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social sciences

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The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980  
 
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Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) was a response to this development. And the National Organization for Women (NOW) was a political development of this mainstream feminist perspective. Even before the appearance of Friedan's book, the growing economic independence of women had begun to encourage sexual independence as well. Helen Gurley Brown, pursuing a career in advertising, wrote Sex and the Single Girl (1962), which took direct aim at the sexual double standard that required women to remain virgins before marriage while permitting men to engage in sex. A chatty advice book, Sex and the Single Girl was an unlikely manifesto of sexual adventure for the unmarried woman.

The changing social environment presented more and more sexual opportunities. What were in earlier decades temptations soon became everyday possibilities. The institution of marriage was in a mounting crisis. By 1960 approximately half of all marriages could be expected to end in divorce. The growing influence of the idea of sex for pleasure rather than exclusively for procreation, and the availability of an easy and efficient means of birth control with the Pill, reduced the appeal of monogamous marriage as an institution with a monopoly on sex.

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The attack on the double standard--by which it was acceptable for men to have sexual relationships either before or during marriage, but stigmatized women who did--freed women to engage in a greater range of sexual activities. In this context, there were few guidelines to help women and men negotiate their sexual relationships.

Many women viewed marriage as the stronghold of male domination. Such a perspective was supported by various economic factors: the income inequalities that favored men over women, the limited employment opportunities for women, and other institutionalized benefits. Nevertheless, both men and women in their struggles with one another sought to reshape marriage, to explore new sexual territories, and even to create new institutions that allowed for new ways of relating to one another; open marriage, mate swapping, swinging, and communal sex allowed men and women to forge new kinds of sex lives.

The Homosexual Civil Rights Movement

By the late 1960s, there were already many signs that homosexuals were in the process of creating a civil rights movement, inspired, in part, by the African-American struggles of the 1960s, but the Stonewall Riots of 1969 crystallized a broad grass-roots mobilization across the country. The movement that emerged after Stonewall resulted from the underground homosexual subculture of the 1950s and 1960s and the radical politics and counterculture of 1960s youth.

The homosexual culture of the 1950s and early 1960s reflected its bitter consciousness of the oppressive stigma against homosexuality in its flamboyant, irony-charged camp humor, but it was not political. Gay culture in the 1950s was invested in protecting the "secret" of an individual's homosexuality and expressing it only in a symbolic or heavily coded way. Cultural resistance to the heterosexual norm was expressed through cross-gender performances and sex role-playing.

The new gay liberationists, however, had little appreciation of the traditional gay and lesbian life of the 1950s and the 1960s. Instead of protecting "secrecy" as the right to privacy, gay liberationists gave political meaning to "coming out" by extending the psychological-personal process into public life.

To "come out of the closet" was to do the very thing most feared in the gay and lesbian culture of the 1950s. By placing "coming out" at the center of its political strategy, the gay liberation movement tended to mobilize those people who felt more emotionally committed to living a full-time life as homosexuals rather than those who experienced homosexual desire only sporadically or who experienced desire for both men and women.

The 1970s were considered, according to gay novelist Brad Gooch, the "Golden Age of Promiscuity." The gay male community had developed a rich culture of "easy sex," sex without commitment, obligation, or a long-term relationship. Many gay men did not regard impersonal sex as qualitatively better than personal sex, but rather as a more expedient means to have sex. Some gay men pursued it as an end in itself--for the adventure and variety of sexual experience--rather than as a substitute for personal sex. They rejected conceptions of impersonal relationships as superficial, tawdry, depressing, or pathological, and instead saw them as fun, enjoyable, and exciting.

The new freedom of the sexual revolution allowed gay men to create opportunities for easy sex in bathhouses and sex clubs. These venues provided safe spaces without fear of outsiders intruding or arrest, an ample supply of sexual partners, a physically comfortable space, and a socially structured environment that focused the interactions between participants.

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