Stoppard’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll” & The Politics of Sex

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I love Tom Stoppard’s plays and I adore 1960s rock music. So I was thrilled when I found myself in New York unexpectedly last week, and scored an aisle seat to Stoppard’s current play, Rock ‘N’ Roll.

The play explores the centrality of rock music to the 1968 Prague Spring and subsequent fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia 21 years later. The Czech government felt so threatened by the passionate attachment of young people to their “decadent” music that it brutally cracked down on bands and their fans. Predictably, this created a backlash and drew more resistance—and more rock music.

Which drew more crackdowns. Which drew more people to resist.

Unfortunately, Stoppard shows us what happened without really exploring why. Perhaps he assumes we know all about the Summer of Love, and understand the liberating effect of that year’s radically different kind of music (“There’s a whole generation with a new explanation,” sang flowers-in-your-hair Scott McKenzie).

In case you don’t remember (meaning you were probably there), or weren’t born yet, people moved their bodies to that new music in new ways. And that helped them think differently. Which encouraged them to challenge the order of things. And that’s when it all got really interesting.

But Stoppard left something out of his 1968, of its new music and brave political action that followed. He left out the sex.

We need to remember—as often as possible—that the sex of 1968 and beyond offered profound political insights and challenges. Yes, it was fun (and sometimes stupid or exploitative), but it was also a vehicle for personal exploration. The stereotype that women were uninterested in sex didn’t collapse from an intellectual argument, but rather from millions of men and women experiencing female desire and satisfaction every Saturday night.

And every time someone touched their own penis or vulva during partner sex for the first time, one more person seized ownership of his or her body, the ultimate political act.

The positive experiences that came from having sex that was against the rules made it clear that the rules were ridiculous. And just like allegiance to rock drove political consciousness, so did allegiance to sex.

If you weren’t there, it’s hard to imagine how angry the grownups became about teens and young adults having the audacity to seize sex for themselves.

Hard to imagine unless you see how angry some grownups are today about the same thing. “Morality” groups, many churches, and our government are enraged by young people who expect access to contraception, abortion, sexual entertainment, treatment for STDs. These grownups are, to use a word my generation invented, freaking out that today’s young people experiment with same-gender sex, have ‘friends with benefits,’ and post nude pics of themselves on MySpace.

I hope today’s young people are gaining political consciousness through their sexual experimentation, and becoming radicalized (another old-fashioned word) as they realize their oppression by the Sexual Disaster Industry.

It would be a shame if all they get from sex is a good time (and, inevitably, some heartaches and maybe an STD). The most important part of sex, especially when you’re young, is the invitation to look at things a whole new way.

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