Remembrance of Things Past

Coffeetable Books

December 17, 1999:

The Century of Sex: Playboy's History of the Sexual Revolution, 1900-1999

by James R. Petersen

Grove Press, 576 pp., $35


by Makoto Kubota

Chronicle Books, 156 pp., $29.95 (paper)

There was a golden moment in 1965 when Playboy and sophistication were synonymous. Since then, the magazine has been outflanked by feminism on one side and hardcore on the other, ossifying into a provincial outpost of lewdness. Playboy writer James R. Petersen has written a history of sex in America that is conceptually confused from the get-go, mixing up sexual practices with sexual representation, misunderstanding censorship as a sort of showdown between the groovy pro-sex people and the villainous anti-sex people, and according much more weight to a certain magazine and its editor than that magazine, in all honesty, deserves. But, after all, this is Playboy, not Foucault. The unintentionally funniest bits are about the Eighties, which is where Petersen locates the "The Great Repression." According to Petersen, this was when sex was repressed by "anti-sex" feminists and right-wing evangelists. Huh? The decade of Prince? This is the end result of confusing pictures of naked gals with Sex. This book will undoubtedly find its market, however, exuding as it does the salacious promise of the Playboy name, which is the kind of thing which fetches the yokels.

The other end of the body culture from centerfolds is sumo wrestlers -- you know, proportions are important for both groups. According to Sumo, a giant-sized photo book, the largest sumo wrestler right now weighs 628 pounds. Yikes! You will not, unfortunately, get a sense of sumo from these photographs, which are often muddy, and, according to some wacky editorial dictate, laid out across two pages. This means you have to press the book real hard to find out what is going on in the center. A pity, since a 500-pound man putting the ritual squeeze on another of comparable avoirdupois is something I would like to get a very clear (and distant) view of.

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