Last Night in Paradise by Katie Roiphe

A look at sexual mores in the age of AIDS.

I like a good polemic as much as the next person, particularly when it involves people having lots of sex, mostly because I always feel like that’s nice work if you can get it. Last Night in Paradise isn’t hard-hitting investigative journalism as much as it’s an apologia for all the sex that Roiphe and her friends had in the 80s and 90s: “look, we may have slept around but we are always scared we got AIDS, so that doesn’t make us sleazy like swingers in the 1970s.” Roiphe herself calls this a kind of Puritanism, yet she succumbs to it in almost every chapter, talking about how she herself worries that she’s slept with too many people, or wondering whether or not she and her friends can handle the emotional ramifications of all that “safer sex.” She never quite seems to leave the Upper East Side private school world that she herself came from, and tends to see her experiences as representative of the general population. Her astonishment that anyone would voluntarily choose abstinence belies her inability to consider that there are other perspectives on sex than her own.

The section of the book that still holds up is the one concerning Magic Johnson, the basketball star who contracted AIDS then admitted that he’d slept with 20,000 women. She compares the media’s Johnson narrative with the realities of Johnson’s own self-told story. The fact that George HW Bush and Dan Quayle called this man a “hero” instead of castigating his selfishness and recklnessness still stands as a testament to the double standard that still afflicts public discourse about sex.

7 thoughts on “Last Night in Paradise by Katie Roiphe”

  1. Could you say a little more about the Magic Johnson section of the book? I am intrigued by what the nature of Roiphe’s criticism of him was, perhaps because I have only heard the media construction of his story, as you mention (although isn’t the number of women that he claims to have slept with 200, rather than 20,000 – the latter would require sleeping with a different women every day for over 50 years!).

  2. He was sleeping with more than one woman a day–in an interview on one of the major networks, he bragged about the time he slept with 6 women at once.

    Her criticism was not with Magic per se, but with the media portrayal of his story. Here was a man who was engaging in flagrantly risky behavior, yet he had to be cast as a “hero” and a “gentleman” so that he could be a suitable public face to AIDS. He had had an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman since high school, so she got cast as his “high school sweetheart,” even though he had a child with another woman while they were supposedly together, and obviously cheated on her a number of times. And it was unthinkable to suggest that Magic might have engaged in any kind of bisexual activity, because for AIDS to be palatable to “America” it needed to be liberated from being associated with homosexuality.

    A similar recasting occurred with Alison Gertz, a straight woman from a wealthy Upper East Side family who contracted AIDS after having a one-night-stand with a bisexual nightclub bartender when she was only 16. The media portrayed it as a night of passion and romance in order to deflect attention from Gertz’s promiscuity.

    The reason I called it a double standard was because Roiphe reports that Pres Bush Sr and VP Dan Quayle publicly called Magic Johnson a “gentleman,”** a statement I find shameful when contrasted with Quayle’s same-era denunciation of the fictional character Murphy Brown, a woman who chose single motherhood after becoming pregnant.

    **I said “hero” above, but that was a mistake.

  3. Thanks so much for elaborating, Superfast Reader – this is a really fascinating issue, and I am eager to learn more about it.

    The only reason I question the 20,000 figure is that Wikipedia (not always accurate, I know! So I wanted to double-check with you) lists the number as 200, and the only other references I can find to it online are to Wilt Chamberlain’s claim to have had sex with 20,000 women in his (at the time, longer) life. Apparently Arthur Ashe was quite scathing about both men’s pride in their own promiscuity.

    Thanks for writing so well about such an important issue, Superfast Reader! I always enjoy reading your blog.

  4. Good for Arthur Ashe…

    I think it must’ve been me, not Roiphe, who put the 20,000 to Magic–as soon as you brought up Wilt Chamberlain I realized that’s where I got that # from. I don’t think specific numbers played into the Magic story, except for the “6 at once” story he gave to Larry King or Dan Rather or somebody like that.

    I bet the number is much higher than 200, though. At one point in the Magic chapter Roiphe brings up that for a “normal” man, 100 partners is considered a lot, so imagine a world where triple digits is the norm. Magic described how women would just show up at the hotel, waiting to be chosen for sex. So very, very sad.

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