"Trapeze Disrobing Act," 1901. Starring the strongwoman Charmion.
There was no Age of Innocence… merely a time in which the moral crusaders had the upper hand, and the average person was more naive than most are today. One of my favorite pastimes is debunking the assumption that there was this squeaky-clean past that we gradually soiled over the course of the twentieth century. Perpetrators of this myth are often left in charge of writing our schoolbooks, and they have a tendency to infer that this Golden Age was golden because men were men, browns were invisible, women knew their places and the closets were bolted shut. It is also inferred that men can’t be men now because all the various cats are out of the bag, as though, somehow, masculinity is so weak it can only exist if women, etc. are subjugated. But the truth is, men were men because man-children were neither condoned nor catered to. And many women weren’t content with their second-class status. And many people of color saw a future where they would not keep their heads down. And many closets were wide open. And guess what?
They all enjoyed having sex.
We can blame the Victorians for most of the myths to the contrary. And yet much of the evidence debunking their own claims comes from Victorian times and shortly thereafter. Stripping was a known thing by the turn of the century; it was a lot more innocent and exuberant than a fully-nude woman grinding on a pole, but it existed. There are early pornographic photographs, many of which are as explicit as anything available today. The nude body was celebrated before and during Victorian times, even when confined to an artist’s salon. Sex and eroticism are not something to be reclaimed; they never left us. Yet we still feel that something is missing.
Modern sex has left us with a number of interesting dilemmas: there are those still lobbying to take sexual freedom away, while others insist that Their Way of sexuality is the only way, and still others for whom sex has lost all sense of fun. This has left many looking to the past: for a sense of masculinity seeking to supersede the cult of the modern man-child; for a celebration of classic femininity that is unburdened by dated gender roles; for a playfulness of courtship and sexuality that may have existed primarily in entertainment, yet still serves as a viable inspiration to those who have the power and freedom to put those ideals to work. The solitary, pleasureless and often mean-spirited sensibilities of sexual dialogue, gender relations, and pornography have proved to be profoundly alienating to these people, and their escape is to a time in which it seemed that everyone, at least on the surface, dressed (and undressed) well, and seemed to be having a good time. No one, save for the most misguided and reactionary among them, would wish to bring those times back to the present; the point is in realizing that we threw the baby out with the bathwater, and in struggling for our freedom, became angry, frustrated slobs unable to appreciate what we have earned and fixated on what we have yet to achieve. That is, if we think about it at all.
To achieve unprecedented sexual freedom in the Western world, only to find ourselves unable to enjoy it due to a toxic stew of social dysfunction, entitlement, fear, detachment, desensitization, and narcissism? Is this what we wanted? And no, Jesus won’t save us by taking our sexual freedom away. The Man won’t save us by taking women’s rights away. If people had been truly happy back when Jesus and the Man lorded it over all, we wouldn’t have fought for change.
We will save ourselves by having some class in a mercenary world where the sordid is presented as the norm; we will wring joy from life even though society virtually demands we be miserable; we will continue to fight because some people insist that Christ’s love is not unconditional, and because the Man is actually a child who never learned to cook his own meals or do his own laundry and resents it to this day.
There was never a Golden Age, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t each make our own.