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Sexual tension ranges from steamy to stifling

From pics to TV to 'porcelain parity,' America is rife with tensions

A surprising number of people admit they depend on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” as their primary source of news, so when the show itself made news recently, I paid attention.

It all started when some blogs declared Stewart’s show to be a “boys’ club” that ignored the contributions of women staffers. Then came a burst of open letters from 30 women on the show insisting their boss is not sexist nor is his show.

The flare-up underscored the reality that tensions between the sexes seem to be growing not only in the office but also in the home and courtroom. It’s as though society as a whole is in need of an HR overseer — a totally depressing notion.

The tensions are not hard to understand. Everywhere you look, change is upon us. Vastly more women are working — indeed they’re better qualified and more educated to be the bosses. It’s even evident in the media: Women are the star crimefighters in three TV series premiering this month. Political races are increasingly dominated by women candidates — witness Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California — and Sarah Palin seems to be gaining credibility (where’s that HR man?)

Familial bonds are changing as well, as reflected by the fact that the hottest movies and TV shows feature gay couples (witness the success of “The Kids Are All Right” and “Modern Family”).

It’s daunting enough when a federal judge in Massachusetts decrees that there’s no rational basis to believe that marriage must involve a man and a woman. But when “The Today Show” show decides to allow same-sex couples to participate in its “Modern Day Wedding” competition, that’s a signal of true social change.

If attitudes toward families are shifting, so are attitudes toward children. Writing in New York magazine, Jennifer Senior cites studies indicating that couples today simply are not happier because they have children — in fact, they are downright unhappy, especially the mommies. Pressures of the bad economy are part of the cause, but so is the manic belief that the only good parents are “perfect parents” who surround their kids with tutors.

“Family life has put middle-class men in a bind,” writes Camille Paglia, a humanities professor at the U. of the Arts. “They are simply cogs in a domestic machine commanded by women.”

One upshot, says Paglia, is a weirdly asexual office environment “where physicality is suppressed, voices are lowered and gestures curtained off in sanitized office space.” She continues: “Men must neuter themselves while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom.”

There’s no bigger anachronism in today’s office than the mandated sexual harassment classes, which presuppose a ’70s-style sexual free-for-all. Some of us still remember that epoch of flaming libidos, when every office interaction seemed sexually charged. Hollywood’s fabled casting couch was all but abandoned in the ’70s as the action moved to desktops or coat closets.

Today’s employees are too fearful about their jobs to surrender to their ids. As Paglia reiterates, a case could be made that while the movies create a phony illusion of sexual excitement, the nation in reality is gripped by sexual apathy. “The real culprit is bourgeois propriety,” she writes. “Repression has become the norm.”

The ultimate metaphor for today’s sexual tension may turn out to be the toilet. As the Economist reports, women are finally beginning to win a worldwide struggle for parity in the lavatory. A bill now before Congress mandates equal provision of toilets for men and women, and half the states now have “porcelain parity” laws.

What this may mean is that women will no longer have to suffer in discomfort waiting in line for a john while men amble in and out of their urinals. The bathroom may finally be one area that will be tension-free.