Liberation implies freedom to do what you have already been doing or have meant to do. It unbars what is native to you, free in cost and freely your possession, and removes the iron weight of social interdiction. Even in the great phase of full human liberation that extended from the 1960s to the present day, however, what has passed as liberation has often been liberalization. (Marcuse used this distinction.) Liberalization makes for a free traffic in goods formerly regulated and interdicted, creating markets in what you already possess for free. It has a way of making your possessions no longer native to you at the very moment that they’re freed for your enjoyment. Ultimately you no longer know how to possess them, correctly, unless you are following new rules that emerge to dominate the traffic in these goods.
In sexual liberation, major achievements included the end of shame and illegality in sex outside marriage (throughout the twentieth century); the disentangling of sex from reproduction (completed with the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in 1960); the feminist reorganization of intercourse around the female orgasm and female pleasure (closer to 1970); and the beginning of a destigmatization of same-sex sexuality (1970 to the present.) The underlying notion in all these reforms was to remove social penalties from what people were doing anyway.
But a test of liberation, as distinct from liberalization, must be whether you have also been freed to be free from sex, too – to ignore it, or to be asexual, without consequent social opprobrium or imputation of deficiency. If truly liberated, you should engage in sex, or not, as you please, and have it be a matter of indifference to you; you should recognize your own sex, or not, whenever and however you please. We ought to see social categories of asexuals who are free to have no sex, just as others are free to have endless spectacular sex, and not feel for them either suspicion or pity. One of the cruel betrayals of sexual liberation, in liberalization, was the illusion that a person can be free only if he holds sex as all-important and exposes it endlessly to others – providing it, proving it, enjoying it.
This was a new kind of unfreedom. In hindsight, the betrayal of sexual liberation was a mistake the liberators seemed fated to make. Because moralists had said for so many centuries, “Sex must be controlled because it is so powerful and important,” sexual liberators were seduced into saying, in opposition, “Sex must be liberated because it is so powerful and important.” But in fact a better liberation would have occurred if reformers had freed sex not by its centrality to life, but by its triviality. They could have said: “Sex is a biological function, and for that reason no grounds to persecute anyone. It is truthless – you must not bring force to bear on people for the basic, biological, and private; you may not persecute them on grounds so accidental. You must leave them alone, neither forcing them to deny their sex nor to bring it into the light.”
This misformulation of liberation became as damaging as it did only because another force turned out to have great use for the idea that sex is the bearer of the richest experiences: commerce. The field of sex was initially very difficult to liberate against a set of rival norms that had structured it for centuries: priority of the family, religious prohibitions, restraint of biology. Once liberation reached a point of adequate success, however, sex was unconscionably easy to “liberate” further, as commerce discovered it had a new means of entry into private life and threw its weight behind the new values. What in fact was occurring was liberalization by forces of commercial transaction, as they entered to expand and coordinate the new field of exchange. Left-wing ideas of free love, the nonsinfulness of the body, women’s equality of dignity, intelligence, and capability, had been hard-pressed to find adequate standing before – and they are still in trouble, constantly worn away. Whereas incitement to sex, ubiquitous sexual display, sinfulness redefined as the unconditioned, unexercised, and unaroused body, and a new shamefulness for anyone who manifests a non-sexuality or, worst of all, willful sexlessness – that was easy.
Opposition to this is supposed to be not only old-fashioned but also joyless and puritanical – in fact, ugly. Sex talk is so much a part of daily glamor and the assurance of being a progressive person that one hates to renounce it; but one has to see that in general it is commercial sex talk that’s reactionary, and opposition that’s progressive. Liberalization has succeeded in hanging an aesthetic ugliness upon all discussions of liberation, except the purely ornamental celebrations of “the Woodstock generation” one sees on TV. Original liberators are ogres in the aesthetic symbolism of liberalization. They don’t shave their legs! They’re content to be fat! They have no fun. To say that a bodily impulse is something all of us have, and no regimentation or expertise or purchases can make one have it any more, is to become filthy and disgusting. It is to be nonproductive waste in an economy of markets, something nonsalable. It is not the repression of sex that opposes liberation (just as Foucault alerted us), but “inciting” sex as we know it – whatever puts sex into motion, draws it into publicity, apart from the legitimate relations between the private (the place of bodily safety) and the public (the sphere of equality.)
The question remains why liberalization turned back to gorge itself on youth.
How should a system convince people that they do not possess their sex properly? Teach them that in their possession it is shapeless and unconditioned. Only once it has been modified, layered with experts, honeycombed with norms, overlaid with pictorial representations, and sold back to them can it fulfill itself as what its possessors “always wanted.” Breasts starved away by dieting will be reacquired in breast implant surgery – to attain the original free good, once destroyed, now re-created unnaturally.
How to convince them that what appears plentiful and free – even those goods that in fact are universally distributed – is scarce? Extend the reach of these new norms that cannot be met without outside intervention. Youth becomes a primary norm in the competition for sex. The surprise in this is not that youth would be desirable – it has always had its charm – but that you would think youth ought to be competitively ineffective, since it is universally distributed at the start of life. Yet youth is naturally evanescent, in fact vanishing every single day that one lives. It can be made the fundamental experience of a vanishing commodity, the ur-experience of obsolescence. Plus, it was everyone’s universal possession at one time; and so artful means to keep it seem justified by a “natural” outcome, what you already were; and youth can be re-qualified physically as an aspect of memory, for every single consumer, in minutiae of appearance that you alone know (looking at yourself every day in a mirror, you alone know the history of your face and body), even while other people don’t. We still pretend we are most interested in beauty, and it covers our interest in youth. Beauty is too much someone else’s good luck; we accept that it is unequally distributed. Youth is more effective precisely because it is something all of us are always losing.
From the desire to repossess what has been lost (or was never truly taken advantage of) comes, in the end, the ceaseless extension of competition. It is easily encouraged. It doesn’t require anything nefarious or self-conscious, certainly not top-down control, though it’s sometimes convenient to speak of the process metaphorically as a field of control. All it requires is a culture in which instruments of commentary and talk (news, talk shows, advice magazines) are accompanied and paid for by advertisers of aesthetic and aestheticizable products – everything from skin cream to Viagra to cars. This is supremely prosaic, but this is it. Once people can be convinced that they need to remain young for others to desire them, and that there are so many instrumentalities with which they can remain young; once they can be encouraged to suspect that youth is a particularly real and justifiable criterion for desire, then the competition will accelerate by the interchange of all these talkers: the professional commentators and product vendors and the needy audiences and ordinary people. Norms will not be set in advance but are created constantly between the doubting individual and the knowing culture, or between the suddenly inventive individual and the “adaptive” and trend-spotting culture, a dialectic ultimately reproduced inside individuals who doubt (“I’m growing old”) but seek know-how (“I’ll be young”) – in the channeling of desire in the bedroom, in conversation, in the marketplace.