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LAST NIGHT IN PARADISE: Sex and Morals at the Century's End. By Katie Roiphe . Little, Brown: 196 pp., $21.95

March 23, 1997|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield teaches in the cultural reporting program at New York University's department of journalism

According to Katie Roiphe, Americans have become wimps. We drink mineral water and eat arugula; we fasten our seat belts and obsess about sexual harassment; we're fretful safety freaks, timid old maids. Most--and worst--of all, we've abandoned romantic love and erotic passion, transforming ourselves into emotional and sexual eunuchs. "It's as if 'health' and 'safety' have become the highest goals, the most elevated and sought-after forms of human experience," Roiphe charges. In the battle between Thanatos and Eros--a battle that, Roiphe seems to believe, began circa 1981 with the discovery of AIDS--Thanatos is the decisive victor, and we have all become spinsters of the soul.

What's wrong with this picture? Not quite everything, but more than enough to make "Last Night in Paradise" both annoying and, ultimately, far from illuminating. The problem with this confused book is not that it is so contradictory--nothing wrong with that--but that Roiphe lacks the intellectual ability to illuminate the complex cultural shifts that she attempts to chart.

Much of "Last Night" is an extended complaint against the stultifying repressiveness that, Roiphe insists, pervades American culture. But wait: She also complains repeatedly about what she sees as the meaningless permissiveness of the "new tolerance" that she insists has triumphed (she is especially disturbed by a Harper's Bazaar headline that asked, "Adultery: Can Cheating Help a Marriage?"). She yearns for the sexual freedom of the '60s with its "Edenic glow"; she pines for the sexual repressiveness of the 19th century with its "baroque grandeur." She is a fierce defender of mindless hedonism (in one bizarre chapter, Roiphe lauds the idea of unsafe sex with an HIV-positive partner), but she's nevertheless disappointed that anything goes.

Is it possible for a person, or a culture, to encompass such opposites? Sure. But does Roiphe attempt to explain where these contradictions come from, what happens when they clash and how they might resolve themselves? Nope. "Last Night" is like an extended psychoanalytic session--full of wildly conflicting desires, romantic fantasies, projections and over-generalizations--without the analyst.

In her previous book, "The Morning After," published in 1993, Roiphe, a graduate of Harvard and Princeton, castigated campus feminists for their purported obsession with date rape and sexual harassment. Although filled with a weirdly Ayn Rand-like belief in the triumph of the will, "The Morning After" did raise some valuable questions about the wisdom of focusing on sexual violence as a political or psychological strategy for women's liberation. It was also, alas, notable for its utter lack of sympathy for women who are in fact victims, or indeed for any woman whose life might be far different from, and more difficult than, Roiphe's.

Roiphe's problems in "Last Night," which focuses largely on the cultural fallout of the AIDS crisis, begin with her ignorance about the origins of the sexual revolution. She is no fan of the left or of the '60s counterculture; accordingly, she largely ignores them (not to mention the civil rights, black power and feminist movements). She is, therefore, left with the puzzling notion that the sexual revolution somehow sprang up among white middle-class suburbanites (key texts are "Open Marriage" and John Updike's "Couples").

For Roiphe, who is 28, the sexual revolution of the '60s had nothing to do with a desire to create a more erotic and more egalitarian society. Instead, Roiphe focuses on "bikinis from France, and the Pill, and nudity in movies, and honest and open marriages, and no-fault divorces" and then notes that "paradise" mysteriously failed to materialize. She is like the theatergoer who takes her seat during the second act and then loudly whispers to everyone around her that the plot makes no sense.

Mistakenly, Roiphe believes that the sexual revolution consisted simply of "having sex with as many people as you could." She is oblivious to the fact that the sexual revolution--at least for many women--was less about mindless promiscuity than about finding newer, truer, less sexist and more ecstatic ways of being sexual. It was about the experience, not just the numbers; about creating something, not just getting lucky.

Her analysis of the complex relationship between sexual repression and the advent of AIDS is equally reductionist. On the one hand, AIDS has ruined the party (Roiphe begins the book by revealing that one of her sisters is HIV-positive); on the other, she is aware that anxieties about AIDS have also given "form and meaning to our free-floating doubts." The fear of AIDS, she writes, has "became a kind of blank canvas against which we could project our own . . . cultural needs."

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