994|Sandra Gilbert | Sandra Gilbert is a professor of English at UC Davis and co-author of "No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the 20th Century."

Was the so-called sexual revolution really a revolution or did it end in regression? Did it lead to utopian liberation or old-fashioned (and dystopian) licentiousness? Cui bono --who profits--when the communal libido is unleashed? And what do transformed styles of sexuality mean for women? Should we react to the newly defined joys of sex with the shuddering puritanism of, say, Andrea Dworkin (whose "Inter-course" defines that act as an attack on woman)? Or should we embrace the hedonism (perhaps the nihilism) of Madonna? These are among the issues in the politics of eroticism that British journalist Linda Grant examines in her always interesting but sometimes thin and flashy "Sexing the Millennium."

Observing that there has "never been a time in this century in which sex has not been associated with modernity" because it "has been inseparable from the discourse of liberation," Grant begins her book by lamenting that "in the eighties, sex was sunk into a silence almost as grave as that out of which it emerged" in the sixties. At first, like Susan Faludi's "Backlash," "Millennium" seems to be feminist in its disconsolate analysis of the "masculinist" reaction-formation that has stymied the women's movement in so many ways. "Why had female desire not transformed the world?" she wonders, as she embarks on her exploration of the complex changes in ideology and behavior that marked the history of the mid-20th Century's sexual revolution.

Yet the author quickly decides that feminism is as much to blame as "masculinism" for what she sees as the repressions and regressions of the eighties. Citing Germaine Greer's intellectual journey from a celebration of "erotic science, the necessary corrective of the maniacal conquest of technology" ("Skirts must be lifted, knickers . . . must come off forever") to a gratitude for "the liberation" that menopause "gave her from physical desire," Grant excoriates the "profoundness of the feminist No" that "invades and infects feminist culture." In contrast to such a "No," she insists on reminding readers that "the sexual revolution was the product not just of mindless hedonism but of ideas." Indeed, she declares, "There was a moral adventure once, hopes that returned again and again to lighten our dreams."

Grant traces the roots of that moral adventure to millenarian impulses that go back at least to the 17th Century, focusing in particular on pressures for radical sexual reform mounted by quirky nonconformist groups in England--the Ranters, the Diggers, even (for a while) the Quakers. Some of this analysis is strong and sensible: The idea of sexual freedom did not after all originate with turned-on Haight. But unfortunately much of the historical discussion here has a vaguely sophomoric ring. Grant declares that in Europe "society is all there is. There is no physical room for anything else and no hope of freedom outside culture," a statement implying (rather curiously) that in other parts of the world there may be "something" human, even social, that is "outside" both "society" and "culture."

If Grant's grasp of the long-term history of what we academics fondly call "Western civ" is often tenuous or naive, however, her insights into recent developments are frequently shrewd. In many ways, indeed, "Sexing the Millennium" is a lively compendium of short-term memories. Specifically, surveying the evolution of the erotic from the '50s to the '90s, Grant examines the sometimes problematic development of the birth-control pill (tested on unwary Third World women), the vexed situation in Ireland (the Roman Catholic "country run by men in dresses," where contraception and abortion are still illegal), along with the politics of sex on both sides of the Atlantic, in particular as it has lately been practiced by straights and gays, swinging singles and mate-swapping couples, high-minded communes and low-minded pornographers, from the era of the flower children to our own ostensibly "postmodern" age of AIDS, Madonna and "virtual" (on-line, e-mail) pickups.

Along the way Grant has some insights that, if she really were Susan Faludi, she might have developed further. At one point, for instance, she notes that to "real men," especially macho vets returning home post Vietnam, "feminists are not 'real women' but part man," and their "newfound independence, their fight for selfhood and separateness, had made them resemble the women of Vietnam (who) were the enemy in a man's own bed." And yes, of course, such alienation of the sexes is bound to have an impact on eroticism. In fact, as Susan Gubar and I have argued elsewhere, modern life (meaning both "modernism" and "modernity") has since the late 19th Century been crucially shaped by the battle of the sexes that the suffrage movement triggered. Yet this major phenomenon is one to which Grant affords merely a passing glace.

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