Sunday, May 18, 2008

Echoes of the Jazz Age (a guest post by Really Rosie)

[My friend Really Rosie and I have been discussing the impact of the sexual revolution on women's lives, which has been the subject of the last few posts here. She reminded me that there was an earlier sexual revolution, whose effects were, arguably, equally deleterious. I asked her to write a guest post on this subject, which follows. - Pentimento]

There is a contemporary epidemic of regret among women over their sexual pasts. These are tales that women share only with other women, and I have been on the receiving end of many confidences. I once had a friend, E., whom I would describe as sexually predatory (I didn’t know it at the time, but she was sleeping with the boy she knew I liked), who told me one night when she was high that when she was sixteen her boyfriend pressured her into having sex for the first time in the back of his pickup truck. The condom broke, and she ended up having an abortion. Or G., who once told me ruefully that “pull and pray” doesn’t work, as a preamble to another tale of abortion. She subsequently married for three years, then divorced the man who impregnated her. And then there’s my friend B., whose philosophy of sex is that you have to sleep with a lot of men before you can really know for sure who to marry (she’s married, a mother, and a convert to Catholicism, incidentally), who told me recently that she lost her virginity at seventeen on top of a pile of dirty wet towels in the basement of a hairdresser’s shop, and so regretted it that she couldn’t look at herself afterwards for three days.

As a culture, we tend to think of the sexual revolution as starting in the late 1960s, aided by the musical anthems of the day and made possible by the birth control pill and, later, by the Roe v. Wade decision. After all, what came before was the buttoned-up pastel Eisenhower era, with its “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” and smiling housewives, and its stricter moral code. What has receded much farther away in our collective memories was the FIRST sexual revolution, the flapper era of the 1920s, a backlash against the repressed Victorian age that came before.

In 1916, when Margaret Sanger set up the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn with the stated aim of providing for women "unlimited sexual gratification without the burden of unwanted children," there was, in the wake of World War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic (much as there was during the Vietnam era), a “do it now!” attitude, since you never knew when death might strike. The birth of advertising fed into the sexual frenzy, as did the heady strains of jazz music. The writings of Freud, as well as other popular authors of the day, like Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald, exploited this new ethos of sexual freedom and experimentation. Dorothy Parker even went so far as to discuss abortion in her short story “Mr. Durant,” although she didn’t dare name it (“Ruby knew, through some indistinct friends of hers, ‘a woman.’ It would be twenty-five dollars”).

Like those women who lived through the 1960s and its aftermath, the sexual revolution of the 1920s resonated powerfully in the lives of those who exemplified it. Lillian Hellman not only famously aborted the child she conceived with Dashiell Hammett (she wrote about it in her memoir, An Unfinished Woman), but reportedly went on to have six more abortions. Dorothy Parker and Zelda Fitzgerald also had abortions (it is perhaps unrelated, but Parker sank into a depression and attempted suicide soon after, and Fitzgerald spent the last 18 years of her life in a sanatorium; she died in a fire at Highland Mental Hospital at the age of 48). [Another proponent - and, as she would later acknowledge, victim - of the Jazz Age sexual revolution was Dorothy Day, pictured above. She too had an abortion, which she always regretted, and later gave birth to a daughter, Tamar, out of wedlock. Her relationship with Tamar's father ended when Day began to feel drawn to the Catholic Church, and had Tamar baptized. - Pentimento]

The first sexual revolution informed the second one, and it is the second one that continues to shape the lives of women today. I had the misfortune recently to miscarry my second child, and my midwife sent me to an abortion clinic to obtain a pill that would bring on the bleeding that my body refused to start naturally. I waited five hours in the packed clinic; I sat on the floor because every chair was filled. The misery of the women around me was palpable, the attitudes of the clinic workers condescending.

Unwanted pregnancy (as well as sexually transmitted disease) may be the most salient results of regretted sex, but sometimes regret leaves no outward mark. While it is often argued that women deserve freedom and pleasure in their relationships, I wish it didn’t come at so high a price. In the meantime, we tell our stories.

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