Sex is dirty to the extent that erotic reality threatens to undermine the cosmic categories that organize the rest of social life. This is the source of the fears that surround sex, but also the source of its fascination. If sex did not disintegrate the cosmos to some extent, human beings would want to copulate only so much as animals, which are less preoccupied with sex. Those who desire to wash the dirt from sex…are polishing away the very impurities that make it worth doing, that allow sex to rise above mere biological process into an existential act.

(Davis 1983:245-6)

The confusions and uncertainties that attend massive social change, particularly those that are massive without being immediately catastrophic, change that almost imperceptibly invades and alters our social worlds, are reflected in concerns focusing upon the sexually deviant and the sexually conforming. Not only do the changes manifested in the social responses to conformity and deviances contextualize each other, but both must bear the effects of changes in related, broader social practices in the domains of work, family life, and community.

Much of what has shaped current sexual patterns is still very much in place, even if undergoing continuing revision. These forces involve virtually every aspect of social life, from the technologies influencing the worlds of work to those that have transformed our most intimate living spaces. What only a few decades ago represented hard-won understandings of the intermeshing of biological time and social time in comprehensive models of the life cycle (Erikson 1950) appear to be less universal in their application and less usable as a basis for creating guides to personal and social wellbeing.

The relationship between behavior and desire has been dominated by the need to establish firm limits on the expression or confession of desires. Much of current commentary on contemporary sexual patterns speaks of excessive change (the sexual revolution) and of returns to normality or, at the very least, of a backing of from current patterns with a renewal of older standards and constraints (the sexual counter-revolution). Even many secular observers viewed the appearance of sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS or genital herpes, as manifestations of some natural sanction against “excessive” or “unnatural” sexual behavior. Similarly, the swiftness of the construction of a new psychiatric disorder, “sexual addiction”, gives further evidence of what is commonly described as “a retreat from permissiveness” (Levine and Troiden 1988).

The postmodern experience may begin to reverse this as the claims of many desires are heard more emphatically. The hyperreality, the attempt to re-create in social life what was never there, that Baudrillard (1983) finds intrinsic to postmodern culture may find its analog in the hyperreality already to be found in modern versions of sexual desire. In this case, hyperreality represents the ascendancy of the “simulacra” or “dream of desire” over the enactment of desire, which sustains the repetitions that are fueled by the quest for what does not, and by its very nature cannot, exist. This would be consistent with the Lacanian (1977) notion of a circularity of desire, where desire presses upon behavior, not seeking satisfaction alone but also seeking confirmation of itself. Sexual hyperrealities press even more strongly upon the conventional, allowing the narrating self to reach, if only briefly, toward an experience of the self that compensates for an accumulating legacy of compromise of sexual pleasure with the requirements of other, more consistently public aspects of social life (Lichtenstein 1977).

We might also speak of the decentering of the sexual in recent years in recognition of its increasing detachment from the family as an institution, which was once its nearly exclusive legitimate social address. This partial abandonment of the familial near monopoly on legitimate sexual expression involved not only changes in sexual practices but also the changing practices describing other aspects of the family. The implications of this sociocultural shiftt for the immediate present and future of the sexual in our lives are numerous.1

Given the ability of the sexual to represent a layered history of desires and associations, different dimensions of sexual desire can be evoked on the level of the intrapsychic than are being performed, often simultaneously, at the level of the interpersonal. The sexual has the capacity to be productive of the confusions associated with “semiotic excess”, to become the bearer of multiple meanings and associations (Barthes 1968). Thus, the sexual scripting of tenderness can accompany feelings of disdain and a retelling of a myth of love can be accompanied by displays of aggression. The distinction between the intrapsychic dimensions and the interpersonal dimensions of the sexual becomes critical: the logic of the intrapsychic script is organized to make desire possible, whereas the logic of the interpersonal script is organized to make behavior acceptable (Simon and Gagnon 1987). This difference requires a charting of the ways in which an enhanced marketplace for sexual desire encourages shopping among the emotional products of current experience for their direct links to sexual excitement, as well as their indirect links to still older sources of sexual excitement (Stoller 1979). Such developments encourage a self more mutable in the scripting of its social commitments and one for whom the satisfactions derived from the inevitable insincerities of our own performance encourage the appropriation of the questionable sincerity of our sexual partners.

For a mutable self may be subjected to “identity exchange”, the reciprocal cognitive transfer of some of each partner’s defining characteristics to the other during sexual intercourse. Identity exchange is central to both erotic experience and smut structure, providing the link between the sexy and the dirty. It is the “double helix” of sexuality, involved in both sexual attraction and repulsion. Sex partners are attracted to each other because

identity exchange allows for each to reproduce himself in the other and the other in himself.

(Davis 1983:239, italics added)