Friday, January 23, 2009

The Biggest Names in Sex?

Playboy magazine recently published its list of the "55 Most Important People in Sex" over the last 55 years to celebrate the magazine's anniversary.  (The list isn't available without subscription on the Playboy site, but has been re-printed elsewhere, such as .) It's unavoidably provocative and underscores how intertwined the histories of politics, culture, and social and psychological analysis of the past half-century-plus have been with sexuality.  It also raises issues about a mainstream -- largely white and heteronormative -- view of sex in America that has fragmented inexorably over those five decades.  While I wrote a lengthy letter to the editor in reaction, because of the apparent volume of other such responses, only a few lines were eventually accepted for publication on Playboy's blog.  The full letter follows.

Dear Playboy,
If your list of the 55 most important people in sex proves anything, it is that sex is complex -- here, it embraces cause and symptom of cultural change, human right and moral wrong, physiological puzzle and social provocation, and finally overarching symbol of who we are or at least imagine ourselves to be at a give moment (past and present).  Sorting through such happy complexity, a few thoughts.

The approach to media's contribution on the list is fairly free-form.  Inventors mix with marketers/popularizers, directors and producers and editors, as well as performers (who are included variously for their public and private actions).  The internet might be the greatest platform for sexual expression, community and marketing in human history, but does Tim Berners-Lee (#8) really merit that credit on the list?  Ditto: Charles Ginsburg (#12) on video magnetic recording tape.  Don't get me wrong, I know Danni Ashe (#49) is on the list and I'm not advocating for someone like Joe Francis of Girls Gone Wild fame.  My question is partly about intentions -- while Hef and the Stones (#3 & 7) understood their challenging of sexual taboos, at least to an extent, presumably Sir Tim did not when he proposed a global hypertext project in 1989.  It's also about looking back at history: there's a stark difference between ground-shaking provocations that rock their sexual or social moment and those whose influence builds, often beyond the originator's control or even wild imagining, over time.

The towering backroom media figure missing from the list is Jack Valenti, who steered a middle way for sexual content in the movies as the longtime (1966-2005) president of the Motion Picture Association of America.  After establishing the film ratings system, Valenti weather the eruption of mainstream pornographic films in the early 1970s, guided the incorporation of novel cinematic delivery technologies from the VCR to the internet, and managed cinematic cause celebres from Blow-up to Basic Instinct to Eyes Wide Shut.  He's not as sexy as Mike Nichols (#42; with whom he sparred about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? upon arriving to the MPAA) or Bernardo Bertolluci (#53) -- much less Brigitte Bardot (#18), Bo Derek (#20), and other more obviously alluring figures from the big screen.  Yet Valenti's moral compass arguably set the direction of sex in Hollywood more than any other individual of the last 55 years.

Almost entirely absent from the list are racial concerns.  yes, like Nancy Friday (#31), who wrote in 1973 of white women's "Black-man fantasy," some of the important authors listed do discuss race.  But the other representatives  of that recurring American preoccupation are omitted (as are those involving other races).  Think of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, the interracial couple at the center of the groundbreaking 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. virginia, which struck down any race-based restrictions on marriage.  Or, also on the legal front, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.  Or, from entertainment, Hollywood's first African-American sex symbol, Dorothy Dandridge, or Motown's sexual healer, Marvin Gaye.

On a very different note, ranking Monica Lewinsky so highly (#6) is fanciful.  Ask Al Gore to explain his election loss in 2000 and my guess is that Bill's favorite intern would emerge only after a dozen other reasons.  While an undeniably influential sex scandal that marked the 1990s (or at least shared the decade's sullied political stage with Justice Thomas and, in a stretch, O.J.), does it really rank in the middle of the top ten?

Lastly, and among the many worthy persons who couldn't break onto this list but deserve mention, here's another idea to lead the second 55.  While condoms have been around for centuries, the "condom revolution" of the 1990s, brought about by the introduction of polyurethane models, the development of various new sizes and shapes (including for women), and the increased global use driven by the HIV/AIDS pandemic), warrants attention representation here.  For that position, who better than Dr. A.V.K. Reddy, whom The New York Times called the "Leonardo de Vinci" of condoms?

Happy 55th.


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