man

At the height of the first dot-com boom, a former boss of mine famously boasted that raising funds for his Internet startup was "as easy as getting laid in 1969." It was a fantastic quote, but ugh, the icky imagery it summoned: face-painted baby boomers swaying in their birthday suits at muddy rock festivals, hirsute and flabby in the marijuana clouds, coupling and recoupling like feral dogs. My friends and I, a half-generation younger, take pride in not having been part of this embarrassing bacchanal.

And now we find ourselves in another sexed-up epoch, albeit a more mercenary one: the time of the Paris-Lindsay-Britney crotch-shot triptych, of the slutty anomie of the Laguna Beach girls, of the endlessly replenishable supply of vain coeds willing to flash for cash and make a rich man of Joe Francis, the oleaginous (and currently imprisoned) hustler behind Girls Gone Wild. My friends and I, a half-generation older, take pride in not being part of this embarrassing bacchanal.

But, but . . . well, how to put this? Oh, I'll just come out and say it: A lot of guys my age feel we missed out. We were too young to sample the post-Pill, pre-AIDS bonanza that the boomers gab on and on about. And we're too old to experience the current era of casual hookups and Halloween nights in which even pre-med students dress like hookers. We had honor and self-respect, yes, but maybe not . . . fun? To quote a 39-year-old friend of mine who is married to an intelligent, beautiful, successful working woman of the same age: "Damn! Why didn't we have girls dressed like that and 'friends with benefits' when we were in college?"

man

I'm part of what used to be called — in the early 1990s, when we were at the apogee of our tastemaking powers — Generation X. Our cultural markers are grunge, the early Lollapalooza tours, lattes, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, and the rise of political correctness. Pretty sexy, eh? But before we were foisting such manifestos as Reality Bites and Nevermind upon the world, we were impressionable teens whose sexual and political awakenings took place in the late 1970s and '80s. In retrospect, I recognize that an unusual set of circumstances and social phenomena conspired to make us cautious, modest, respectful, and disinclined to make sex tapes — all traits that just don't fly in today's "U R so hot" world.

We were not in the feminist vanguard, but we grew up when the movement still had some ballast, before a backlash turned the word "feminist" into a harpy label from which young women recoiled. Some of us had mothers who campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment; Ms. magazine actually had a readership. In a peculiar way, the denim-y righteousness of the '70s segued smoothly into the social conservatism of the '80s — in both cases, women kept their clothes on and their sexual activity under wraps. The postfeminist concept of "girlyness" had yet to be invented; there was no Sex and the City from which to appropriate, wholesale, one's adult identity. Campus fashion was shapeless, unisex, and Michael Stipean; between 1981 and 1989, every butt, female and male, was obscured by an enormous sweater or oversize blazer. Even Madonna, as provocative as she was thought to be when she burst onto the scene, was demure by today's standards: She wore leggings under her minis, and that swath of tummy she bared in the "Lucky Star" video was mere midriff, a far cry from the low-riding, pelvic-bone display of your typical Pussycat Doll.

On top of all this, we were systematically guilted and cowed. In one very special episode of Diff'rent Strokes, a rutting Willis (Todd Bridges) was gently talked down from the precipice of virginity-loss by his levelheaded girlfriend, played by the teenaged Janet Jackson, who would score her first hit ballad a few years later with a song called "Let's Wait Awhile." (Indeed, Jackson sensibly waited until 2004 to bare a nipple to an international television audience.) In another very special episode of Diff'rent Strokes, Nancy Reagan tottered onto the soundstage to commend Arnold (Gary Coleman) for being a good little soldier in her "Just Say No" campaign against drugs.

man

I'm part of what used to be called — in the early 1990s, when we were at the apogee of our tastemaking powers — Generation X. Our cultural markers are grunge, the early Lollapalooza tours, lattes, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, and the rise of political correctness. Pretty sexy, eh? But before we were foisting such manifestos as Reality Bites and Nevermind upon the world, we were impressionable teens whose sexual and political awakenings took place in the late 1970s and '80s. In retrospect, I recognize that an unusual set of circumstances and social phenomena conspired to make us cautious, modest, respectful, and disinclined to make sex tapes — all traits that just don't fly in today's "U R so hot" world.

We were not in the feminist vanguard, but we grew up when the movement still had some ballast, before a backlash turned the word "feminist" into a harpy label from which young women recoiled. Some of us had mothers who campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment; Ms. magazine actually had a readership. In a peculiar way, the denim-y righteousness of the '70s segued smoothly into the social conservatism of the '80s — in both cases, women kept their clothes on and their sexual activity under wraps. The postfeminist concept of "girlyness" had yet to be invented; there was no Sex and the City from which to appropriate, wholesale, one's adult identity. Campus fashion was shapeless, unisex, and Michael Stipean; between 1981 and 1989, every butt, female and male, was obscured by an enormous sweater or oversize blazer. Even Madonna, as provocative as she was thought to be when she burst onto the scene, was demure by today's standards: She wore leggings under her minis, and that swath of tummy she bared in the "Lucky Star" video was mere midriff, a far cry from the low-riding, pelvic-bone display of your typical Pussycat Doll.

On top of all this, we were systematically guilted and cowed. In one very special episode of Diff'rent Strokes, a rutting Willis (Todd Bridges) was gently talked down from the precipice of virginity-loss by his levelheaded girlfriend, played by the teenaged Janet Jackson, who would score her first hit ballad a few years later with a song called "Let's Wait Awhile." (Indeed, Jackson sensibly waited until 2004 to bare a nipple to an international television audience.) In another very special episode of Diff'rent Strokes, Nancy Reagan tottered onto the soundstage to commend Arnold (Gary Coleman) for being a good little soldier in her "Just Say No" campaign against drugs.

Oh, how dutifully abstinent we were! And just when we thought we couldn't get any more so — with the exception of the child stars of Diff'rent Strokes, who evidently paid little heed to the lessons they acted out — along came the "big disease with a little name," as Prince put it in "Sign 'O' the Times." AIDS was breaking news then, covered on the front page like a war and about as foggily understood. Sex continued to be had — we were in our teens and 20s, how could it not? — but the whole "casual" thing was a nonstarter.

As contrived as MTV's The Real World is, its first seasons, populated with people my age, did a pretty accurate job of capturing the sexual tenor of the early 1990s. The kids were age-appropriately horny but tentative in their advances and schlumpy in their personal presentation. The only compulsive skin-barers were guys: the pectorally magnificent Eric Nies and the devilish provocateur David "Puck" Rainey from, respectively, season one in New York and season three in San Francisco. That third season, taped and aired in 1994, was the program's high point. Its heart and soul was the AIDS-stricken activist Pedro Zamora, eloquent and doe-eyed, who died the day after the season finale was broadcast — a sad epilogue to a noble TV attempt at pop social science. Cut to 2002, when The Real World was set in Las Vegas, and the whole exercise had grown coarse, cynical, and raunchy. This was the season that gave us group Jacuzzi frottage, network-mandated go-go dancing (it was a "task" assigned to the girls), and 21-year-old Trishelle Cannatella, spectacularly buxom and stupid, who, on just her fourth day in town, sheepishly confessed to her sister back home in Looziana that she'd already "hooked up" with two different housemates, and one "wuzn't a guy!"

I know that current MTV reality programming is a grotesque exaggeration of American youth culture, but still, the stuff that normal kids do leaves my contemporaries and me gobsmacked: the Facebook exhibitionism, the de rigeur sex columns in the college papers, the dressing up like Bratz dolls. We're appalled, but also titillated, left to wonder if we weren't too puritanical. And it isn't just the men who feel this way.

"I would have loved to have gone out sport-fucking!" says a 41-year-old woman friend, nevertheless devoted to her husband and two children. "Girls want to do the exact same thing as boys. But in our time, slutty girls were supposed to be dumb; there was no power in it. We went around in big white T-shirts with rags in our hair, hiding our bodies."

"The whole American Apparel thing," says another friend, a man. "The raw, skanky flagrancy of it. I kinda dig it and wish we'd had it around when we were younger. But I feel like a dirty old man even saying that."

Most of us fledgling geezers recognize that expressing this pang of longing, getting it out there on the table, is as far as we should take it. There's nothing to be gained by trying to make up for lost time or, worse, pretending to be 23. No one's rooting for the dad in the Paul Frank tee or the would-be MILF who has signed up for pole-dancing lessons.

We can also take solace from the cautionary tales of the past and present. The free love of the boomer era turned out to have a steep psychic cost, as the boomers' therapists can attest. And the price of acting like Britney Spears is that you end up, well, acting like Britney Spears. If nothing else, we members of the generation formerly known as X can say we chose the sanest, safest path. Pretty sexy, eh?

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