Writing in Vanity Fair, Emily Chang chronicles the exclusive sex parties where industry investors and company founders push their boundaries, make up for what they see as lost time and burnish their sense of self-importance. “What’s making this possible is the same progressiveness and open-mindedness that allows us to be creative and disruptive about ideas,” one pseudonymous company founder told Chang. Former Twitter chairman Evan Williams declared that “if you thought like everyone else, you can’t invent the future.”
Chang’s subjects see themselves as “setting a new paradigm of behavior by pushing the boundaries of social mores and values.” But the sorts of sex parties, open relationships and resulting gender imbalances Chang describes aren’t new. And if these techies think they’re changing the world because of what they do when they’re at play, then it’s worth considering just how much ground they’re actually breaking when they’re at work.
Take one swinging married man who marvels that “after years of restriction and longing, he is living a fantasy, and his wife is right there along with him.” They’re hardly the first American couple to try to broaden their horizons.
In 1892, two North Carolina couples made the New York Times “a remarkable case of wife-swapping,” in which the wives “struck a trade” involving not just their husbands but three calico dresses. They were living in a world well documented by sexologist Alfred Kinsey in his 1948 report “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”: Kinsey noted that some married partners in the “upper social level” have extramarital sex “with the knowledge of the other spouse who may even aid and encourage the arrangement.” Sexual experimentation even among wedded couples was trendy enough that Hollywood rushed to exploit this new type of marriage plot in 1968, culminating most famously in the 1969 release of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”
And, though it may run counter to the congratulatory self-image of Chang’s subjects, history even suggests that sexual experimentation is no proof of particular “progressiveness and open-mindedness,” much less innovative genius. Anthropologist Gilbert Bartell studied the sexually curious for his 1971 book “Group Sex” and found, as reviewer Marcia Seligson put it, that “aside from this one peppy proclivity, their lives are utterly conventional. Strongly anti‐hippie, they have dead‐center political views, believe in God, 99 per cent subscribe to Playboy, and at swinging parties the women tend to talk about which household detergent makes for a whiter wash.”
It’s also not new for men who believed they missed out on sexual adventures when they were younger to pursue them vigorously when the opportunity arises. Playboy Hugh Hefner, who “found the actual sexual act to be disappointing after such an enormous buildup” when he lost his virginity at 19, turned the idea of buying yourself a sexual lifestyle into a huge business empire. Hefner did this so successfully that near the end of his life, his efforts to keep up his swinging image and maintain a bevy of girlfriends seemed anodyne, and maybe even a little sad, rather than shocking.
Straight individuals and couples in earlier eras weren’t the only people beating Silicon Valley’s wannabe sexual revolutionaries to their latest insights. Gay and lesbian couples have long navigated sexually open relationships; the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University has tracked some of them for years. More than a decade before the dot-com bubble began to inflate, queer communities had intense debates over whether their unique sexual cultures could survive the threat of HIV. LGBT people engaged in romantic and sexual innovation of the kind that Chang’s subjects can’t even begin to contemplate, and they did so without the protection of huge amounts of money and social capital, and in response to threats of violence, disease and ostracism.
There’s nothing wrong with the kind of self-exploration Chang describes in her piece (though there are plenty of problems with the way her sources see women). The trouble comes when the people who are supposed to be some of America’s foremost thinkers lose the ability to distinguish between a private revelation and a genuine innovation. The men in the Vanity Fair story appear so enraptured by their own narrow experiences that they’ve lost the sense of scope, and perhaps the intellectual curiosity, to recognize the tradition they’ve joined. You can’t invent the future if don’t realize you’re repeating the past.