While reading Christian Lorentzen’s essay on Norman Mailer, this astute passage leapt out at me.
Reading “The White Negro” today—when so many of the concepts and words the essay relies on are obsolete or altered beyond recognition—requires the sort of annotation usually reserved for Shakespeare. The word “Negro” itself has been shunned for at least three decades, and the crude politics of race has yielded to the gentler politics of “diversity” (even if blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites). Miscegenation, when Mailer wrote, was terrifying even to liberals; now it may give us America’s next president. If one of the goals of Mailer’s existential heroes was “absolute sexual freedom”, in our time avowed virgins and monogamists are suddenly the radicals.
This reminds me of a long-running debate I had with two friends during my senior year in high school, when I had hoped to start a student-produced magazine called Marginalia: A Journal of Revolutionary Thought. I’m not making this up. Strangely enough, part of my motivation was to create a national alternative magazine driven by contributors — that is, driven primarily by “user-generated content.” I spent most of my time designing the logo. Anyway, a couple of us were talking about sexual abstinence, and I posited that it was in fact a “radical” choice, and a means of undermining male dominance. I suppose that was a little loopy, or at least overbroad. But consider the words of Katrina and Keegan, both members of Sufjan Stevens merry band of twee uniformed loons. First, Katrina:
My initial reason for not wanting to have sex was totally a fear of not wanting to get pregnant before I got married. This was a cycle in my family. So, it was very real to me: You have sex, you get pregnant, and if you’re not married, you can wind up alone or feeling obligated to marry somebody. But it’s been interesting how it’s changed as I’ve gone through different relationships, learning about myself and learning about commitment.
It hasn’t been about waiting to have sex just to wait to have sex. It’s been a journey, a trust thing, about commitment. I value that type of intimacy and trust in my life more than I value my ability to have sex with anybody whom I can figure out how to have sex with.
This doesn’t strike me as obviously ridiculous. Quite the contrary. But this is thorny and divisive territory, I realize. I deliberately cultivate not-strong opinions on these matters.