Sexual revolution in 1960s America

The 1960s in the United States are often perceived today as a period of profound societal change, one in which a great many politically minded individuals, who on the whole were young and educated, sought to influence the status quo. Attitudes to a variety of issues changed, sometimes radically, throughout the decade. The changes to sexual attitudes and behaviour during the period are often today referred to generally under the blanket metaphor of 'sexual revolution'. Whilst the term 'revolution' implies radical and widespread change, this was not necessarily the case. Even in the 'liberal' sixties, conservative, traditionalist views were widely held, and many modern historians and social scientists are beginning to think that 'revolution' is too much of an overstatement. Most of the empirical data pertinent to the area only dates back to 1965, somewhat muddying the waters. Despite this, there were profound changes in sexual attitudes and practices, particularly among the young. Like much of the radicalism from the 1960s, the sexual revolution was often seen to have been centred around the university campus, amongst students. With its roots in the first perceived sexual revolution in the 1920s, this 'revolution' in 1960s America encompassed many groups who are now synonymous with the era. Feminists, gay rights campaigners, hippies and many other political movements were all important components and facilitators of change.

Changes in Social Norms

The modern consensus is that the sexual revolution in 1960's America was typified by a dramatic shift in traditional values related to sex, and sexuality. Sex became more socially acceptable outside the strict boundaries of heterosexual marriage. Studies have shown that, between 1965 and 1975, the number of women who had had sexual intercourse prior to marriage showed a marked increase. The social and political climate of the 1960s was unique; one in which traditional values were often challenged loudly by a vocal minority. The various areas of society clamouring for change included the Civil Rights movement, (see SCLC and SNCC) the 'New Left', and women, with various women's rights organisations appearing in the latter years of the decade in particular. This climate of change led many, particularly the young, to challenge the social norms. With the success that the Civil Rights movement was seen to have, others who wanted change knew that the time was ripe for them to bring it about. The combination of liberal government, general economic prosperity, and the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation marked the 1960s apart from any decade that had come before it, and whilst conservatism was by no means dead, liberalism enjoyed a widespread revival, which helped to facilitate the climate in which the 'sexual revolution' took place. Indeed, Lyndon Johnson was the first acting president to endorse birth control, a hugely important factor in the changes in American sexual attitudes in the 1960s.

The Kinsey Report, 'The Pill', and Sexual Liberation

The 1960s are seen as the first modern era of open sexuality, and it can perhaps be said that the Kinsey Reports of 1948 and 1953 went some way towards making men, and particularly women, feel more comfortable about going against the grain of established sexual norms. The results of the Kinsey report showed that there were greater incidences of homosexuality and extramarital sex than was publicly recorded, or even generally socially accepted. This information, combined with the liberal attitudes of the 1960s, meant that more and more people, particularly women, felt an increased sexual liberation.

The advent of the birth control pill was another massively important factor in explaining the changes in sexual behaviour in the 1960s. Whilst men had always enjoyed some form of sexual freedom, even outside the boundaries of what would be publicly and socially acceptable, women were seen to be 'stuck' in their traditional familial, social, and sexual roles. This was due in part to fears over illegitimate pregnancy and childbirth, and social (particularly religious) qualms about contraception, which was often seen to be 'messy' and unchristian. Modernisation and secularisation helped to change these attitudes, and a birth control pill for women was first developed in 1957. By 1960, the Food and Drug Administration had licensed the drug. 'The Pill', as it came to be known, was extraordinarily popular, and despite worries over possible side effects, by 1962, an estimated 1,187,000 women were using it. The pill divorced contraception from the act of intercourse itself, making it more socially acceptable, and easier to stomach for many detractors of other types of contraception (which had been around for years).

Heralded as a technological marvel, the pill was a trusted product of science in an increasingly technological age, and was heralded as one of man's 'triumphs' over nature. It was often said that with the invention of the pill, the women who took it had immediately been given a new freedom - the freedom to use their bodies as they saw fit, without having to worry about the burden of unwanted pregnancy.

It was also not the case that the pill went completely unopposed - even by 1965, birth control was illegal in some US states, including Connecticut and New York. Campaigns by people like Estelle Griswold went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where on June 7 1965 it was ruled that under the First Amendment, it was not the business of the government to dictate the usage of contraception by married couples. In 1972, a further ruling in Baird extended that right to umarried couples.

Women's rights movements also heralded the pill as a method of granting women sexual liberation, and saw the popularity of the drug as just one signifier of the increasing desire for equality (sexual or otherwise) amongst American women. The pill and the sexual revolution was therefore an important part of the drive for sexual equality in the 1960s.

The Stonewall Riots, Gay Rights, and the 'Undocumented' Sexual Revolution

Even in a time of unprecedented societal change, and burgeoning liberal views and policies, homosexuality was still widely publicly reviled, and more often than not was seen as a malaise or disease, instead of a legitimate sexual orientation. Homosexuals were often seen and characterised as predatory deviants, who were dangerous to the rest of society. For example, the Florida Legislative Committee, between 1956 and 1965, sought out these so-called 'deviants' within the public system, with the particular focus upon teachers. Male homosexuals were often seen as inherently more dangerous (particularly to children) than lesbians, due to stereotypes and societal prejudices.

Many modern commentators on the gay sexual revolution in 1960s America allege that this area of the decade has been severely underemphasised, and has not been given the attention that they feel it deserves. While it cannot be said that the 'gay revolution' had as much impact as some others during the decade (the movement only really began to gain significant momentum and more public support during the 1970s), it is important to consider the part that the gay liberation crowd had to play in the overarching 'sexual revolution'.

The Stonewall riots of 1969 marked an increase in both public awareness of gay rights campaigners, and also in the willingness of homosexuals across America to campaign for the rights they believed that they were due. In this new era of radicalism in which homosexuals found themselves, this seemed an appropriate, if bloody, way to propagate their message.

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