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Is Sex Passé?

WHAT could be more eternal than sexuality? The fog of longing, the obsession with the loved one’s voice, smell, touch. Sex is discombobulating and distracting, it makes you immune to money, politics and family. And sometimes I think the younger generation wants to give it up.

People always ask me what happened to sex since Fear of Flying. While editing an anthology of women’s sexual writing called Sugar in My Bowl last year, I was fascinated to see, among younger women, a nostalgia for ’50s-era attitudes toward sexuality. The older writers in my anthology are raunchier than the younger writers. The younger writers are obsessed with motherhood and monogamy.

It makes sense. Daughters always want to be different from their mothers. If their mothers discovered free sex, then they want to rediscover monogamy. My daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who is in her mid-30s, wrote an essay called “They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To.” Her friend Julie Klam wrote “Let’s Not Talk About Sex.” The novelist Elisa Albert said: “Sex is overexposed. It needs to take a vacation, turn off its phone, get off the grid.” Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling, a fictional retelling of Lysistrata, described “a kind of background chatter about women losing interest in sex.” Min Jin Lee, a contributor to the anthology, suggested that “for cosmopolitan singles, sex with intimacy appears to be neither the norm nor the objective.”

Generalizing about cultural trends is tricky, but everywhere there are signs that sex has lost its frisson of freedom. Is sex less piquant when it is not forbidden? Sex itself may not be dead, but it seems sexual passion is on life support.

The Internet obliges by offering simulated sex without intimacy, without identity and without fear of infection. Risky behavior can be devoid of risk — unless of course you use your real name and are an elected official.

Not only did we fail to corrupt our daughters, but we gave them a sterile way to have sex, electronically. Clearly the lure of Internet sex is the lack of involvement. We want to keep the chaos of sex trapped in a device we think we can control.

Just as the watchword of my generation was freedom, that of my daughter’s generation seems to be control. Is this just the predictable swing of the pendulum or a new passion for order in an ever more chaotic world? A little of both. We idealized open marriage; our daughters are back to idealizing monogamy. We were unable to extinguish the lust for propriety.

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

Does this mean there are no sexual taboos left? Not really. Sex between older people is the new unmentionable, the thing that makes our kids yell, “Ewww — gross!” You won’t find many movies or TV shows about 70-year-olds falling in love, though they may be doing it in real life.

The backlash against sex has lasted longer than the sexual revolution itself. Both birth control and abortion are under attack in many states. Women’s health care is considered expendable in budgetary negotiations. And the right wing only wants to champion unborn children. (Those already born are presumed able to fend for themselves.)

Lust for control fuels our current obsession with the deficit, our rejection of passion, our undoing of women’s rights. How far will we go in destroying women’s equality before a new generation of feminists wakes up? This time we hope those feminists will be of both genders and that men will understand how much equality benefits them.

Different though we are, men and women were designed to be allies, to fill out each other’s limitations, to raise children together and give them different models of adulthood. We have often botched attempts to do this, but there is valor in trying to get it right, to heal the world and the rift between the sexes, to pursue the healing of home and by extension the healing of the earth.

Physical pleasure binds two people together and lets them endure the inevitable pains and losses of being human. When sex becomes boring, something deeper is usually the problem — resentment or envy or lack of honesty. So I worry about the sudden craze for Lysistrata’s solution. Why reject honey for vinegar? Don’t we all deserve sugar in our bowls?

–Erica Jong is the author of 22 books, most recently Sugar in My Bowl.