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The sexual revolution refers to a change in sexual morality and sexual behavior throughout the Western world. In general use, the term refers to a later trend of equalizing sexual behavior which occurred primarily during the 1960s, although the term has been used at least since the late 1920s.
The term appeared as early as 1929; the book Is Sex Necessary?, by Thurber & White, has a chapter titled The Sexual Revolution: Being a Rather Complete Survey of the Entire Sexual Scene.
One suggested trigger for the modern revolution was the development of the birth control pill in 1960, which gave women access to easy and reliable contraception. Other data suggest the "revolution" was more directly influenced by the financial independence gained by many women who entered the workforce during and after World War II, making the revolution more about individual equality rather than biological independence. Many people, however, feel that one specific cause cannot be selected for this large phenomenon.
Some historians argue that sexual revolution was not a complete break from earlier Western sexual attitudes but rather a liberalization after a conservative period that only existed between the 1930s and 1950s. They note that the Cold War sparked a socially conformist identity which tended to be self-conscious of its appearance to the outside world. Within the United States, this conformity took on puritanical overtones which contradicted natural or even, ironically, culturally-established human sexual behaviors. It was this period of Cold War puritanism, some say, which logically led to a cultural rebellion in the form of the "sexual revolution".
The extent to which the sexual revolution involved major changes in sexual behavior, however, is questionable. Many observers have suggested that the main change was not that people had more sex or different types of sex, it was simply that they talked about it more openly than previous generations had done. Historian David Allyn argues it was a time of "coming-out": about premarital sex, masturbation, erotic fantasies, pornography use, and homosexuality.
It is clear that sexual behaviour did change radically for the vast majority of women, but only a generation after the "revolution" had begun. Women reaching sexual maturity after about 1984 have behaviours much more in common with the men of a generation earlier. Some had more partners (two to three times), starting at an earlier age (by three to five years), than women of the generation of the 1970s. Nevertheless this rather radical change in actual behaviour is rarely reported on, being regarded as no longer newsworthy.
The sexual revolution can be seen an outgrowth of a process in recent history. It was a development in the modern world which saw the significant loss of power by the values of a morality rooted in the Christian tradition and the rise of permissive societies, of attitudes that were accepting of greater sexual freedom and experimentation that spread all over the world and were captured in the phrase free love.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Sweden was an international leader in what is now referred to as the "sexual revolution," with gender equality particularly promoted during this time.
The Industrial Revolution during the nineteenth century and the growth of science and technology, medicine and health care, resulted in better contraceptives being manufactured. Advances in the manufacture and production of rubber made possible the design and production of condoms that could be used by hundreds of millions of men and women to prevent pregnancy at little cost. Advances in steel production and immunology made abortion readily available. Advances in chemistry, pharmacology, and knowledge of biology, and human physiology and all sorts of new drugs led to the discovery and perfection of the first oral contraceptives also known as "The Pill". New drugs like Viagra helped impotent men have an erection and increased the potency of others. Purchasing an aphrodisiac and various sex toys became "normal". Sado-masochism ("S&M") gained popularity, and "no-fault" unilateral divorce became legal and easier to obtain in many countries during the 1960s and 1970s.
All these developments took place alongside and combined with an increase in world literacy and decline in religious observances. Old values such as the notion of "be fruitful and multiply" rooted in the Bible, for example, were cast aside as people continued to feel alienated from the past and adopted the life-styles of modernizing westernized cultures.
Another thing that helped bring about this more modern revolution of sexual freedom was the writing of Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, who took the philosophy of Karl Marx and other such philosophers, and mixed together this chant for freedom of sexual rights and release in our modern culture.
Doctor Sigmund Freud of Vienna believed the roots of human behavior were in the libido. This new modern "science" of psychoanalysis revolutionized an entire culture's self image. Victorian prudishness was shoved aside by a new consciousness of a sex drive. Men had an Oedipus complex and women had penis envy according to Freud. The mother's breast was the source of all later erotic sensation. This new philosophy was the new intellectual and cultural underpinning ideology of the new age of sexual frankness. Nonetheless, much of his research is widely discredited by professionals in the field.
Kinsey and Masters & Johnson
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Alfred C. Kinsey published two surveys of modern sexual behavior. In 1948, Alfred C. Kinsey and his co-workers, responding to a request by female students at Indiana University for more information on human sexual behavior, published the book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. They followed this five years later with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. These books began a revolution in social awareness of, and public attention given to, human sexuality.
It is said that at the time, public morality severely restricted open discussion of sexuality as a human characteristic, and specific sexual practices, especially sexual behaviors that did not lead to procreation. Kinsey's books contained studies about controversial topics such as the frequency of homosexuality, and the sexuality of minors ages 3-13. Scientists working for Kinsey reported data which led to the conclusion that we are capable of sexual stimulation from birth.
These books laid the groundwork for Masters and Johnson's life work. A ground breaking study called Human Sexual Response in 1966 revealed the nature and scope of the sex practices of young Americans.
Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill
Prior to this time, a patchwork of regulations (as well as local customs and vigilante actions) governed what could and could not be published. For example, it was the U. S. Customs authority that "banned" James Joyce's Ulysses by refusing its importation into the country. The Roman Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum carried great weight among Catholics and amounted to an effective and instant boycott of any book appearing on it. Boston's Watch and Ward Society, a largely Protestant creation inspired by Anthony Comstock, made "[banned in Boston" a national by-word.
In 1959, Grove Press published an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence. The U. S. Post Office confiscated copies sent through the mail. Lawyer Charles Rembar sued the New York city postmaster, and won in New York and then on federal appeal. In 1965, Tom Lehrer was to celebrate the erotic appeal of the novel in his cheerfully satirical song "Smut" with the couplet "Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately?/I've got a hobby: rereading Lady Chatterley."
Henry Miller's 1934 novel, Tropic of Cancer, had explicit sexual passages and could not be published in the United States; an edition was printed by the Obelisk Press in Paris and copies were smuggled into the United States. (As of 2003, used book dealers asked $7500 and up for copies of this edition.) In 1961, Grove Press issued a copy of the work, and lawsuits were brought against dozens of individual booksellers in many states for selling it. The issue was ultimately settled by the U. S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Miller v. California. In this decision, the court defined obscenity by what is now called the Miller test.
In 1965, Putnam published John Cleland's 1750 novel Fanny Hill. This was the turning point, because Charles Rembar appealed a restraining order against it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. In Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413, the court ruled that sex was "a great and mysterious motive force in human life," and that its expression in literature was protected by the First Amendment. Only books primarily appealing to "prurient interest" could be banned. In a famous phrase, the court said that obscenity is "utterly without redeeming social importance" — meaning that, conversely, any work with redeeming social importance was not obscene, even if it contained isolated passages that could "deprave and corrupt" some readers.
This decision was especially significant, because, of the three books mentioned, Fanny Hill has by far the largest measure of content that seems to appeal to prurient interest, and the smallest measures of literary merit and "redeeming social importance". Whereas an expurgated version of Lady Chatterley's Lover had actually once been published, no expurgated version of Fanny Hill has ever been (and it is difficult even to imagine what such a work could possibly consist of). By permitting the publication of Fanny Hill, the Supreme Court set the bar for any ban so high that Rembar himself called the 1966 decision "the end of obscenity."
Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa
- Main article: Margaret Mead
The publication of renowned anthropologist and student of Franz Boas, Margaret Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa" brought the sexual revolution to the public scene, as her thought concerning sexual freedom pervaded academia. Published in 1928, Mead's ethnography focused on the psychosexual development of adolescent children on the island of Samoa in French Polynesia. She recorded that their adolescence was not in fact a time of "storm and stress" as Erikson's stages of development suggest, but that the sexual freedom experienced by the adolescents actually permitted them an easy transition from childhood to adulthood.
Her findings were later challenged by anthropologist Derek Freeman who later investigated her claims of promiscuity and conducted his own ethnography of Samoan society. Mead called for a change in suppression of sexuality in America and her work directly resulted in the advancement of the sexual revolution in the 1930s.
Nonfiction sex manuals
The court decisions that legalized the publication of Fanny Hill had an even more important effect: freed from fears of legal action, nonfiction works about sex and sexuality started to appear.
In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl: The Unmarried Woman's Guide to Men, Careers, the Apartment, Diet, Fashion, Money and Men. The title itself would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. (In 1965 she went on to transform Cosmopolitan magazine into a life manual for young career women).
In 1969, Joan Garrity, identifying herself only as "J.", published The Way to Become the Sensuous Woman, replete with everything from exercises for improving the dexterity of the tongue, to how to have anal sex.
The same year saw the appearance of Dr. David Reuben's book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Despite the dignity of Reuben's medical credentials, this book was light-hearted in tone. For many readers, it delivered quite literally on its promise. One middle-aged matron from a small town in Wisconsin was heard to say "Until I read this book, I never actually knew precisely what it was that homosexuals did".
In 1970, the Boston Women's Health Collective published Women and their Bodies (which became far better known a year later under its subsequent title, Our Bodies, Ourselves). Not an erotic treatise or sex manual, the book nevertheless included frank descriptions of sexuality, and contained illustrations that could have caused legal problems just a few years earlier.
In 1975 Will McBride's Zeig Mal!, Show Me!, written with psychologist Helga Fleichhauer-Hardt for children and their parents, appeared in bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic. Appreciated by many parents for its frank depiction of pre-adolescents discovering and exploring their sexuality, it scandalized others and eventually it was pulled from circulation in the United States and some other countries. It was followed up in 1989 by Zeig Mal Mehr! ("Show Me More!").
These books had a number of things in common. They were factual and, in fact, educational. They were available to a mainstream readership. They were stacked high on the tables of discount bookstores, they were book club selections, and their authors were guests on late-night talk shows. People were seen reading them in public. In a respectable middle-class home, Playboy magazine and Fanny Hill might be present but would usually be kept out of sight. But at least some of these books might well be on the coffee table. Most important, all of these books acknowledged and celebrated the conscious cultivation of erotic pleasure.
The contribution of such books to the sexual revolution cannot be overstated. Earlier books such as What Every Girl Should Know (Margaret Sanger, 1920) and A Marriage Manual (Hannah and Abraham Stone, 1939) had broken the utter silence in which many people, women in particular, had grown up. By the 1950s, in the United States, it had finally become rare for women to go into their wedding nights literally not knowing what to expect. But the open discussion of sex as pleasure, and descriptions of sexual practices and techniques, was truly revolutionary. There were practices which, perhaps, some had heard of. But many adults did not know for sure whether they were realities, or fantasies found only in pornographic books. Were they "normal," or were they examples of psychopathology? (When we use words such as fellatio we are still using the terminology of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis). Did married ladies do these things, or only prostitutes? The Kinsey report revealed that these practices were, at the very least, surprisingly frequent. These other books asserted, in the words of a 1980 book by Dr. Irene Kassorla, that Nice Girls Do -- And Now You Can Too.
Medicine and sex
In the early 1960s, The Pill became available; at first for married women only, but demand and changes in attitudes later led to it becoming available to unmarried women as well.
With the twin threats of disease and pregnancy removed, many of the traditional constraints on sexual behavior seemed unjustified.
With the notion that sexually transmitted diseases were easily treatable, much of the maturing post-WW2 baby boom generation experimented with sex without the need for marriage.
As birth control become more available, men and women gained unprecedented control of their own reproduction. The 1916 invention of thin, disposable latex condoms for men led to widespread affordable condoms by the 1930s; the demise of the Comstock laws in 1936 set the stage for promotion of available effective contraceptives such as the diaphragm and cervical cap; the 1960s introduction of the IUD and oral contraceptives for women gave a sense of freedom from barrier contraception.
The sexual revolution in the UK
In the UK the new generation growing up after the Second World War had grown tired of the rationing and austerity of the 1940s and 1950s and the Victorian values of their elders, so the 1960s were a time of rebellion against the fashions and social mores of the previous generation.
An early inkling of changing attitudes came in 1960, when the government of the day tried unsuccessfully to prosecute Penguin Books for obscenity, for publishing the D.H. Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, which had been banned since the 1920s for its racy (for the time) content.
As evidence of how old-fashioned the attitudes of the establishment were, the prosecution counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously stood in front of the jury and asked, in his closing statement: "Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?".
When the case collapsed, the novel went on to become a best seller, selling 2 million copies. The Pill became available free of charge on the National Health Service in the 1960s, at first restricted to married women, but late in the decade its availability was extended to all women.
Beginning in California, esp Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid 1960s, a new culture of "free love" with tens of thousands of young people becoming "hippies" arose who preached the power of love and the beauty of sex as part of ordinary student life. This is part of a counterculture that exists to the present. By the start of the 1970s it was acceptable for colleges to allow co-educational housing where male and female students mingled freely.
Free love continued in different forms throughout the 1970s and at least into the early 1980s, but its more assertive manifestations ended abruptly when the public first became aware of AIDS, a deadly sexually transmitted disease, in the mid 1980s.
Explicit sex on screen
Swedish filmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Vilgot Sjöman contributed to sexual liberation with sexually themed films that challenged conservative international stardards. The 1951 film Hon dansade en sommar (She Danced a Summer AKA One Summer of Happiness) starring Ulla Jacobsson and Folke Sundquist depicted scenes that were at the time considered too sexual, but by today's standards would be fairly mild. This film, as well as Bergman's Sommaren med Monika (The Summer with Monika), caused an international uproar, not least in the US where the films were charged with violating standards of decency. Vilgot Sjöman's film I Am Curious (Yellow), also created an international uproar, but it was very popular in the United States. Another of his films, 491, highlighted homosexuality among other things. Kärlekens språk, (The Language of Love), was an informative documentary about sex and sexual techniques that featured the first real act of sex in a mainstream film, and inevitably it caused intense debate around the world, including in the US. From these films the concept of "the Swedish sin", (licentiousness) developed, even though Swedish society was at the time still fairly conservative regarding sex, and the international concept of Swedish sexuality was and is largely exaggerated. The films caused debate there as well. The films eventually helped the public's attitudes toward sex progress, especially in Sweden and other northern European countries, which today tend to be more sexually liberal than others.
Explicit sex on screen and acceptance of frontal nudity by men and women on stage became the norm in many American and European countries, as the twentieth century ended. Special places of entertainment offering striptease and lap dancing proliferated. The famous Playboy Bunnies set a trend. Men came to be entertained by topless women at night-clubs which also hosted "peep shows."
Pre-marital sex was openly adopted by the adherents of the 'counterculture' and spread to the majority of young people in the 1970s. Also in the 1970s pregnancies could be ended as abortion became more easily available. This led to perceptions of the times being an "age of promiscuity," decadence and hedonism, and there was even a backlash in America in the 1980s as many people sought to return to family values.
The politics of sex
Politics in the USA has become intertwined with sexually related issues, called the "politics of sex". A woman's right to an abortion pitted traditionalist Pro-Life activists against Pro-Choice permitting abortions. Sex between people of the same gender, the homosexuality that was strictly taboo in times when the Church dominated society, was no longer stigmatized. Lesbian women and gay men demanded and received many rights previously reserved for heterosexual couples. Women and men who lived with each other without marriage sought "palimony" equal to the alimony a divorced husband pays his ex-wife. Teenagers assumed their right to a sexual life with whomever they pleased, and bathers fought for the right to be topless or nude at beaches.
Playboy magazine and redefining pornography
The fact that pornography was not as stigmatized, and more mainstream movies depicted sexual intercourse as "entertainment," was indicative of how far the sexual revolution had come. Magazines depicting nudity and sexual acts, such as the popular Playboy magazine, won acceptance as respectable journals where public figures felt safe expressing their opinions, arguing successfully that they were guaranteed freedom of speech by the United States Constitution. However, some figures in the feminist movement objected to the depiction of women as "objects" in these pornographic magazines and in such events as the annual "Miss World" and "Miss Universe" contests. The gay porn industry also became much more widespread. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s pornography depicting homosexual acts was rare and even illegal in some states.
- Alan Petigny, "Illegitimacy, Postwar Psychology, and the Reperiodization of the Sexual Revolution" Journal of Social History, fall 2004
- David Allyn, "Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution, An Unfettered History" Routledge, 2002
- free love
- The Joy of Sex
- Alfred Kinsey
- Kinsey Reports
- nudity and toplessness
- open marriage
- Permissive society
- Margaret Sanger
- sex-positive feminism
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