To anyone living in the Western world before the late 1960s, today’s sexual universe would be unrecognizable. At its most progressive, this new universe features: sexual freedom (especially for women and LGBTQ+ people), increased–though still insufficient–sexual education, a normalization of premarital sex, access to birth control and abortion (easier in some communities than in others) and the embracement of many once-taboo sexual activities and fantasies, from masturbation to sado-masochism (accompanied by a plethora of complimentary devices and toys).
Conservative critics attack progressive sexual attitudes and norms, citing the proliferation of internet porn, widespread use of viagra, uptick in sexually-transmitted infections and divorce rates, rise in “hookup culture,” decline in intimacy and general dissolution of the so-called “American family.”
So goes one common, sweeping narrative of today’s “culture wars.”
But today’s sexual culture and its complex roots are far more nuanced than this dichotomous summary suggests. We should utilize the history of sex and sexuality for context and inspiration as we interrogate our own sexuality.
I feel it would make the most sense to begin such an exploration with the historical transition that made today’s sexual landscape possible: the “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960s-1980s. It would take too long to fully analyze how and why the sexual landscape transformed so radically during this period. Instead, I will trace a constellation of advances, with the acknowledgment that they were made by brave people doing hard, often dangerous work, very much intertwined with the Civil Rights, Gay Rights, Women’s Liberation and Antiwar Movements.
As Gail Collins details in her book When Everything Changed, it was widely considered unacceptable for girls to ask boys on dates in 1960. Men were allowed and encouraged to have sexual experiences before marriage, but their female counterparts were considered “the wrong kind of girl” (p. 17).
What was presumably “the right kind of girl” stayed a virgin until marriage and, once she was married, her husband ruled the financial domain. According to Collins, even married women’s credit cards were issued in their husband’s names, not to mention the leases on their houses. Getting married signified “an end to women’s work life,” (stripping her of any semblance of financial independence she might once have had) and justified giving men all promising work opportunities (p. 21). Other opportunities denied to women before the ’60s included wearing pants in most public establishments. While we have since gained access to that elusive fashion item, gendered power dynamics still plague heterosexual relationships.
Homosexuality, meanwhile, was illegal, as was abortion in most communities. Birth control was inaccessible and often unreliable, linking heterosexual intercourse inextricably with reproduction, rather than pleasure, and gender was determined by biology.
But change was imminent.
The Gay Rights Movement, which swelled in the ’60s and ’70s, also accomplished many legal and cultural goals including the decriminalization of homosexuality in many US states and European countries, a drastic increase in tolerance towards non-hetero sexuality and–-after a long battle–-the right for same-sex couples to marry.
Women began to fight for autonomy — financial, professional and sexual — and made massive economic, legal and cultural gains. Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, came in 1973. The Pill, which was the first widely accessible and reliable form of birth control, was made available in waves, freeing people to have sex for pleasure without worrying about reproductive consequences.
Notably, the Pill was not without problems, particularly for black women. A history of sterilization abuse of black women led to justified suspicion of birth control, which was doled out by a white medical establishment in a systemically racist country. According to Dorothy Roberts, a scholar of race, gender and law: “The meaning of birth control is complicated by the racist denigration of black childbearing, including deliberate campaigns to limit black fertility; sexist and religious norms within the black community; and many white feminists’ ignorance about the unique issues facing black women.”
Jeffrey Weeks, a historian, sociologist and gay activist, provides a compelling summary of the transformed sexual landscape throughout and in the decades following the Sexual Revolution. According to Weeks, this landscape featured: “a new moral economy–one that was less hierarchical and more democratic, more hedonistic, more individualistic, more selfish, perhaps, but also one that was vastly more tolerant, experimental and open to diversity and choice in a way that had been inconceivable just a generation earlier” (Weeks, 20).
Some argue that much today is the same as it was before the Sexual Revolution, however. Indeed, the power systems that once dominated have prevailed in many ways, adapting and warping in order to survive. Men often exercise inordinate power in spheres of dating, marriage and work. Homophobia toward LGBTQ+ people continues to manifest itself in both law and culture. It is still common for white, cis, male lawmakers to regulate the bodies of women, transgender people and minorities. Moreover, Weeks notes that globalization and technology have enabled the proliferation of commercial exploitation of women and children through trafficking and some forms of internet porn.
Others argue that too much has changed. Critics of the Sexual Revolution (often conservative and/or religious) idealize the “good old days” when traditional family values reigned. Others criticize a sexual landscape they see as harsh, individualistic and commodifying, in which meaningful bonds are few and far between [see the work of sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, for example].
Still others, satisfied with the gains of the Sexual Revolution, fall into a common thought pattern or “trap,” according to Weeks. These “naive” progressives see those gains as “automatic or inevitable,” as though a repressed sexuality could burst free from repression on its own, without human intention or intervention. Weeks argues — alongside an army of scholars — that our sexuality is taught, learned and created. The idea that there is a natural or innate way to exercise or experience our sexuality is a key element of the moral and intellectual worldview that dominated before the Sexual Revolution (and lives on today, albeit more defensively).
Before the Sexual Revolution, there was a hierarchical, cohesive narrative in which everyone’s own sexual, political and religious identity was supposed to fit. Some were marginalized because of a projected perversity or abnormality, whether that was sexuality, gender or race. But the normal/abnormal binary, like sexuality itself, is constructed; a “unifying myth” (Weeks, 20) that justifies unbalanced power structures. The latter half of the twentieth century saw widespread dissolution of such unifying myths, which both stemmed from and perpetuated a growing distrust in the institutions — such as Church and State — that have historically generated them.
I think every “world” has its myths, however fragmented, for lack of certain, knowable truths. The uniqueness of this moment is that we have awareness of mythology and can recognize its utility. One way of conceptualizing who we are is to create an origins story of where we come from; a story that justifies the belief system, lifestyle and political agenda of each person who subscribes to it.
Consider the example of Genesis (literally, “the origin of something”) in the Bible. In Genesis, Adam, created by God in His image, and Eve, born from Adam’s rib, are naked and innocent in a beautiful garden. Eve is seduced by a snake to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit, which she then shares with Adam. Once they sin and thus lose their divine innocence, both realize their own nakedness, and God curses them.
This origins story can be used to justify societal favoring of men over women (since it is Adam who is made in God’s image) and female dependence on men (since Eve is made from Adam’s rib). It can also serve as the connector of sex with sin, since Adam and Eve are cursed by God after giving into temptation and only realize their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit.
This is by no means the only way to interpret Genesis, which has inspired an ocean of religious and scholarly interpretations, including feminist ones. Rather, take this as a brief explanation of how a certain origins story or mythology can justify a worldview, and not a full-fledged analysis nor a condemnation of Christianity as a whole.
“Naive” progressives have their own mythology: they see the Sexual Revolution as an inevitable unleashing of sexuality and tolerance. While I do wish tolerance were a quality that “naturally” develops over time, this idea may reap complacency. If we subscribe to this narrative, then we are stripped of responsibility for the unbalanced power structures, exploitation and discrimination that have prevailed, and progress becomes unachievable.
The Sexual Revolution did not simply emerge, independently and inevitably, to wash over a grateful public, cleansing it of repression and setting free its repressed sexuality. As Weeks notes, individual actors worked hard and risked all to enact changes in law and culture. To believe in this inevitable progression is to devalue the resilience of those who did fight for sexual freedom.
How does this translate into our own sexual biographies? It gives us responsibility to interrogate our desires and beliefs, and thus to take ownership of them. We can look to the Sexual Revolution, with gratitude and/or dissatisfaction, for inspiration, but we should not take it at face value as the only possible outcome.
I think sexual autonomy is a continued realization of our power to reflect and create, not something we passively inherit from history. That’s what makes one’s own sexual biography powerful both personally and politically.
Despite significant changes, today’s sexual landscape does not, in fact, belong to a different universe from that of pre-1960. The authoritative puritanism that reigned then persists now in myriad ways and as such, the rebellion against it rages on. But especially when it comes to something so intimate, polarized ideologies can be dangerous. One way to use our historical understanding of the Sexual Revolution in our own sexual biographies is to look inward and draw what is useful, personally, from the wealth of values and customs history offers. Exercise this freedom for yourself, then go join the fight with renewed vigor, empathy and nuance.
Additional Sources Cited:
Collins, Gail. When Everything Changed : the Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2009.