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social sciences

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The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980  
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His findings on homosexuality were among his most controversial and widely publicized. He found that homosexuality was much more common that anyone realized. By Kinsey's estimate, 37 percent of the male population of the United States had had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm between adolescence and old age. Kinsey's report on female sexuality also revealed evidence that showed that women were much more interested in sex that went beyond reproduction than most sociologists and psychologists had expected. The report dispelled a number of other myths about women and sex, among them that women had difficulty achieving orgasm.

The laboratory research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson reinforced Kinsey's findings on female sexuality. Their books devoted more space to discussing female sexuality (in part, because it had been much less studied) than male sexuality and debunked numerous misconceptions founded on the idea that female sexuality was strictly analogous with or a reflection of male sexuality. They characterized male sexuality as one-dimensional because of the cycle of arousal, orgasm, and de-tumescence, whereas women were capable of sustaining a prolonged plateau of orgasmic experiences.

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Battles over Obscenity and Pornography

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s would never have taken place without a series of extended battles over obscenity and pornography. Those battles cannot be separated from the political and legal battles for free speech and the First Amendment, but they also reflected vigorous economic competition. The publishing of pornography and sexually explicit literature was and perhaps has always been a profitable business; and in the United States it has at times involved organized crime.

Whatever the motivation of the pornographers, these battles helped to create a public space in American culture for sexual speech, a space where it was permissible not only to discuss patterns of sexual behavior but also to portray sexuality honestly and bluntly in fiction, on the stage, and in movies.

Pornographic representations of sexuality ranged from profound explorations of desire to highly stereotyped permutations of sexual positions. The sexual explicitness of pornography ranged from soft-core images of attractive models posing or running in the woods to gritty depictions of kinky sex acts in an alleyway. Pornography can reinforce the crudest stereotypes of sex roles, standards of beauty, or power dynamics, or it can contribute to the education of desire. It is a fantasy machine and a form of discourse about sex--and it can be both of these things at the same time.

The legal battles that took place in the 1960s and 1970s changed the meaning of obscenity. Supreme Court Justice Brennan's four part definition of obscenity (in Roth v. United States of America, in 1956) profoundly shaped the legal battle over pornography: "[1] Whether to the average person, [2] applying contemporary community standards, [3] the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole [4] appeals to prurient interests."

While Brennan declared "obscenity as utterly without socially redeeming importance," and ruled that it was not protected by the freedoms of speech and press, he also created an opening for the freedom of sexual speech when he noted that "sex and obscenity were not synonymous . . . . obscene material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts," and that "All ideas, even ideas hateful to prevailing climate of opinion, have the full protection" of the First Amendment. The battle over obscenity and pornography created a public arena in which it became possible to discuss sex and to represent it both literarily and visually, and without which the sexual revolution is difficult to imagine.

Social Protest and Unrest

The intellectual developments that originated with Reich, Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson and the political battles over obscenity and the First Amendment found fertile ground in the waves of social unrest and protest that washed across the country in the 1960s and 1970s. Especially important in this regard were the counterculture movement, the women's movement, and the gay and lesbian movement.

The cultural atmosphere of the 1960s, particularly what was referred to as "the counterculture"--associated with the rise of rock music, the increased use of marijuana, LSD, and other drugs among youth, widespread public displays of nudity, and a new openness about sexuality--contributed to the awareness of radical cultural change that was the social matrix of the sexual revolution.

The women's movement and changes in the understanding of female sexuality also played a central role in the sexual revolution. The women's movement grew out of several distinct sources. Since the end of World War II, married women had entered the labor force in dramatically growing numbers; and the inequities of the workplace--lower wages, limited upward mobility on the job, and the dual burden of job and domestic responsibilities--underscored for many women their relative lack of income and power.

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