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It isn’t sex Americans want to see, it’s information about sex

I’ve been thinking a lot about sex.

Specifically, mainstream sex. Sex in the marketplace.

What got me thinking about it seriously were two cultural products whose advent was in the past two weeks: the movie “Magic Mike XXL” and E. L. James’ novel “Grey,” in which she tells the story of her blockbuster “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy from the standpoint of her male S&M protagonist.

“Sex sells” is the truism that people knowingly and confidently stick with whenever the subject arises.

But that’s not really true. Sex is not a popular commodity in America and never has been. Hard-core pornography has always been too cynical to be anything more than a minority taste. That’s not likely to change.

The closest it ever came to becoming mainstream and middle-class was when the film “Deep Throat” actually started playing in mall movie theaters all over America (not here; it was restricted to the city’s porn house.) What was happening was that the story of abused and exploited Linda Lovelace in the era before video became a kind of sideshow attraction. There’s no question that a certain kind of hard-core porn (“The Devil in Miss Jones,” etc.) actually found a middle-class audience, but American mores were changing at a fiendish tempo then and a good case could be made that mass-market cinematic sex lagged significantly behind developments in music and literature.

What we Americans greatly prefer is that sex for the marketplace be well-packaged, sometimes elaborately so. Cynicism doesn’t sell. It repels. So we want sex as information. Or sex as an affirmation of the middle-class triumph over puritanism, the triumph of a comfortable capitalist lifestyle over religious dogma.

“Masters of Sex,” the terrific Showtime series about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, returns to television next Sunday and is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. There is sexual activity on the show, but the show is a brilliant semi-soap opera about the lights and lives and real people who chose to make sex the subject of lifetime scientific study. It’s a show about how two researchers completely recreated mainstream ideas about human sexual response – especially in women.

And that is no small factor in what I’ve been thinking about in connection with “Magic Mike XXL” and “Grey:” Mass-market sex has been successfully feminized.

“Magic Mike XXL” is a cinematic consecration of the whole Girls’ Night Out culture behind whatever male strip clubs there are in America. It has been well-known for decades that the raunchy, party-down communities of women watching male strippers tend to be different from the sullen non-communicative atmosphere so often prevailing in male strip clubs.

When Stephen Soderbergh – one of the smartest filmmakers in Hollywood and one of the smartest American movies have ever had – invented the “Magic Mike” franchise, as an outgrowth of actor Channing Tatum’s real previous life as a male stripper, Tatum and Soderbergh both knew that telling the story would require intelligence, sensitivity, scope and skill, all of which Soderbergh has in abundance. Otherwise, the film would be dumped into the large American junk pile containing badly packaged American cynicism.

It wasn’t. It was a smash. Hence the smash sequel for July Fourth weekend.

Soderbergh has been dealing with sex in a complicated way since the beginning of his career in 1989, with “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” His Emmy-winning biography of Liberace was a ground-breaking mass-market look at an enormously popular gay entertainer. No movie studio would make it. HBO did and it won Emmys.

Soderbergh generally knows what’s for mass markets. Whatever he didn’t know, he learned in 2009 when his Godard-ian film with porn star Sasha Grey playing a prostitute, “The Girlfriend Experience,” never went far beyond On Demand TV and video.

Though someone else directed “Magic Mike XXL,” Soderbergh’s presence was essential to the project. He was both its cinematographer and its film editor, which means that he was there for every second of filming and every second of post-production. These “Magic Mike” blockbusters are still his babies.

Most reviews of the new one have been close to ecstatic in emphasizing the celebratory difference from the first one’s insistence on telling real truths about male strippers’ lives, along with showing all the bumping and grinding and the anatomic results of a lot of hours in the gym.

“Magic Mike XXL” is, then, not about sex but about physical health and the guys who make such a decent living in the Girls’ Night Out business that they can’t keep away.

It’s beginning to seem like it’s Soderbergh’s world and everyone else just lives in it.

E. L. James’ “Grey” is, famously, the story of the events in the “Shades of Grey” trilogy from the standpoint of billionaire Christian Grey.

Once again, the key thing about those books seems to be the packaging of sexual kink – an elementary education in the kind of off-road sexual exploration that finds favor among a minority of our fellow citizens. Sex as information.

What I found almost hilariously obvious about the film that was made from James’ first “Grey” book is how much it bowed down before the ancient conventions of Romantic fiction.

For all its whips and leathers and whatnot, it was about the sexual education of an innocent young woman who, when things promised to get unusual, was asked to sign a contract first, lest she be violated. Here was a “sadist” suitor tender and considerate enough to hold the heroine’s hair when she’s drunkenly upchucking on the sidewalk.

A gentleman, as it were. Think of all these “Grey” stories as “My Fair Lady” with a heroine learning the proper language of whips and handcuffs.

It’s no accident that both the creator of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” (Michelle Ashford) and the writer of the “Grey” books and the director of the first “Grey” movie were all women.

It’s no accident that the bodies being shamelessly objectified in “Magic Mike XXL” are male, not female.

It is also no accident that James’ horrendously written “Grey” books are called “Mommy Porn.” It’s as if they’re singing an old McDonald’s commercial to readers: “You deserve a break today, so get up and get away, to a ‘Grey’ book.”

In the same way women often turn the books they’re reading into book clubs, they’ve turned male strippers in life and on film into occasions for female community.

Sex used to be the subject of stories hidden away in libraries and museums only accessible by male scholars.

Now, it’s the subject of a Showtime TV dramatic series about sex that is more shamelessly informative about it than anything TV has yet shown. It’s also a movie about hard-working dance studs throwing themselves into screaming, laughing female mosh pits and it’s also books about women who think one way to achieve total control is by totally surrendering it – until, that is, it’s time for a “safe word” when a partner has gone too far.

Now is the time we need people like Masters and Johnson to think about all this and explain it all. We’re all going to need some help there.

Other than the obvious need for mass-market candor to be successfully feminized along with so much else in our lives, I’m a little hazy about where all of this may be going.

Sure, we know where it came from. But when, if ever, does it all get out of hand?

And when it does, what’s the “safe word” going to be?


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