A Century of Sexual Revolution

The modern sexual revolution is an undisputed historical phenomenon, but it would appear that many Americans were unwilling to recognize just how deeply it had penetrated our society. The unfolding public litany of sordid revelations which have come to light in the aftermath of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s downfall suggest that what once was considered repulsive or abnormal behavior has become widely normative. In the current hyper-sexualized environment perhaps it might help recall how ‘normal’ relationships between the sexes were understood for centuries. Traditional sexual equilibrium is much like a gyroscope that maintains and keeps all the rest of society in balance. But if that balancing mechanism wobbles and topples, everything else is liable to crash along with it.

The historic basis of male / female relationships was invariably the striking of a delicate balance between needs and wants, a kind of ‘trade’ agreement between sexes. Men have something that women want and women have something entirely different that men want. In the past, that fact established the basis for the delicate ‘trade’ negotiations between a man and a woman. In modern day parlance, women want romance and security while men crave sexual excitement. And because women are generally less sexually driven than men, they can use their natural sexual allure to good advantage over them. Likewise the man, being less emotional, has a certain advantage when appealing to the woman’s emotions. Moreover, men have historically exerted more physical and economic power than women. But women, in their turn, being more communicative than men, can manipulate social power more to their advantage.

Each side possessed strengths and weaknesses which were traded off similar to trade negotiations between nations. The country with a surplus of wheat trades with another nation which is awash in olive oil. If all works out, in the end each will achieve some approximately equal ‘balance of trade.’ For millennia the relationship between the sexes operated in the same manner. After a careful agreement had been worked out a man provided his protection and care to a woman who in return shared his bed and gave him children. Such a negotiated trade agreement was called a marriage contract. It was a system that promised peace, security, and harmony not only for the family’s sake but also for society as well. Much diplomacy and even intrigue was involved in this whole process which nevertheless established a kind of equilibrium between the sexes. As long as everyone abided by the rules the family and society prospered

C.S. Lewis had observed that different societies over the millennia may have disagreed on just how many wives a man ought to have, but that they all agreed that no man should just have any woman he wanted. Even so, humanity being what it is, promiscuity abounded. Men who could offer a woman no prospect of security (common seamen for example) and those women socially unqualified to attract a suitor (and lacking a dowry) were numerous and too often prostitution became the substitute for stable marriage among such persons. But in general terms, society recognized the marriage bed as the best way to provide social and familial stability. Husbands protected and supported their wives who in return loved and nurtured both spouse and children.

About a century ago that well established though delicate balance between the sexes began to change. America’s “sexual revolution” began in earnest about the end of World War I as a million or so ‘doughboys’ returned from Europe. Coming from farms and small conservative towns, many of them had been jarringly exposed to much looser sexual attitudes, particularly in France. (“How you going to keep them on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”)  Back home puritanism was alive and well however. A priggish moral rectitude now manifested itself in Prohibition, targeting the very boys who had just fought to secure the world for freedom. “Welcome home, soldier! Thanks, and by the way, no more beer.”

Prohibition unleashed a tsunami of angry resistance against America’s smug moral cops by the same youthful generation which would soon succeed them. It turned a law-abiding populace into lawbreakers overnight. Buying a drink became an act of rebellion, and since the cause / effect relationship between alcohol and sex is as old as the Bible itself, extra-marital sex inevitably became a part of that rebellion as well. As hemlines shortened alarmingly, the new jazz culture increasingly lured the young people out of the family parlor and into the dance hall. (The very term “jazz” originated as a slang expression for sex, which only later attached itself to the musical idiom.) The Gatsby generation plunged into a frenzied, devil may care, lifestyle with abandon.

Simultaneously, another less sensational event transpired which tended to shift the balance of power that had historically underpinned the male / female ‘social contract.’ The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified on August 18, 1920 only months after Prohibition had taken effect, gave women the right to vote and participate fully in the political process. While in itself a just and noble recognition of women as members of the body politic, the 19th also created a faint though discernible fault line in the balance of domestic power. It served as a subtle indicator that the family was no longer considered the primary functioning unit of society but now each individual, acting alone, was to become a new social unit. In essence the father was no longer seen as the official spokesman for his family; just another voting member on the board.  The male / female ‘balance of trade’ was sure to be affected in the long run because now, a part of what the man had to offer a woman, his protective authority, was taken off the table.

World War II further abetted this gradual shift as millions of women entered the labor force for the first time. The war effort led to the creation of a large “Rosie the Riveter” workforce needed to staff vital defense industries. Many women experienced financial independence for the first time ever and it was in such factories that a latent proto-feminism may well have begun to invade the feminine psyche. Of course, the hopes of many enterprising women were dashed as the war ended and the boys came home, resulting in massive layoffs for the girls. The effect here was not so very different from what American dough-boys returning home to a ‘no beer’ universe at the end of the previous war had experienced. The boys had seen ‘Paree’ and the girls had gotten accustomed to a paycheck. The worldview of both groups was bound to a certain amount of revision as a result.

Social and moral attitudes did not collapse immediately even as the “Roaring 20s” challenged long-held proprieties and sexual mores. The advent of the Great Depression, with its worldwide collapse of economies, actually strengthened the family for a time as a place of refuge. The great ‘Dust Bowl’ added to the sense of apocalyptic reckoning, followed by a more terrible war than the former one. Yet despite those sobering events, the 1920s sexual revolution left an indelible mark on Western societies. In 1930 the Anglican Lambeth Conference reflected that shift in values. That year Anglican leaders made the historic decision to approve the use of birth control to limit family size. As the first Protestant denomination to do so this represented a seismic shift in what, till then, had been a universal Christian tenet. Most other non-Catholic denominations followed Lambeth in short order. With that momentous decision the whole Christian notion of family and conjugal love shifted dramatically towards a purely secular paradigm.

In practice it took another 30 years for the Lambeth decision to exert its widespread impact for the logistical reason that actual methods of birth control were still quite limited if not primitive in 1930. But by the late 1950s a technological breakthrough occurred. A new drug called Enovid appeared on the market which suppressed ovulation. Initially used to treat various other disorders, the contraceptive function of the ‘Pill’ was quickly recognized. In 1960 the FDA approved it as an oral contraceptive. The one thing that had heretofore impeded the sexual revolution, fear of pregnancy, had suddenly evaporated. Women were now free to explore a whole new world of sexual possibilities. Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead summed it up in her own wry manner, “We are having a tremendous revolution in the world of sex… we free women to be people, and whether we free them to copulate oftener or with more partners is less relevant. All this talk of who is sleeping with whom is of relatively little importance.” The free-thinking Mead was obviously no big fan of the traditional nuclear family.

Other factors were at play as well. The appearance of Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Magazine in 1953 hastened the erosion of respect for both sex and women in the minds of the self-styled ‘sophisticated male.’ Not that cheesecake and pornography were something new. What Playboy did was to make voyeurism and prurient sexual curiosity palatable by wrapping them in a slick veneer of witticism and middle class respectability.  Playboy pandered to the male fantasy that sexual exploitation was part of being debonair, cool, and sophisticated. And what woman could help but be attracted to such handsome, a well educated ‘stud’ whose vast experience with other women supposedly made him even more irresistible? Heffner was basically projecting a ‘James Bond’ fantasy image onto his American male audience and making millions doing it. He was greatly abetted by various courts and judges who could never really decide what exactly constituted “indecency.”  But for most of his readers the reality was quite different as Playboy and the increasingly graphic ‘men’s journals’ following in its wake became masturbation manuals in practice. No sleek, velvety voiced playboy bunnies prancing on the patio; instead a lonely existence indulging in fantasy sex punctuated by occasional visits to the local dive massage parlor became the lot of Heffner’s devotees.

Men had always been more prone to sexual suggestion but it was women who traditionally played the role of holding them within reasonable bounds. Their secret weapon was called marriage. By 1951 sociological studies indicated that 68% of unmarried college men had experienced sexual relations whereas only 14% of college women had done so. It seems that women, by and large, were still insisting that marriage was prerequisite to sex. Ten years later columnist Ann Landers could still credibly advise young women, “sex outside of marriage isn’t worth the fear, the guilt, the loss of reputation, the anxiety, and the risk of pregnancy.” How quaint such advice must sound to today’s 20 something co-ed! But in 1961 the sexual tsunami was still in its very early stages, yet gaining a momentum with which it would soon sweep, virtually unopposed, across the American landscape.

For those who cared to look closer, the damage from the earlier sexual revolution was already apparent even by this time. In 1961 America already had the highest divorce rate in the developed world with one in four marriages ending in divorce. This represented a 13 fold increase since the turn of the century. But the second wave revolution was still just on the horizon. After the approval of the Pill, that record shattering divorce rate would double again over the next 20 years as fully half of all marriages failed to survive. The fallout on the institutional family became incalculable. Spouses suffered greatly, but the ones who suffered the most were children.

I believe that whatever Playboy magazine’s erotic ethic became to the male half of the population, the oral contraceptive served as its counterpart on the female side of the ledger. Both, in their own ways, fundamentally changed the dynamics not only of marriage and family, but the very way in which men and women related to one another. Smutty literature and various contraceptive practices had existed for centuries, even millennia. That was nothing new. What Playboy and oral contraceptives did was to mass merchandise sex on a scale never before imagined. Not that America suddenly lost her innocence in the late 1950s but she did succumb to a new ‘zeitgeist’ that now presented sexual innovation as ‘social progress.’ A kind of passive capitulation to this new spirit of the world occurred among parents who would soon see it more radically expressed in the lives of their children.

By liberating women from the responsibility of bearing children, the Pill redefined family and marriage as ‘optional’ rather than ‘primary’ vocations for women, thus upending centuries of common experience. It also re-cast women as ‘toys’ rather than as domestic partners in the minds of countless men who realized that they could now reasonably expect to shirk the responsibilities of fatherhood. The former cooperative ‘balance of trade’ between the sexes was upended, replaced by two autonomous groups of men and women, each seeking its own selfish interests, either as playboys or feminists.

Dr. Mary Bunting, president of Radcliffe College presented the case for the new feminism in a 1961 Life Magazine editorial. “The greatest waste in America,” she wrote, “is the educated woman who gets mired in mere motherhood.” Here was one outspoken academic leader who seemed to be comparing the traditional family unit to some kind of dismal swamp, and to the country’s overall detriment at that. She goes on, “Most U.S. women call themselves “housewives”… but the term also covers a great pool of idleness and futility in the civilized world.” In other words a woman should be valued only by her utility in the world, not by the love and care given to her family. The cherished matron and respected wife of yesteryear had apparently become obsolete models of womanhood by 1961. A whole new breed of men demanded glamorous sexpots in the bedroom even as their feminist counterparts clamored for more highly trained robots in the office. Who was the average woman to believe? She was caught in a seemingly impossible contradiction, unable to please either side.

I was nine years old when that Life editorial was penned. By the time I turned sixteen this newly energized sexual revolution would be hitting its full stride. As a baby boomer my entire generation would be swept along in a tide of sexual promiscuity unrivaled since the time of the Roman empire. The future antics of predatory males like Harvey Weinstein, Steve Wynn, Bill Cosby, James Levine, and countless others were greatly enhanced if not practically assured by the Pill. And yet, only a single lone and prophetic voice would be raised against the very thing that enabled the ensuing tide of sexual depravity. The year was 1968, exactly half a century ago. In my next installment I will relate how that historic summer of discontent played out, and continues to play itself out even today in the world at large.


Francis J. Pierson    + a.m.d.g.

1 thought on “A Century of Sexual Revolution

  1. This is a insightful and spirit guided writing presenting a deep and thorough analysis of A Century of Sexual Revolution. Blessings on you and may the Holy Spirit continue to enlighten all of us and you in your teachings.


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