America has become a nation of butt fetishists. I’m not judging. I’m not calling for a moral crusade; it’s far too late for morality in America. I’m just observing the passing of one dispensation in manners and the establishment of another, like Talleyrand after the French Revolution.
The bottom is one of the few areas in which the US can claim to lead the world. California, with its porn and internet industries, saturates the global imagination with images of the callipygous American butt in action. Rap videos, a hybrid of music and porn, teach twerking to the innocents of Asia.
Anal sex has become so vogueish that Teen Vogue advises its readers on how to do it. This reflects the pornification of absolutely everything in the names of entertainment and personal freedom. Capitalism is polymorphously perverse because we are too: it is so efficient at ramming itself into every cranny of our lives because we want it, good and hard. Supply and demand: first the commodity fetish, then the anal fetish.
Of course, anal sex is older than Sodom. I exempt from these observations gay men, priests, convicts, sailors and Cambridge- educated spies; needs must, and all that. What interests me here is the change in the imagination and behavior of the majority, the straights and breeders in nontraditional America. Sex remains the central human activity, at least when your luck is in. So the adoption of a niche practice by the majority — ‘normalization’, as we now say — penetrates deeply into questions of what we value and who we are. Talleyrand would have recognized this: his contemporary, the Marquis de Sade, was both a prisoner in the Bastille, the first symbol of the old regime to fall in 1789, and the first modern advocate of the ass-jammin’ community.
We are witnessing a striking shift in what Hugh Hefner would have called the locus of desire. As recently as the Eighties, the US was the land of the breast. America’s sexual imagination was still in the vast shadows of Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Those midcentury sex-bombs symbolized the America of the atomic age: the America that was better because it was bigger, the America that could outproduce the world, the America that shipped its spare wheat to the sex-rationed Soviets, the America where even grown men drank a glass of milk with their steak. It had its knockers, but even they proved America’s vital strength, its surplus and fertility.
The decline of the American breast accompanied the decline of cigarette smoking and the rise of obesity. It also accompanied the shift from financial ethics whose capitalist spirit reflected the savings-based, retentive habits of what Max Weber called the ‘Protestant ethic’ to our current incontinence, which is characterized by impulsive, high-risk behavior, violations of traditional restraint, excessive displays of power and giving your credit card details to strangers on the internet.
Americans have passed from the oral stage of stuffing breast substitutes into the front end of the alimentary canal to the anal stage of stuffing all manner of objects into the back end. Freud, incidentally, thought this shift from orality to anality marked a progress from newborn infantilism to the phase of potty-training and eating Play-Doh (age 18 months to three years). The goal, he reckoned, was to shift the libido’s area of interest to the genitals in the ‘phallic stage’ (age three to six); thence to the ‘latency stage’ (age six to puberty), when sex is sublimated into acquiring social skills and playing Dungeons & Dragons; and then to the ‘genital stage’ that begins with adolescent experiment and ends shortly afterwards with heterosexual marriage. But that was in 1905.
Could there possibly be a connection between the seamy spread of anal sex and two other alarming phenomena, the decline in the birth rate and the decline in the libido of young Americans? The number of babies born in 2020 was the lowest since 1979 — even though the population was 225 million in 1979 and now stands at 328 million. The breeders aren’t breeding like they used to. The adults need jobs capable of covering the mortgages on their degrees and homes before they can shell out for kids. They also need to believe in a future — and the future, as we all know and prefer not to admit, is provisionally canceled in America these days.
Freud thought that the superego, the governing voice of conscience and manners, establishes itself in our minds after the anal stage. Children and adults alike revolt against that controlling, pleasure-denying voice.
The modern revolt against authority expressed itself first as the Protestant revolt against religious authority, and then, in the 18th century, as a revolt against the economic logic which was replacing religious ethics. If everything has a price, an individual is a unit of collective productivity and the aim is to produce surplus value — that is the logic of utilitarianism and its antithesis, socialism — then the free individual devotes himself to unproductive activities, doesn’t care about the cost — and fetishizes his waste of surplus.
Supply and demand: the revolt against tedium and the increasingly jaded demand for images that will tickle frazzled-out synapses summon the ever-increasing and ever-more exotic supply of transgressive images of unproductive acts. This is a doom loop, a desperate squeezing of interest and profit, a commerce and culture of narcissism, a society heading up its own backside. This is how a civilization dies: with both a whimper and a bang, recorded for posterity.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2021 World edition.