Sexual revolution

The sexual revolution refers to the well documented changes in social thought and codes of behaviour related to sexuality throughout the Western world that continues to evolve.

In general use, the term "sexual revolution" is used to describe a socio-political movement, witnessed from the 1960s into the early 1970s. However, the term has been used at least since the late 1920s and is often attributed as being influenced by Freud's writing on sexual liberation and pychosexual issues.

During the 1960s and 1970s, shifts in regards to how society viewed sexuality began to take place, heralding a period of de-conditioning in some circles away from old world antecedents, and developing new codes of sexual behavior, many of which are now integrated into the mainstream.The 1960s and 1970s heralded a new culture of "free love" with millions of young people embracing the hippie ethos and preaching the power of love and the beauty of sex as a natural part of ordinary life. Hippies believed that sex was a natural biological phenomenon which should not be denied or repressed. Changes in attitudes reflected a perception that traditional views on sexuality were both hypocritical and chauvinistic. Sexual liberalization heralded a new ethos in; experimenting with open sex in and outside of marriage, contraception and the pill, public nudity, gay Liberation, liberalization of abortion, interracial marriage, a return to natural birth control and childbirth, women's rights and feminism. The perception that all hippies were excessively promiscuous and the sexual revolutionary era was an uncontrolled orgy of group sex is a myth without basis. Many of the era's countercultural people were celibate due to personal preferences. These choices had nothing to do with issues of morality, but were ones of personal deliberation due in part to spiritual conviction. The consideration that relationships and sex could become distractions upon the path of personal spiritual deliverance, ensured that many hippies refraned from all sexual activity. Celibate hippies were not critical of others who chose the paths of "free love" and "sexual liberalization". In the late seventies and eighties new won sexual freedoms were exploited by big business looking to capitalise on a more open society, with the advent of public pornography and hardcore.

Counter forces such as Fraenkel (1992) say that the "sexual revolution", that the West supposedly experienced in the late 60s, is indeed a misconception and that sex is not actually enjoyed freely, it is just observed in all the fields of culture; that's a kind of taboo behavior technically called "repressive desublimation". In his writing Marcuse explores the concept that Establishment sanctioned forms of sensual release, what he calls "repressive desublimation", complete our enslavement on the instinctual level. In order to move from that to an actual sexual liberation, it is necessary a change in our mental structures and our moral inhibitions; instead the Judeo-Christian morals still basically hold, and the small social changes are exaggerated because they are seen in that light. Even most of the self-claimed atheists, have just secularized and internalized the same old morals.

While the extent to which the sexual revolution involved major changes in sexual behavior is debated, many observers suggest 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 - which in itself can be described as revolutionary by supportive historians.

Historian David Allyn argues it was a time of "coming-out": about premarital sex, masturbation, erotic fantasies, pornography use, and sexuality.Although this may be true, some historians have doubts on this due to the lack of contraceptives en masse before the common era. This would have made it extremely difficult to cover up pre-marital relations due to extremely high risk of pregnancy.

It is clear that sexual behavior 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 behaviors 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 1970s. Nevertheless this rather radical change in actual behavior is rarely reported on, being regarded as no longer newsworthy.

Historical development

The sexual revolution can be seen as an outgrowth of a process in recent history, though its roots may be traced back as far as the Enlightenment (Marquis de Sade) and the Victorian era (A. C. Swinburne's scandalous Poems and Ballads of 1866). 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. Today, however, the country embraced back most of its puritan roots and women still struggle to earn the same income as men.

Historians argue that the ongoing Sexual Revolution in the new century is continued liberalization after a conservative period that 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 culturally-established human sexual behaviors. It was this period of Cold War puritanism, some say, which led to a cultural rebellion in the form of the "sexual revolution". Despite this, however, before the 1920s the Victorian era was much more conservative than even the 1930s and 1950s. Due to the invention of TV and the increasingly wide use of it in the 50s, by the 1960s a vast majority of Americans had television. This mass communication device, along with other media outlets such as radio and magazines, could broadcast information in a matter of seconds to millions of people, while only a few wealthy people would control what millions of people would watch. Some have now theorized that perhaps that these media outlets helped spread new ideas among the masses. A prime example of this occurred during the early 1960s when the Beatles (virtually unknown at the time) came to America and were introduced on the Ed Sullivan show. Once the show was over they were an instant hit. Forty million Americans had watched it that night and thus morals in one perspective changed instantly; although obviously it would take longer for this to occur. The mass media's broadcasting of new ideas to the population was radical, and during the late 1960s the counterculture was becoming well known on radio, newspapers, TV and other media outlets.

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. Another likely factor was vast improvements in obstetrics, which greatly reduced the number of women who die in childbirth and thus increases the life expectancy of women. 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.

Modern revolutions

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 biblical notion of "be fruitful and multiply" 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.

However when speaking of sexual revolution, historians make a distinction between the first and the second sexual revolution. In the first sexual revolution(1870-1910)the Victorian morality lost its universal appeal. It did however not lead to the rise of a "permissive society". examplary for this period is the rise and differentation in forms of regulating sexuality.

Freudian school

Doctor Sigmund Freud of Vienna believed the roots of human behavior were in the libido. 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.

Anarchist Freud scholars Otto Gross and Wilhelm Reich (who famously coined the phrase "Sexual Revolution") developed a sociology of sex in the 1920s and 1930s.

Kinsey and Masters and 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 two weeks to thirteen years. 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 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

In the United States in the years 1959 through 1966, bans on three books with explicit erotic content were challenged and overturned.

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 the United States Customs Service "banned" James Joyce's Ulysses by refusing its importation into the USA. 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

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 thoughts concerning sexual freedom pervaded academia. Published in 1928, Mead's ethnography focused on the psychosexual development of adolescent children on the island of Samoa. 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. Despite the book's one-sided and predjudiced statements about gay men, 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.

Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Love Making. appeared in 1972. In later editions though, Comfort's libertarianism was tamed as a response to AIDS.

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

The development of antibiotics in the 1940s made most of the severe venereal diseases of the time curable, namely gonorrhea and syphilis. 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 threat of disease and pregnancy now reduced, much of the post-WW2 baby boom generation experimented with sex without considering marriage.


As birth control become more available, men and women gained unprecedented control of their reproductive capabilities. 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 early in the 1970s its availability was extended to all women.

Free love

Beginning in San Francisco in the mid 1960s, a new culture of "free love" emerged, with thousands of young people becoming "hippies" 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 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 into the early 1980s, but its more assertive manifestations ended abruptly (or disappeared from public view) in the mid 1980s when the public first became aware of AIDS, a deadly sexually transmitted disease.

Explicit sex on screen

Swedish filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Vilgot Sjöman contributed to sexual liberation with sexually themed films that challenged conservative international standards. 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 publics 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

Once heavily stigmatized, pre-marital sex became more widespread during the sexual revolution. The increased availability of birth control (and the quasi-legalization of abortion in some places) helped reduce the chance that pre-marital sex would result in unwanted children. By the mid 1970s the majority of newly married American couples had experienced sex before marriage.

The politics of sex

Politics in the USA has become intertwined with sexually related issues, called the "politics of sex". A woman's desire for an abortion pitted traditionalist Pro-Life activists against Pro-Choice activists permitting abortions. Sex between people of the same gender, the homosexuality that was strictly taboo in times when the Christian Church still exercised much influence in society, yet is still stigmatized to this day. 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 to be topless or nude at beaches.

The normalization of pornography

The fact that pornography was no longer stigmatized by the end of the 1980s, and more mainstream movies depicted sexual intercourse as "entertainment", was indicative of how normalized sexual revolution had become in society. Magazines depicting nudity, such as the popular Playboy magazine, won some acceptance as mainstream journals, in which public figures felt safe expressing their fantasies. Feminists have had mixed responses to pornography. Some figures in the feminist movement, such as Andrea Dworkin, challenged the depiction of women as objects in these pornographic magazines.

The gay porn industry also became much more widespread throughout the western world, even permeating areas better known for the repression of non-normative sexualities, such as Northern Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s pornography depicting homosexual acts was rare and illegal in some US states.

The "end" of Sexual Revolution in the 1980s

Many argue that the elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 in the United Kingdom and John Paul II in 1978 in the Vatican, events like the Disco Demolition Night in 1979, the election of US President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the rise of televangelism marked the beginning of the end of the "liberal wave" that had gradually engulfed the Anglosphere, the Developed World and subsequently the Western World since the late 1950s. And with the outbreak of the AIDS epidemy in early 1980s - culminating with the publicly-known death of Rock Hudson in 1985 - marked the return of conservative values into society and the juridical and political questioning of the achievements of Sexual Revolution (see Meese Commission and Bowers v. Hardwick).

This situation would prevail until the mid-to-late-1990s, when the discovery of more effective ways to control AIDS infections and cultural phenomena like internet pornography, and popular sex oriented shows like Sex And The City and Queer as Folk made the moral-cultural tide slowly turn again.


See also

Index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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