When I was 17, I snuck into the Secret Cabinet of the Naples National Archaeological Museum, my virginal curiosity overpowering the ominous sense that I might not want to experience classical pornography with my family. Mythical Roman monsters in compromising positions contrasted the artwork around the corner, where a grandiose Alexander the Great mosaic loomed on the wall. I gagged, shying from the ancient erotica.
It was not that I considered sex a sin; I don’t adhere to the religious notion that carnality connotes a lack of dignity. But there was something amiss about the sculptures. They all seemed so lost and hopeless, and their lust was a product of discontentment that led to hedonism. In none of their stone-cold eyes could I notice a hint of love, or even lasting happiness.
Three years later, I wonder if we aren’t falling into the same abyss as the Roman Empire, where overindulgence eventually resulted in the demise of one of the most successful states in human history. As a student at Columbia University, I watch while my peers traipse off to dorm rooms for a booty call, and I’ve certainly made my fair share of relationship mistakes. My colleagues and I discuss how we only acknowledge sex’s virtues until its vices force themselves into the conversation. This year, I’ve been surrounded by the consequences of sex gone wrong as Emma Sulkowicz has bravely carried her mattress around campus and released an evocative sex video to protest her own assault. But I’ve discovered that, while we roar loudly about rape (as we should), we don’t often investigate what inspires changing dynamics in the bedroom.
The most prominent trend nowadays is hookups, which tend to mean nothing. And yet society still chooses to meld sex with love because to endure, we must think that we’ve found a deeper connection with another person. This isn’t a collegiate symptom; it’s a larger issue of the millennial and Generation Y kids who search for solitary brilliance and descend into isolated loneliness. It’s the promise of one night where all of our commitment qualms fade away and we get to share ourselves with another individual, forging two into one.
This recreational bent has been heralded as the end of “slut-shaming.” In a perfect world, that would be true, and there would be no problem with sneaking under the sheets to escape from expectations and propriety. But it’s not true — not even close. There’s still a huge misogynistic stigma against women who have casual sex, and they’re dubbed inferior if they forgo cat-and-mouse dating mind games for pleasure.
Such gender-based prejudices that harbor a virgin/whore dichotomy justify criticisms of current hookup culture. There’s also what happens behind closed doors, where systemic shortcomings seep into sex.
Young American adults think it’s fun to replicate the images in the Secret Cabinet, “Fifty Shades of Grey” style. They’ve seen glamorous actors in their most private onscreen moments and mimic the scenes, mistaking violence, terror, and power games for enjoyment. Then, they’re bombarded on social media by articles about the merits of rough sex and decide to give it a try.
BDSM complies with consent guidelines, and I respect those who practice it. I’m not talking about their community when I say that we’ve become sexually perverse and reverted to animalism that defies the nuances of the human psyche. I’m referencing the average Joes, the masses that choke, slap, and pull to incite unsolicited pain.
Somehow, “making love” has been replaced by “getting laid.” With the change in rhetoric comes a dearth of care and concern for the partner, and as esteem falters, so do boundaries. I assume that at this point, most 20-somethings have walked away from a Saturday night make-out session or more feeling filthy, used, and degraded.
Rape is obviously the extreme of a movement toward violent, meaningless relations that emphasize leverage and domination over attachment, as it’s much easier to permanently scar someone if you don’t take their emotional vulnerability into account. But overall, there’s something inherently wrong with how we approach sex in the 21st century. We’re too flippant and too resigned to its emptiness.
Let me be clear: I love sex. But I don’t appreciate the direction in which it’s going. I don’t want to be one of the subjects in the Secret Cabinet.
I doubt that my generation aspires to monster-hood in a back room. But if we don’t start laying down limits and redefining consent in a hookup age, we may have our own museum corner in a few centuries. Honest discourse is the only way to avoid disaster because to find order in chaos, we must first recognize its existence.
So, ladies and gents, it’s time to talk about sex.