Have we hit bottom yet?

The other night I took my wife out for a quick dinner at a popular local restaurant. We were the oldest folks there by three or four decades, but nevertheless they seated and served us. The service and food were fine, exceeded only by the noise level. As noisy as it was, however, I was clearly able to catch snatches of the energetic conversation at the table behind us. Three 20-something women were discussing what I took to be their social lives. The language ranged from "bitchy" and "goddamn" to the F-word.

Having spent nearly ten years in the Navy, I’m not stranger to this kind of language. But not from young women in public. A true gentleman would have politely remonstrated with them. However, a sideways glance at the stiletto-like nails on these three inspired restraint and, like Casper Milquetoast, I quietly slipped into the night. As we left my dear wife whispered to me: "Where are their mothers?"

This sort of behaviour is hardly new. Standards have been declining since my boyhood in the 1940s and 50s, initially driven by the prurient interests of my own gender. Sometime ago, I saw a New Yorker cartoon that nailed the deep differences between men and women in matters of sexuality. The cartoon showed a middle-aged couple walking down the street. Coming towards them was a shapely, well-dressed young woman. The thought balloon over the wife showed only the young woman’s hat, dress, purse and shoes. The thought balloon over the husband showed the maiden in her birthday suit. No caption needed!

Advertisers capitalize on this difference. Watching an ad for oatmeal or cars, I’ve occasionally blurted out to my wife, "Did you see that! Yet another wardrobe malfunction!" My wife shakes her head and says I’m sex-obsessed. Jimmy Carter revealed a universal truth when he admitted to having lust in his heart.

What has changed dramatically since my own youth is that women have become coarsened to acquiesce in their own exploitation.

The symbol of this social revolution is a film which opens today in the US, Sex and the City: The Movie, which follows on from the popular TV series Sex and the City which ran from 1998 to 2004. Much of the show’s attraction was the spicy dialogue among these rich, good-looking, and sexually uninhibited women. They swung between their desire for "a committed relationship" and the excitement of their lives as sexual predators. The show was something of a "twofer," in that it seemingly appealed to both men and women. No doubt my 20-something dinner companions have already booked their tickets for the film.

It was not that long ago when a short scene on network TV showing a married, pajama-clad couple simply sitting up and talking in the same bed caused a furious public outcry. This event was something of a dambuster. Not long afterwards we were to be treated to "giggle television", epitomised by the Baywatch babes bouncing down the beach to save lives and loosen libidos. This 1980s fare, compared with today’s nudity and smash-mouth sexuality, seems ever so innocent.

But could this enlisting of women in the elimination of carnal restraint and barriers to sexual license be something of a last straw? Is our current climate of in-your-face eroticism actually be having the opposite effect?

It is a well established fact that men are easy prey. We don’t need to be hit in the face to get our attention. The sight of a well-turned ankle or the curve of a female neck was once enough to rivet male attention. Now the stakes are higher. Or, rather, lower. With satiation comes a demand for ever-more explicit sexual images.

Once upon a time such fare was to be found only in the adults-only rack of corner stores. But now the sultry babes have migrated from the privacy of the centrefold to the notoriety of the billboard -- to say nothing of the internet. This may be why American society has never had such a high percentage of unmarried men. Plain Jane, even with her terrific ankles, just doesn’t do it anymore.

The female response to this -- or at least a good portion of Gens X and Y-- has been to meet competition from the media head on in order to catch a man. Social science reports make clear that women are making themselves more available before marriage. Even casual people-watching gives plenty of evidence: schoolgirls with clinging lycra outfits and women in the supermarket who are walking anatomy lessons.

However, my feeling is that we are nearing the bottom of this downward spiral. Some of the more recent fads in enticement are simply counter-productive. I’m referring to the low-rider jeans-bare-belly style. While hardly a qualified judge of these matters, I will hazard a guess that no more than two percent of American womanhood look attractive in these outfits. On the other hand, how many men are turned off by all that excessive flesh rolling over their dangerously lowered waistbands!

Again, has any male ever thought, "Hey, Jennifer sure would look good with a couple of dozen studs in her ear, a couple in the eyebrows and, hey, maybe a nose ring." Then there is the fad for tattooing. What was once the province of seamen and Marines is now a fashion statement for the fairer sex. And not just a delicate rose or a discrete rainbow, but elaborate serpentine and satanic scenes.

At their worst, men tend to be billy-goats, driven by sexual desire and notoriously wary of the monogamous commitment that lead to true happiness for both men and women. Sex in the City has conditioned this generation of women to imitate them by giving sex away, swearing like the Sopranos and wearing freak-show adornments. But it just won’t work. Men use women like that, but they won’t love them.

In fact, whether intentional or not, that is really the point of both the TV series and the movie. There is an exchange in one of the TV episodes which captures the melancholy, and even despair, which underlies this degrading behaviour. One of the characters, Charlotte, naively says, "I think that a relationship has to be based on honesty and communication if it has any chance of succeeding." To which her friend Samantha responds acidly: "OK. If you were 25, that would be adorable. But you're 32 now, so that's just stupid." In other words, the Sex in the City lifestyle of ribaldry, visibility and availability wrings life dry of honesty and communication and replaces it with sex. What kind of a deal is that, girls?

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared recently on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at [email protected].


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