“Nobody had sex until roughly a century ago, and even then, it didn’t really become fashionable until the Sixties.”

Let me qualify that: nobody “had sex” until about a hundred years ago, give or take. Google ngram’s survey of the corpus of English literature reveals that very few writers using that phrase in print until around the First World War, or even the mid-1920’s. The exact results vary depending on the wording, but essentially our most basic language for one of our most basic human activities is about as old as Girl Scout cookies or the Boeing corporation. The real linguistic take-off occurred in the mid-to-late 1960’s, however. If we allow a little time for the written word to catch up with facts on the ground, then it coincides with Phillip Larkin’s famous couplet:

Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.

Funny thing about Lady Chatterly’s Lover: aside from providing the occasion for a groundbreaking 1960 obscenity trial in Britain, D.H. Lawrence’s novel was also the one of the first notable works to use “sex” to refer to erotic behavior, as opposed to the male/female distinction (sex meaning “split” in Latin).  Back in 1928, phrases such as “the sex act” or “sex relations” were in circulation, but Lawrence’s clipped, three-letter transition from adjective to noun was a relative novelty. In retrospect the reader can see the ambiguity being worked out in favor of its modern meaning:

“Well, Charlie and I believe that sex is a sort of communication like speech. Let any woman start a sex conversation with me, and it’s natural for me to go to bed with her to finish it, all in due season.”

Or:

It’s the one insane taboo left: sex as a natural and vital thing … You have to snivel and feel sinful or awful about your sex, before you’re allowed to have any.

Academics are fond of calling what’s going on here “reification:” sex is being made into a “thing” that one can have or not have— and indeed, Lawrence speaks of “this sex thing” several times over the course of the book. “Sex” may still be related to the man-woman pair, but the primary meaning has shifted. To borrow a line from the estimable Carlo Lancelotti (h/t to him for part of the idea behind this piece), it has become an “abstract consumable.”

This, of course, is the primary meaning of “sex” for all of us now. It ought to be clear by now that this change is of more than just etymological interest. Even those who dissent from the social revolution Lawrence was helping to inaugurate speak in its peculiar dialect. In this way of speaking, sex is not just an alternative gerund for a much older four-letter Anglo-Saxon word- it is something a person can get, or withhold, or demand. If it can’t exactly be counted, it can still be quantified, whether a lot, a little, or “any,” as in Lady Chatterly. It is less a quality than it is a commodity.

One consequence of this shift is the conceptual ease of separating “sex” from the male-female distinction at all: the word “sexual” for us moderns mainly denotes anything related to the erotic drive, not things pertaining to males or females as such. In a larger sense, though, it is the “thingification” of sex that represents the real legacy of this past erotic century. Even if humans beings have always been tempted to view sexual behavior in impersonal terms, that assumption is now embedded in our language at a fundamental level. In assessing what we have gained or lost in the process, it’s worth looking back to the very first  known appearance of our sense of “sex,” in H.G. Well’s Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900):

He thought of the bitter words of an orator at Hammersmith, who had complained that in our present civilization even the elemental need of marriage was denied. Virtue had become a vice. “We marry in fear and trembling, sex for a home is the woman’s traffic, and the man comes to his heart’s desire when his heart’s desire is dead.” The thing that had seemed a mere flourish came back now with a terrible air of truth.

“Sex” first appears not as an expression of rebellious exuberance, but as a melancholy, transactional business. The very passage in which the word was coined is a protest an older sexual ideal, one that Wells found to be a dead faith. By the latter half of the twentieth century, most people in the West had internalized many of Wells’ beliefs; virtually everyone in the English-speaking world had adopted his language.

A century and more later, the question for us is whether we are any closer to our “heart’s desire,” or any further away from a gloomy “traffic” abstracted away from human persons. If not, it is worth considering whether the past several decades of “having sex” have been enough, and whether we ought to start doing something else.