The sexual revolution was a substantial change in sexual morality and sexual behaviour throughout the West in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Some historians argue that the 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 conformism took on puritanical overtones which contradicted natural or even, ironically, culture-established human sexual behaviours. 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 behaviour, 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, of course, homosexuality.
That said, 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. They 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.
British writer Philip Larkin's poem "Annus Mirabilis" (1974) captures the spirit of the Sexual Revolution rather well. Here is the first stanza:
- Sexual intercourse began
- In nineteen sixty-three
- (which was rather late for me) -
- Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
- And the Beatles' first LP.
(Read the whole poem.)
Larkin doesn't mention the advent of The Pill in 1960, but he could have -- the ability to have sex without expecting children was in a sense the birth of the sexual revolution and the beginning of the swing towards sexual liberalism. The pendulum swung back as social attitudes toward sexuality became notably more conservative in the 1980s in part because of the fear of AIDS.
The sexual revolution was an outgrowth of a process in recent history. It was a development in the modern world which saw the collapse of the values of a morality rooted in the Judeo-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.
This was a perhaps a throwback to over 2,000 years ago during the times of ancient Greece and Rome that provided the Graeco-Roman component of Western culture. During those times there was a different sexual and moral code. There were specific gods of love like the Greek Eros, from whom the word "erotic" is derived, and the Roman Cupid, who is the center of the modern Valentine's Day. In Greek mythology these characters seduced, romanced, made love, lusted, cheated, and even raped each other in very graphic and colorful ways. This can be contrasted with the teachings of the Christian Church.
The power of religion as wielded by the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches of Europe was radically undermined by the French Revolution of 1789 which saw the First Estate the clergy and the Second Estate made up of the ancien regime (nobles) give way to the power of the Third Estate of the peasants and bourgeoisie which surged towards a secular way of life.
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 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.
Developments in the fields of photography and cinematography, particularly improvements in camera technology for recording moving and still-life images of people, quickened the spread of movies and photographic images. Studies of consumer psychology and new techniques in marketing and advertising aided the rise of the film industry in Hollywood, California, creating a mass market for attractive images first in the monochrome of black-and-white, then later in color and Technicolor.
Doctor Sigmund Freud of Vienna believed the roots of human behavior as being rooted 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.
The Anarchist Freud scholars Otto Gross and especially Wilhelm Reich, who famously coined the phrase Sexual Revolution, developed a sociology of sex in the 20s and 30s.
Movie stars are born
Beautiful women and extremely handsome men were rigorously selected to become movie stars and when they were cast in movies with romantic scenes of love, kissing, hugging, and flirting, an entire culture was transformed as it became more acceptable to show feelings of affection in public. The very conservative mood leading up to the twentieth century gave way to a growing erotic milieu as popularized by the movie industry emanating from the studios of places like Hollywood.
Nudity on screen was at first rare. But with the passage of time people became more tolerant of partial nudity for men and the display of female actress's breasts, at first to adult audiences, and later to more general ones. The invention of television made it possible for scenes of love and romance to be broadcast into any home with a "TV". A whole genre of actors who were particularly well-endowed with charisma and “sex appeal" arose. Thus an entire culture arose which was steeped in and eroticized by movie and TV culture, far removed from past decades of stricter, more traditional sexual mores.
Famous names in entertainment became not just "stars" but also "goddesses" or "icons". Beautiful women such as Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, Sophia Loren, Madonna and later young imitators, were explicit in casting a sexual aura about themselves as actresses and to the celebrity-hungry media. A love scene in every movie was accepted as the norm.
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, which among other things reported findings on the frequency of various sexual practices including homosexuality, caused a furor. Many people felt that the study of sexual behavior would undermine the family structure and damage American society.
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
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, 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. The Wikipedia article on pornography notes that "In the United States, hardcore pornography is legal unless it meets the Miller test of obscenity, which it almost never does."
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). In Lehrer's song, the speaker sings:
- I thrill
- To any book like Fanny Hill
- And I suppose I always will
- If it is swill
- And really fil-
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."
The 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 such things as exercises for improving the dexterity of the tongue.
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.
1972 brought Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Love Making.
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 sexuallity, 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 their wedding night 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!
Elvis rocks the boat
During the 1950s one particular singer and actor, Elvis Presley introduced a very fast style of dancing and performing, using his body gyrations in a sexually suggestive manner. He was dubbed "Elvis the Pelvis" for his trade-mark hip movements. Millions of young women became his fans and he was their "Idol". On stage and in concert thousands of young females would squeal, shriek, and cry at his performances. He has been noted as being a prime factor in the "loss of inhibition" and "youth rebellion " of the 1950s and 1960s.
Medicine and sex
The development of antibiotics in the 1940s made most of the severe venereal diseases of the time curable, removing the threat of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis.
In the early 1960s, The Pill became available; at first for married women only, but demand and changes in attitudes later lead 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 outside the boundaries of marriage.
The advent of genital herpes and AIDS have started the pendulum swinging in the reverse direction, but modern trends are towards harm reduction through education and safer sex rather than a return to sexual puritanism.
New methods of contraception allowed men and women to gain control of their own reproduction. The cheap availability of rubber condoms for men and both IUD's and oral contraceptives for women added to a sense of freedom from pregnancy resulting from sexual intercourse.
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. And so the 1960s were a time of rebellion against the drab fashions and social mores of the previous generation.
The first inkling of the 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 council Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously stood up in front of the jury in his closing statement and asked "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 on the NHS in the 1960s, first restricted to married women, but late in the decade it's availability was extended to all women.
Beginning in San Fransisco 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 was part of a counter culture 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 commingled freely.
Free Love continued in different forms throughout the seventies and ended abruptly when the public first became aware of AIDS, a deadly sexually-transmitted disease, in the mid 1980s.
Explicit sex on screen
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 of 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 1970's pregnancies could be ended as abortion become 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 as 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 and gay women and 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
Pornography was not as stigmatized, and more mainstream movies depicted sexual intercourse as "entertainment", with hardly a stir of protest indicative of how far the sexual revolution had come. Magazines depicting nudity and sexual acts, some very sophisticated such as the leading 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. The feminist movement started with cries of "burn the bra", and later objected to the depiction of women as "objects" in such venues as pornographic magazines and at such contests as the annual "Miss World" and "Miss Universe" contests.