The most amusing footnote to the whole silly, slightly smarmy Gay Telese business is the author's surprise that everybody doesn't love him.
"I was staggered by the personal attacks on me, on what they thought was my infidelity," he is heard gasping coast-to-coast and channel-to-channel.
Here, after all, is a man who went massage-parlor hopping, sex shopping and sampling across the country, wrote about it and talked about it constantly . . . and his wife still loves him. Why don't the critics?
He has, he whines touchingly, "run up against small minds, a liberalism that is liberal about everything but sex."
Well, frankly, I suspect their marriage has survived because it is more symbiotic than "open." We have one husband who needs constant proof that he is loved No Matter What He Does, and one wife deeply into proving it.
As a friend of theirs told me, "Nan once wanted to be a nun, but she's settled for being a saint." If Gay Talese feels he is living out the male fantasy life, Nan is his male fantasy wife.
But if "Thy Neighbor's Wife" has not been embraced by the critics, it's for a different reason. The book is just not about "the redefinition of American morality," as it is billed by the author.
Rather, it is largely a series of sexual biographies of middle-aged men who grew up in a repressed atmosphere and who seem to identify the sexual "revolution" with the Right to Do It All. Reading the books is like being trapped in a time warp. His characters, from Hugh Hefner of Playboy to Al Goldstein of Screw Magazine to John Williamson of the Sandston community, are Gay Talese clones who regard the world of swinging, swapping, consumer sex "like a kid given free run in a candy store."
They are still fighting against the old should-nots and repressions of the 1950s, while the rest of us are wrestling with the new shoulds and confusions of the 1980s.
In a scene toward the end of the book, Talese describes this: "The initiators were almost always men, the inhibitors almost always women."
Well, this was the basic social pattern of male-female relationships before the so-called sexual revolution. Men were supposed to try; women were supposed to resist. This dynamic set up a pattern of sexual hostility that has painfully permeated our relationships, even marriages, for generations.
But Talese and his cronies define sexual liberalism as simply getting rid of the nay-saying. In this he isn't alone. nancy Friday's new book, "Men in Love," another best seller, relays a recurring fantasy of many of the men who wrote to her: the woman who wouldn't say no.
When I asked Friday her own definition of "sexual liberation," her first response was that a sexually liberated woman wouldn't say no when she felt yes. But among the young generation you hear more wondering about whether they have said yes when they felt no. Many, many people who are sexually "free" to do what they want are confused about what it is they want to do. There is increasing discomfort at the idea that people know each other in the biblical sense before they know each other in the emotional sense.
In the first wave of any "revolution," people batter down the old standards and often confuse anarchy with freedom. Talese, for example, defines freedom as the victory of the old male posture of "initiating" over the old female posture of "inhibiting." His is an impersonal and grim world of sex as a consumer item.
His men seem pathetically stuck: stuck in the traditional male mode, stuck in sad old fantasies, stuck as eternal adolescents proving they can do what Mommy told them was naughty.
There is, however, another and kinder vision of liberation that also has come out of this "revolution": the interweaving of our sexuality with the rest of our emotions. And this is sorely missing from "Thy Neighbor's Wife."
In a truly breathtaking quote, one of Talese's characters describes his wife mockingly as a typically traditional woman who couldn't have sex "without becoming emotionally involved." But sex is about involvement. Sex is about the binding and delicate feelings that build trust in ourselves and others. It's about vulnerability and pleasure.
A book about sex that never touches its meaningful core -- the involvement called love -- is an odd chronicle of the emotionally impotent. That is why it is so unlovable.