The sexual revolution?

Thomas Nast caricature

Be saved by Free Love — Thomas Nast’s caricature of Victoria Woodhull.

When I tell people that I study and write about the history of sexuality, they usually have immediate doubts, primarily about me, but also as to whether “sex” can have a history. Do I study pornography? Do I go around asking people what they do in bed? (No and no.) But when they do have an idea about my research, it usually comes across as it did for a contemporary of mine whom I recently talked to at a tango event. “Oh yeah, the sexual revolution. I remember that.” That I had not mentioned the sexual (or any) revolution is beside the point. Sexual revolution stands as the long pole in a narrative tent, taken for granted by most Americans, that “the 1960s” somehow separates the present from a sexually repressive past.

By sexual revolution, most people have in mind the explosion of youthful libido revealed or imagined by Time beginning in 1962 and referenced throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The loss of in loco parentis rules on college campuses, living together, swingers, hippies (see “A Trip Thru the Sixties”), gay liberation and pride all mix together in the march of sexual liberation (conservatives insert “degeneration” here).  So many trends converge in this period and in this term that we might want to rename it the “sexual mash up.” For a good example of inadequate synthesis in thinking about this topic, look no further than the Wikipedia article on Sexual Revolution. I quote the following three sentences without ellipses: “Advances in chemistry, pharmacology, and knowledge of biology, and human physiology led to the discovery and perfection of the first oral contraceptives also known as “The Pill”. 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, 1970s, and 1980s. “*  *(The article on Sexual Revolution in the 1960s makes better sense if only because it takes on a narrower filed of inquiry.)

The pill. No fault divorce. S&M. And much more. No doubt, American and European culture entered a period of attention to the sexual side of life which continues to this day. Explorations of sexual life became commonplace. (An outstanding history of this cultural upheaval comes from David Allyn, Make Love Not War.) But the proclamation of sexual revolution did not begin in 1962. Already in the 1950s some authors saw as revolutionary the new trends toward promiscuity on college campuses and younger marriages. Allyn points out that Wilhelm Reich’s book on the liberation of youthful sexuality (advocating contraception and abortion) was translated into English in 1945 as The Sexual Revolution. Historian Alan Petigny moves the start of the revolution a bit earlier, into the man-scarce World War II era. He notes that demographic data point to the rapid rise of illegitimacy and pre-marital pregnancy beginning in the early 1940s.

Yet another historian, Kevin White, discusses The First Sexual Revolution (NYU, 1993) in the 1920s. By the end of that decade left-wing journalist V.F. Calverton had already dissected the problems of youth and of marriage. As an editor of Sex and Civilization, he pointed toward a new sexual ethic more in line with the bohemianism of New York and the companionate marriage ideals then in vogue. For Calverton and radicals of the time, marriage was the central problem of social life and required a radical reshaping. While many of the cultural avant garde cohabited and otherwise ignored the discipline of marriage, the more mainstream revolution came packaged as a new kind of marriage. Companionate marriage was marriage without children, or, marriage without children as the central motivation. Couples should value one another as companions, including sexual companions.  Birth control (the diaphragm was beginning to gain acceptance by the 1920s) would make childbearing a conscious decision. And, for those marriages where the companionship proved too feeble to hold the couple together, liberalized divorce laws would make ending and re-making marriage easier and more acceptable. Except for S&M, this included everything seen as part of the later stew of sexual revolution.

The long-running debates on marriage in American culture probably provide  better clues to radical change than do curfew rules at college campuses. American-style marriage has always been an unstable mix, with its tendency to abstract men and women from their social environments and remove the cement of property. Richard Godbeer considers the ferment created in colonial America. By the 19th century, romantic marriage, held together only by the mysteries of love, created even greater tension for the men and women of the period. Victoria Woodhull and her  ghost-writer Stephen Pearl Andrews advanced the notion of a sexual revolution in her speech on “social freedom” in 1877.

Sexual issues have everything to do with love and marriage in American culture and society. When we look to a period of youthful exuberance or even adult escapades as a revolution, we miss an underlying theme in the culture and misunderstand the nature of the social change. If we have to retain the language of sexual revolution in the “1960s,” then we have to understand it isn’t the first and it might not start in the 1960s at all.

Coming soon: Whose revolution?

1 thought on “The sexual revolution?

  1. sexual revolution has had multiple effects. i recently read about the shift in psychological disturbances predominant before and after the ‘revolution’. in victorian atmosphere, where decency called for repression of sexual impulses, the prevailing psychological mood was that of hysterics (not as a psychological disorder per se, but rather as a compound of symptoms related to repression of sexual drives – fainting, conversion disorder, self-loathing, etc.), while nowadays the prevailing mode is narcissistic, since we are no longer inhibited in acting out our sexual urges, but along the line we lose the emotional component and thus get estranged from our genuine feelings – which is the first step into narcissism (alexander lowen is the author of the book i am paraphrasing from)

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