The Unspeakable Language of Sex

Why Are We Still so Tongue-Tied?

Magazine Issue
January/February 2016
An illustration of two people about to kiss, with bricks for lips

British poet Philip Larkin once famously summed up the sexual revolution in a brisk, ironic poem, “Annus Mirabilis.”

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the
Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the
Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

From that 1963 milestone, the revolution seemed to leap forward at warp speed. By 1965, we’d gone from the relative innocence of the Beatles’ Please, Please Me to the Doors singing “Come on baby, light my fire”—and they weren’t singing about campfires. In 1967, it was the trademark raunchy Rolling Stones singing “Let’s spend the night together,” and the Beatles’ ditty, comprising the lines, sung over and over and over, “Why don’t we do it in the road? Mm. / No one will be watching us. / Why don’t we do it in the road?” In 1969, Bob Dylan plaintively entreated his special someone, “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed . . . ,” and six years later, Donna Summer would release a 16-minute disco version of “Love to Love You, Baby,” in which, according to a count somebody at Time Magazine thoughtfully tallied up, Summer could be heard having 22 orgasms.

The music was only a part of it. After successful court challenges to a raft of censorship and antiporn laws from the early 1960s on, people could read books and magazines, see movies, videos, and plays, watch TV shows, and listen to music that would have been out of the question—often illegal—little more than a decade before. From the sublime to the ridiculous, the high-minded to the definitely lewd, the scientific and educational to the purely sensational, and various combinations thereof, a flood tide of sexually candid books let it all hang out. An alluring mix-and-match sample includes Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response, and David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know (But Were Afraid to Ask). The last was the most popular nonfiction book of its time (1969 when first published), selling 105 million copies and satirized by Woody Allen in his 1972 movie of the same name.

Furthermore, by the end of the ’70s, it could seem as if a kind of reverse rating code had been put into effect for the movies: none intended for grownups had a chance at the box office without at least an “R” after the title. Besides an inundation of out-and-out porn, like the immortal Deep Throat (The New York Times called it pornography’s Gone with the Wind, while Variety Magazine termed it porn’s Ben Hur) and Debbie Does Dallas—shown not in the back of obscure porn stores, but in mainstream movie theaters—there was what might be called high-concept erotica (Emmanuelle, Story of O, In the Realm of the Senses), serious films, American and foreign, with at least some and usually quite a lot of explicit sexual content (Midnight Cowboy, Carnal Knowledge, Last Tango in Paris, Clockwork Orange, The Big Feast), not to mention thrillers with a sexual twist or two (Don’t Look Now and Body Heat).

It’s been said that the birth-control pill didn’t cause the sexual revolution, but it almost certainly made it possible. In 1965, five years after Enovid was introduced, 6.5 million women were taking it—10 million in 1973, the same year that Roe v Wade legalized abortion. Now, for the first time in history, a woman could independently control her own fertility, and, once on the pill, didn’t even have to think about pregnancy or how to prevent it—she just had to remember to take that little, round pill, like a daily vitamin. These were also the decades of the feminist and gay liberation movements, which were as much about people’s freedom to live and express their personal sexuality as about gaining their political and legal freedom. Not only were women, for the first time in history, demanding the right to decide for themselves what they wanted sexually, what felt good to them, to define for themselves what was normal—but gay men and lesbians were demanding the same.

Even so, most people didn’t shed all sexual inhibitions and give themselves up to unchecked libido (that would have to wait for dating apps!) just because they could watch R-rated movies and see Donna Summer moan onstage. They still mostly behaved as if they didn’t know they were sexual revolutionaries: they went to school, got jobs, married, raised families, paid taxes, and did their part to uphold the social order. But there’s no question that the social zeitgeist, as far as sex was concerned, was changing profoundly, more probably than at any other time in history.

A Sex Toy Is Born

By the ’80s, people didn’t even have to go out to see a sexy new hit: they could buy or rent, in person or by mail, just about any film their hearts, or other relevant body parts, desired. With the advent of cable TV, Netflix, and the Internet—the greatest, most democratically available sex toy of all time—people could, if they wanted (and so many of them did) spend every available moment of their lives watching every conceivable iteration of sexual behavior. Data on online sexual content—how much of it is there, how many people access it—is notoriously imprecise and prone to exaggeration, particularly by antiporn advocates. Nonetheless, two neurophysiologists, Ogi Ogas and Sal Gaddan, claim in their 2011 book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us about Sex and Relationships, that, while in America in 1991 fewer than 90 different adult magazines were being published, by 2010 or so, there were 2.5 million adult websites, catering to every taste, imaginable and unimaginable. “With a visit to an adult video site like Pornhub,” the authors write, “you can see more naked bodies in a single minute than the most promiscuous Victorian would have seen in an entire lifetime.”

Even more striking, people could now indulge their fantasies online—including watching and “interacting” with live people on webcam sites (the most popular, apparently, is, with about 32 million visitors a month)—privately, all alone, with nobody else the wiser. The advent of the iPhone made the whole exercise more convenient and ubiquitous: people could now access their private little erotic spaces just about anywhere, anytime—on the subway, at the airport, in a library cubicle, on a walk in the park.

Then, with the development of smarter match-up algorithms, online dating migrated to mobile devices, resulting in a blizzard of new dating apps: 5,000 worldwide by 2012, according to Online Dating Magazine (though the vast majority are as ephemeral as the evening breeze). The most successful ones include eHarmony, OKCupid,, Happn, Zoosk, Clover, Hinge, Grindr, and Tinder. The now notorious Tinder probably gets more credit than it deserves for helping turn online dating—such a sweet, antique term—into hookups, but it clearly appealed to a large demographic already willing to connect on some sexual level with (almost) perfect strangers minutes after making initial contact.

Of course, a hookup doesn’t require an iPhone to happen, just two people meeting, however randomly, and engaging in some sort of sexual encounter without any expectations of emotional connection at all. In fact, intimacy-free sex is the whole point. An extended version of the hookup is the charmingly named fuck-buddy arrangement, wherein two people regularly meet for sex—not unlike a routine dental appointment, but more frequently—and then separate with a wave of the hand. At least that’s the theory, though, as Alexandra Solomon bears witness in her article “Inside Hookup Culture” in this issue, the reality is often something else entirely.

In any event, here we are now, roughly half a century since the sexual revolution began. But where are we, exactly? For 50 years, we’ve been thinking about sex, talking about sex, doing sex, watching sex, showing sex, reading about sex, talking about doing, watching, reading, thinking, and so forth about sex. By now, surely, having received half a century’s worth of almost continual advice and therapy from a huge and still-growing industry of sexperts, we all should finally have made friends with our bodies, our sexuality, our desires, our fantasies—not to mention those of our mates and partners.

So are we now fully liberated? Has the era of the “zipless fuck,” as Erica Jong described it 40-odd years ago in her novel Fear of Flying—that is, pure, freely experienced sexual pleasure, untainted by guilt, shame, expectations, demands, ulterior motives, or power plays—finally come to pass? Has the great revolution been a triumph for human freedom, finally allowing us to take pleasure in sex fully and reliably, with whomever and whenever we wish, without fear, inhibition, or regret? Even more, can we now talk about the most intimate details of our sexual selves with our nearest and dearest in a spirit of complete trust, candor, and freedom? Well, we might as well ask if we’ve ended poverty, achieved world peace, and solved the problem of climate change.

The totally open secret is that in our obsession with pop sexuality, we’ve vastly overestimated the power of sexual acts while vastly underestimating the feelings associated with them, arguably no less clueless about how to reconcile the two than our parents and grandparents. Somehow, emotional intimacy got thrown under the bus of liberation, so that, in the end, we get neither. Even today, adults who’ve never known any sexual culture except our supposedly enlightened one still find it difficult to integrate love and sex, or even friendship and sex—which might require us to put words to feelings and thoughts we hardly know how to articulate to ourselves. The great paradox and irony of our times is that for all of our talk, talk, talk about sex, sex, sex, we have such a hard time actually talking about sex with those we love most, when it most matters!

Perhaps we’ve all been sold a bill of goods—the idea that once freed of old, anachronistic prohibitions, once sexuality entered the public (not to say commercial) sphere, sexual happiness should come naturally and easily. Too bad we don’t just mate like other mammals. Lucky beasts! They mostly need just a few moments of physical quality time when the female is in estrus. But, sad humans, as thinking, self-aware creatures, we’re only too wrapped up in our self-consciousness, our psychological issues, our mixed fears and desires, sensitivities and vulnerabilities, yearning for the thrill of it all and susceptibility to disgust and taboo, as well as our capacity to be swayed by mixed messages and misread cues. How, given all this stuff within ourselves, can we be at peace with own sexual impulses or those of our partners?


Even though, as Philip Larkin reminds us, sexual intercourse was “invented” 53 years ago, we still don’t know exactly how to handle it. Even therapists trained in human sexuality don’t always agree on approaches or philosophies to help couples integrate intimacy with sexuality.

In the interview excerpts that follow, several prominent long-time explorers and guides through this wilderness share their insights on helping people accomplish this psychologically challenging task. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the complexity and contradictions of the subject, all four come at this issue from differing perspectives.

Esther Perel brings a poetic sensibility to her discussion of a common predicament between spouses: that what at the beginning erotically excited them comes, over the years, to seem antithetical to what makes them feel loved, cherished, and secure in their relationship. Susan Johnson, in contrast, argues that sexual heat and emotional attachment are two sides of the same coin, and that beneath most sexual problems is precisely an unmet need to feel dependably loved and cherished. Ian Kerner challenges the overused notion of pornography addiction while describing the surprisingly negative effects that too much of it can have on male physical sexuality. Michele Weiner-Davis provides a no-nonsense, highly solution-oriented approach to helping spouses perform specific actions to improve their sexual relationship, taking her lead from Nike’s advertising slogan, “Just Do It.”

What ties these provocative approaches together, more than any commonality of theory or method, is that these therapists demonstrate a degree of comfort, honesty, fearlessness, and clarity about sex that induces a sense of admiration, even awe, in the rest of us. How did they get to be so wise?


Illustration © Adam Niklewicz

Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.