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social sciences

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The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980  
 
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In The Homosexualization of America, The Americanization of Homosexuality (1982), gay social critic Dennis Altman has argued that gay men and lesbians had their greatest impact on society's concepts of sexuality and relationships. "The growing preoccupation of society as a whole with sex," Altman wrote, "the collapse of old beliefs and standards, means that the very outlaw status of the homosexual makes him or her a model of new possibilities that have meaning for others." The Western idea of marriage, he suggested, "is disappearing as a universal norm . . . . The search to reconcile unlimited sexual freedom and the emotional security of committed relationships is no longer a peculiarly homosexual problem."

The Impact on Community Life and Social Institutions

A revolution in sexual behavior and mores is bound to have impact on many social institutions and other aspects of community life, of which courtship, marriage, parenting, cohabitation, and divorce are only the most obvious. The sexual revolution inspired many experiments in daily living such as open marriage, mate swapping, and ménage à trois.

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But it also inspired larger scale experiments such as communal living, the planning of orgies, and the establishment of commercial sex clubs for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. The sexual revolution also opened up new sexual possibilities and gender roles for individuals, including bisexuality, homosexuality, S/M (sadomasochism), and . Communities emerged around these new sexualities and gender possibilities.

The Shift in How We Think about Sexuality

The sexual revolution of the late twentieth century produced a profound shift in the way we think about sexuality, how we conceive of sexual repression, and also how we regard the effect of social factors. On one level, the development of ideas proceeded from the tremendous strides in sex research--the Kinsey Reports, the studies by Masters and Johnson, and the technological advances in birth control.

But on another level, the ideas grew out the everyday lives of the men and women who had sex, who rejected codes of behavior that their parents had upheld, who resisted the etiquette that governed polite language, who discovered ways to express their sexual fantasies in magazines, books, photography, and film, and who found ways to exploit sexual imagery to sell commodities.

However, as the sexual revolution increasingly succeeded, it also increasingly undermined the credibility of Reich's narrow focus on repression and its naïve faith in the "naturalness" and the "goodness" of liberated sexuality. It soon became evident that changes in sexual behavior and mores were shaped by social actions and social movements.

Two American sociologists at the Kinsey Institute, John Gagnon and William Simon proposed a view of sex as profoundly social. They discussed sex by using the metaphor of a script to link everyday patterns of social interaction to larger cultural symbols and frameworks. They saw sexual conduct as a scripted activity that incorporates lines, cues, roles, cultural myths, and symbols to guide and shape sexual interactions.

French theorist and historian Michel Foucault explored the cultural and historical implications of the social constructionist theory (as it later came to be called) of sexuality. In his book, The History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault launched an attack on what he called "the repressive hypothesis." The main point was that sexual conduct was not shaped only by repressive mechanisms, as Freud, Reich, and others had argued, but also by a process of discourse, culture, and social interaction. Sexuality was not an "essential" characteristic of human nature or gender, but a thoroughly social-historical construction. Like Gagnon and Simon, Foucault argued that the self is socially constructed, and that sexuality is shaped through the bodily coordination and symbolic interaction of social subjects.

Thus, the revolution that had begun under the sway of Wilhelm Reich and his ideas about sexual repression had through its very success shown the limitations of his way of thinking about sexuality, the function of orgasm, and sexual repression. The sexual revolution was a success because sexuality was amenable to the actions of both social groups and of individuals in social contexts. The sexual revolution had wrought its enormous changes because of the social and discursive processes identified by Gagnon, Simon, and Foucault. Thus, as the sexual revolution changed sexual conduct and mores, it also opened up a new way of thinking about sex.

The Counter-Revolution and Safer Sex

In time, the sexual revolution provoked a profound and powerful counter-revolution led by the religious right, one of whose fundamental goals is to turn back the sexual revolution. The counter-revolution spawned new organizations, elected political representatives, passed legislation, fought to de-fund sexually progressive programs and to fund sexually conservative programs. Battles between sexual progressives and religious conservatives continue to take place. What many commentators have called "the culture wars" are, in part, a counter-attack on the sexual revolution.

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