Much of what is now known as “the sexual revolution” has consisted of both women and men filling in the blank this way: “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as . . . a Swinger!” (Instead of a frustrated, bored monogamist.) In “swinging,” a husband and wife give each other license to copulate with other people. There are no statistics on the subject that mean anything, but I do know that it pops up in conversation today in the most unexpected corners of the country. It is an odd experience to be in De Kalb, Illinois, in the very corncrib of America,* and have some conventional-looking housewife (not housewife, damn it!) come up to you and ask: “Is there much tripling going on in New York?”
Tripling turns out to be a practice, in De Kalb, anyway, in which a husband and wife invite a third party—male or female, but more often female—over for an evening of whatever, including polymorphous perversity, even the practices written of in the one-hand magazines, all the things involving tubes and hoses and tourniquets and cups and double-jointed sailors.
“. . . Wife-shucking in the Me Decade becomes normal behavior, one factor that has pushed the divorce rate above 50 percent . . .”
One of the satisfactions of this sort of life, quite in addition to the groin spasms, is talk: Let’s talk about Me. Sexual adventurers are given to the most relentless and deadly serious talk. . . about Me. They quickly succeed in placing themselves onstage in the sexual drama whose outlines were sketched by Freud and then elaborated upon by Wilhelm Reich. Men and women of all sorts, not merely swingers, are given just now to the most earnest sort of talk about the Sexual Me.
A key drama of our own day is Ingmar Bergman’s movie Scenes From a Marriage. In it we see a husband and wife who have good jobs and a well-furnished home but who are unable to “communicate”—to cite one of the signature words of the Me Decade. Then they begin to communicate, and there upon their marriage breaks up and they start divorce proceedings. For the rest of the picture they communicate endlessly, with great candor, but the “relationship”—another signature word—remains doomed. Ironically, the lesson that people seem to draw from this movie has to do with . . . “the need to communicate.” Scenes From a Marriage is one of those rare works of art, like The Sun Also Rises, that not only succeed in capturing a certain mental atmosphere in fictional form . . . but also turn around and help radiate it throughout real life. I personally know of two instances in which couples, after years of marriage, went to see Scenes From a Marriage and came home convinced of the “need to communicate.” The discussions began with one of the two saying. Let’s try to be completely candid for once. You tell me exactly what you don’t like about me, and I’ll do the same for you. At this, the starting point, the whole notion is exciting. We’re going to talk about Me! (And I can take it.) I’m going to find out what he (or she) really thinks about me! (Of course, I have my faults, but they’re minor, or else exciting.)
She says. “Go ahead. What don’t you like about me?”
They’re both under the Bergman spell. Nevertheless, a certain sixth sense tells him that they’re on dangerous ground. So he decides to pick something that doesn’t seem too terrible.
“Well,” he says, “one thing that bothers me is that when we meet people for the first time, you never know what to say. Or else you get nervous and start babbling away, and it’s all so banal, it makes me look bad.”
Consciously she’s still telling herself, “I can take it.” But what he has just said begins to seep through her brain like scalding water. What’s he talking about? . . . makes him look bad? He’s saying I’m unsophisticated, a social liability, and an embarrassment. All those times we’ve gone out, he’s been ashamed of me! (And what makes it worse—it’s the sort of disease for which there’s no cure!) She always knew she was awkward. His crime is: He noticed! He’s known it, too, all along. He’s had contempt for me.
Out loud she says. “Well, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about that.”
He detects the petulant note. “Look,” he says. “you’re the one who said to be candid.”
She says, “I know. I want you to be.”
He says, “Well, it’s your turn.”
“Well,” she says, “I’ll tell you something about when we meet people and when we go places. You never clean yourself properly—you don’t know how to wipe yourself. Sometimes we’re standing there talking to people, and there’s . . . a smell. And I’ll tell you something else. People can tell it’s you.”
*De Kalb is headquarters of De Kalb Agresearch, Inc.