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The Expansion of the Erotic Imagination

The entire sexual scene seems to be in a convulsion.

My next book is going to be on recent changes in sexuality. I thought I had finished with this theme in 2005, when I published Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire (University of Toronto Press), which covered the history of sexuality from the ancients until about 1970. I considered there would probably be no more big changes for a while.

But I was wrong.

Recently, the entire sexual scene—straight, gay, and lesbian as well as young and old alike—seems to be in a convulsion. There have been several important recent changes that simply were not on the radar in 1970. They can be grouped together under the concept of the expansion of the erotic imagination. (The operative theme of my 2005 book was the emergence of total body sex and the eroticizing of the entire body, a big historical theme but old hat today.)

One, the new popularity of domination and submission (D/S) in relationships. The most dramatic testimony of this is the stunning success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which worldwide has now sold over a hundred million copies. The movie, which starts next month, promises to be the blockbuster of the decade. It is a novel about what used to be called sadomasochism but, to make it sound less scary, is now referred to as “roleplaying” or “D/S.”

In the novel, and in roleplaying, the basic concept is the transfer of power. One partner in a relationship becomes dominant and has absolute control over the other partner, certainly in bed, and maybe on a lifestyle basis too. This transfer is thrilling for both partners because the top’s head is exploding with fantasies of control, with the bottom simultaneously relishing in the complete loss of autonomy.

This kind of behavior has always existed—witness the popularity over two centuries of the works of the Marquis de Sade—but now it is shifting from a marginal, “deviant” kind of experience to join the mainline. At the Y, a woman I have a jocular relationship with confided to me that she had a flogger at home.

But what really stunned me was that the following week she confided further that she had told a female friend about this exchange with me and that the friend had a flogger too. Who knew? They both seem totally middle class. This was the kind of thing that once characterized prostitutes, and a proliferation of online sex toy shops has now brought it within reach of the vast middle classes, Fifty Shades country.

Especially interesting here is the number of women who are opting to be tops. Once the exchange of power is on the breakfast table, women can decide, of course, for either role. And in Fifty Shades Ana is a bottom. But in the real world a lot of women are opting to be tops, and insiders in Adult Entertainment comment widely on the opening of this new female market for “FemDom.”

Similarly, a lot of men are opting to be bottoms, or submissives. We know about this new trend, again, from the uptake in “adult” of such themes as (1) “forced bi” (the dominant woman forces her heterosexual male sub to perform oral sex on another man), (2) cuckholding, in which men get off at the idea of watching their female partners have sex with another man, and (3) forced chastity, when the dominant woman forces her partner to wear a chastity device on his penis that prevents him from having a full erection, masturbating, or sexual penetration. The device comes off when and if she decides to unlock it. Chastity devices are now all over the net and in the sex shops.

Two, the new porosity of the gender wall. Gender identity seems to be determined biologically for the most part. But there turns out to be a lot of leakage across that gender wall, as transsexual men decide they are basically inhabiting a woman’s body and proceed to carve out a female identity, dressing as women, taking hormones to develop breasts, and even undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Some women do the same thing in the opposite direction. This kind of gender reassignment has always existed, but today it is becoming huge. Transsexuality has joined the list of rebel sexuality groups: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT).

The gender wall leaks in other ways as well. One of the dominant-woman themes is forced sissyhood: the FemDom forces her sissy partner to cross-dress as a woman, be restrained and gagged, and do “feminine” chores. Of course the man in this scenario is secretly delighted at having this new gender role “forced” upon him: the whole scene is thoroughly consensual. But the erotic fiction, maintained for the scenario, is that he is topped against his will.

Three, the persistence of the wild stuff into midlife and beyond. Throughout the 20th century, the sexuality of older people has been recognized. So that in itself is not a new theme. What is new is the detachment of late-life sexuality from conventional coupling and turning it loose in the new world of the erotic imagination. Older women on the lookout for younger partners call themselves “cougars.” Men interested in older women refer to them a “MILFS,” Mommies I Would Like to F***, or “GILFS,” Grandmothers . . . I beg the reader’s pardon for the vulgarism, but there is simply no other way to express the concept. MILFS and GILFS are now seen as an important new market in adult entertainment, and the industry is catering systematically to them. In industry images, to inflame further the erotic imagination, the women are booted or otherwise dominant. It is a market niche that is exploding (The uptake seems to be primarily among male clients. There is, as far as I know, no counterpart female demand for older men.) In the real world, cruises and other venues are being profiled routinely to the older market as “social” opportunities. Whether floggers routinely appear in the cabin luggage is unknown, but older people figure prominently as a niche sexual market in adult.

Some people will view these changes with horror. Others will delight in them. But there is no doubt that we are looking at the future.