Sexual Revolution

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Sexual Revolution

Reports of a "sexual revolution" first appeared in the media in the mid-1960s. The reports identified a number of trends and developments taking place throughout American society. Midway through the decade, the popularity of rock music, the increased use of marijuana, LSD, and other drugs among youth, widespread public displays of nudity, and a new openness about sexuality contributed to the awareness of radical cultural change. Public interest in sex had been growing since the late 1940s and the number of novels, magazine articles, and advice books dealing with sexuality grew to epic proportions. Already in the 1950s, a number of famous novels that had previously been banned because of their sexual explicitness, such as D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, began to be published in the United States. Advice books like Sex and the Single Girl (1962) by Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, and The Sensuous Woman (1969) by J. poured from the presses. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) initiated the revival of feminism and stimulated the discussion of sex and gender roles. Popular sociologists like Vance Packard in The Sexual Wilderness: The Contemporary Upheaval in Male-Female Relationships (1968) explored the interplay of both feminism and the sexual revolution. In 1966, Drs. William Masters and Virginia Johnson published the first of their scientific studies—Human Sexual Response (1966). Sexually explicit pulp novels, like Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls (1966), and sexually explicit movies, like I am Curious (Yellow) (1967), attempted to satisfy a public's growing hunger for the vicarious experience of sex. By the 1970s, newspapers with names like Screw, offering sexual information, personal ads, and sexually explicit photos and art, were available on street corners in larger American cities. These cultural developments demonstrated an increased public interest in sex and suggested that sexual behavior was undergoing changes as well.

What "sexual revolution" means, when it began (if it did), to whom it applied, and what changes it wrought are highly contested subjects. According to sociologists there is no doubt that patterns of sexual partnering underwent significant change in the 1960s, and it is this shift away from "monogamous" sexuality that is usually signi-fied by the term "sexual revolution." However, the revolution that emerged in the 1960s was as much a change in attitudes about sex as it was a significant shift in sexual conduct. Changes in the way that people thought about sexuality and gender roles stimulated new modes of behavior that were not always measured by increased sexual activity. For example, women entered marriage with greater sexual experience and confidence than women in the past. As a result there was an increased demand for sexual satisfaction in marriage. It contributed to the growth of a market for books and magazine articles about how to improve your sex life, a greater demand for marriage manuals and counselors. It may have also led to an increase in divorces, which reinforced the likelihood of those who were divorced having additional sexual partners in their lifetime. These developments also challenged the double standard—which permitted men to engage in sexual activity outside their marriage, but harshly stigma-tized women having extra-marital affairs. In the end, all these experiences probably generated both increased frustrations and greater freedom. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique capitalized on precisely these developments—thus the emergence of feminism and women's rights overlapped with and were intertwined with the developments later labeled "the sexual revolution."

The sexual revolution as it emerged in the 1960s was the historical culmination of processes begun during World War II, and it produced significant changes in the decades that followed. The term "revolution" usually implies something that occurs rapidly and dramatically. However, the time frame of the sexual revolution is much longer and it resembles the time frame of the Industrial Revolution—the transition from an agricultural society to one built on new technologies and industrial production. It has been an immense and contradictory process, often not very obvious, stretching out over the life span of two generations. This sexual revolution radically altered the sex/gender system, as anthropologist Gayle Rubin has called the system that translates biological capacities—of sex and gender differences—into the cultural and social patterns that constitute our lives as gendered and sexual human beings. The sexual revolution started as a result of three major cultural forces. First of all, of the explosion of youth culture and the thirst for sexual experience before marriage by young men and women; secondly, the emergence of feminism and the women's movement at the end of the 1960s; and lastly, the gay liberation movement's dramatic Stonewall rebellion in 1969. But the sexual revolution also provoked a profound and powerful counter-revolution—the Religious Fundamentalist Right—which continues to wage a battle against the forces that originally ignited the revolution.

The mobilization of young men for the Armed Services and the recruitment of female factory workers during World War II initiated a profound shift in the social relations of gender and sexuality in the United States. Young men and women left the haven of their families and lived for four years among other people far from parental guidance. These young women and men in their late teens and early twenties were at the threshold of their most sexually active stage of life and usually, they were unmarried. This generation had grown up during the Great Depression and were heavily influenced by the exuberant and free-wheeling culture of swing—a cultural explosion roughly analogous to the rock culture of the 1960s. Throughout the war years young men and women—in constant motion and under the uncertainty and stress of combat—engaged in sexual relations with each other outside of marriage and other constraining contexts.

Recognition of sexual revolution dawned slowly after the war. The publication of Alfred Kinsey's two pathbreaking volumes on human sexuality in 1948 (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male) and 1953 (Sexual Behavior in the Human Female) probably exerted greater influence on modern conceptions of sexuality than any work since Sigmund Freud's. Moral outrage and a great deal of professional hypocrisy greeted the report, but few Americans remained immune to a new awareness of the gap between public attitudes toward sexual behavior and daily sexual activities. Kinsey was so struck by the extraordinary extent of individual variation in sexual behavior that he argued that any attempt to establish uniform standards of sexual conduct was both impracticable and unjust. He believed that his discovery of the widespread deviation from accepted sexual standards showed that attempts to regulate sexual behavior were doomed to failure and "the only proper sexual policy was no policy at all."

Although the research in the Kinsey reports was not based on the generation that experienced the postwar sexual revolution (they had focused on the inter-war generations), the reports did come to symbolize it in the popular consciousness and in the history of American culture. Most of what we mean by sexual revolution refers to non-marital sexual activity. By the early 1960s, shifts had begun to take place along several fronts that consolidated the sexual revolution. One of the most important was that young men and women engaged in their first acts of sexual intercourse at increasingly younger ages. The impact of earlier sexual experimentation was reinforced by the later age of marriage; thus young men and women had more time available to acquire sexual experience with partners before entering into a long-term monogamous relationship. In addition, the growing number of marriages resulting in divorce provided another opportunity for men and women (to a lesser degree) to engage in non-monogamous sexual activity. All three of these developments allowed the generation born between 1935 and 1945 to experience sexual activity with a larger number of sexual partners in their lifetime than most men and women born earlier.

These trends received reinforcement from a number of other developments. Technical improvements and the increased access to birth control methods made it easier for women to engage in sex without the risk of unwanted pregnancy. In 1960, the most popular form of birth control, the oral contraceptive pill, became commercially available. Political developments, such as the emergence of the women's movement, also encouraged women to reject the double standard and to postpone marriage. In the wake of the women's movement, the gay liberation movement emerged in 1969. The gay movement sought to combat the stigma attached to homosexuality. It promoted self-acceptance and a positive evaluation of homosexuality that significantly contributed to the sexual revolution. For example, lesbians and gay men organized dances, coffee houses, and other social activities in order to facilitate sexual and social contacts among men and women with homosexual desires.

If the Kinsey reports represent the first shot fired in the sexual revolution, the research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson represented an ambiguous resolution of some issues raised by the shifts in sexual attitudes and behavior. Human Sexual Response (1966) was the first volume published, to be followed four years later by Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970); both books were based on laboratory observations of sexual behavior and became the basis of a therapeutic practice devoted to sexual dysfunction. Nevertheless, their work also exemplified the sexual egalitarianism of the 1960s—not only in their working relationship, but also in the image of sexual relations that they project in their books. Their work stressed the importance of the quality of sexual activity—yet they made the couple rather than the unattached individual the preferred unit of analysis and therapy. In the end, Masters and Johnson focused almost exclusively on the quality of sexual experience within committed relationships. They did not discuss improving the quality of sexual experience for those men and women who chose to engage in sex with casual (non-marital) sexual partners, the sex that is essential to the definition of the sexual revolution.

By the late 1960s, social institutions emerged to facilitate non-marital sexual contacts. Singles bars opened so that single men and women could meet and make sexual contacts. Weekly alternative newspapers sprouted in most major cities—all of which carried personal ads of people looking for sexual partners and relationships. Swinging or mate swapping also became the practice among certain social circles where couples swapped partners among themselves. Swingers clubs were started and others took out ads in swinging and alternative publications. Within this context other kinds of sexuality also gained visibility—fetishes, S/M (sado-masochism), and transvestitism. The proportion of the population that participated in the new swinging and singles scene was probably small but the scene was widely publicized in the press and popular culture. The dilemmas of sophisticated sexual experiments like swapping were satirized in movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and Shampoo (1975). Movies like Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) exploited the vulnerabilities and anxieties of these new trends for young women. The movie Cruising (1980) set a police thriller in a gay world of men engaged in an endless and desperate hunt for sex.

Another sign of the sexual revolution was the increased availability of sexually explicit books, magazines, and films. In 1967 the U.S. Congress set up a Commission on Pornography and Obscenity to define pornography and obscenity, provide guidelines for its regulation and to assess its significance in American society. The Report of the Commission concluded that its researchers had found no evidence that exposure to explicit sexual materials led to any criminal or delinquent behavior among youth and adults. This report was later criticized by conservatives and some feminists in the 1980s and was countered by a later Commission appointed by the Reagan administration. Nevertheless, the sexual revolution of the 1960s was associated with much greater degrees of sexual explicitness throughout the culture. Mainstream media like Hollywood movies achieved a level of sexual explicitness that receded in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

By the late 1970s, the sexual revolution encountered a number of obstacles. One was the growing opposition of conservative and religious groups to all those new gender roles and forms of sexual conduct that appeared during the peak years (1964—1977) of the sexual revolution: non-marital and youth sexuality, birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Conservatives established new organizations, elected political representatives, passed legislation, fought to defund sexually progressive programs and to fund sexually conservative programs. These battles continue to take place up until the present. What many call commentators call "the culture wars" are, in part, an extension of the sexual revolution.

However, the sexual revolution also encountered obstacles of another sort—sexually transmitted diseases (STD). The diseases spread by sex are numerous and ancient: gonorrhea, syphilis, genital warts, genital herpes, and hepatitis B. AIDS is also transmitted sexually but it was discovered only in 1981; it is the most serious and devastating of sexually transmitted diseases. Starting in the late 1970s, there were a growing number of reports about STD—both Time and Newsweek produced cover stories on herpes, and the gay male communities were swept by waves of gonorrhea, syphilis, and Hepatitis B. The discovery of an AIDS epidemic among gay men in the early 1980s provoked a major crisis in the sexual politics of the gay community. Medical researchers and gay leaders struggled to find ways of stopping the epidemic without completely excluding all sexual activity. Eventually a number of gay activists invented the idea of "safer sex"—in which gay men could engage in sex, using condoms, without transmitting the virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. Soon after, safer sex was adopted by public health educators and AIDS activists as the basis for HIV prevention. Safer sex and traditional public health treatment programs for the older STD have since reduced the spread of these diseases considerably.

The sexual revolution was not only a revolution in sexual behavior per se—measured by sociologists as an increase in the lifetime number of sexual partners—but also a cultural revolution that was intertwined with many other significant social changes. STD had reached epidemic proportions by the early 1980s, but provided another form of evidence of extensive and casual sexual partnering. Women's sexuality was redefined, and new stress was laid on clitoral orgasm and sexual satisfaction. A culture of sexual experimentation (swinging, S/M clubs, singles bars) emerged that contributed to the evolution of new sexual norms. The women's movement, the counter-culture, the development of new lifestyles, lesbian and gay liberation, a greater acceptance of pleasure and all kinds of improvements in the quality of life overlap with the sexual revolution. Religious fundamentalists and the New Right represent the conservative response to the sexual revolution. Many of the social changes and the conflicts engendered by them continue on into the present. Cultural and political changes resulting from the sexual revolution are still in the process of forming. However, the sexual revolution of post-World War II America has changed sexual and gender roles permanently.

—Jeffrey Escoffier

Further Reading:

Costello, John. Love, Sex, War: Changing Values, 1939-1945. London, Collins, 1985.

D'Emilio, John and Estelle Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. 2nd ed. New York, Harper Collins, 1998.

Escoffier, Jeffrey. American Homo: Community and Perversity. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998.

Heidenry, John. What Wild Ecstasy: The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Revolution. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Michael, Robert T., John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Lauman, and Gina Kolata. Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. New York, Warner Books, 1994.

Petersen, James R. The Century of Sex: Playboy's History of the Sexual Revolution, 1900-1999. New York, Grove Press, 1999.

Seidman, Steven. Embattled Eros: Sexual Politics and Ethics in Contemporary America. New York, Routledge, 1992.

Ullman, Sharon R. Sex Seen: The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997.

Watkins, Elizabeth Siegel. On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.