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social sciences

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The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980  
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Gordon Rattray Taylor's sweeping generalization that "the history of civilization is the history of a long warfare between the dangerous and powerful forces of the id, and the various systems of taboos and inhibitions . . . erected to control them" goes so far as to be almost meaningless. Fluctuations in the regulation of sexual activity have taken place in many different historical periods and cultures. Usually such changes are local and limited to one aspect of sexual life. Given this context, the dramatic changes in American sexual behavior, mores, and attitudes that took place during the 1960s and 1970s are noteworthy indeed.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was recognized by the mass media almost immediately. Some early commentators believed that it was in fact the second sexual revolution, the first one having taken place in the period after World War I and culminating in the wild drinking and sexual pranks of the lost generation, which included such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna Saint Vincent Millay, and Ernest Hemingway, in the roaring twenties.

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Nevertheless, the sexual revolution that took place in the latter half of the twentieth century was deeper, more sweeping, and longer lasting.

The Increased Numbers of Sexual Partners

Central to the sexual revolution was the growing acceptance of sexual encounters between unmarried adults. Throughout this period young men and women engaged in their first acts of sexual intercourse at increasingly younger ages. The impact of earlier sexual experimentation was reinforced by the later age of marriage; thus, young men and women had more time available to acquire sexual experience with partners before entering upon a long-term monogamous relationship. In addition, the growing number of marriages resulting in divorce--and the consequent lessening of the stigma attached to divorce--provided another opportunity for men and women (to a lesser degree) to engage in non-monogamous sexual activity.

All three of these developments allowed the generation born between 1935 and 1945 to experience sexual activity with a larger number of sexual partners in their lifetimes than most men and women born earlier.

Shifts in Mores and Attitudes

However, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was even more marked by profound shifts in the mores and attitudes towards women's sexuality, homosexuality, and freedom of sexual expression. It was the culmination of three essential developments: the intellectual contribution of radical Freudian theorist Wilhelm Reich and the empirical sex research of Alfred Kinsey; the battles of pornographers, performers, and literary writers to secure the right of sexual speech; and the permissive context created by the social movements of the period, especially the counterculture movement, the women's movement, and the gay and lesbian liberation movement.

The changes in sexual behavior, mores and public attitudes that surfaced in the two decades after 1960 had their origins, like so much else during the 1960s, in key developments during the late 1940s and the 1950s. At the time, most thinking about sexual behavior, sex roles, and psychological development was influenced by the Freudian intellectual tradition. That intellectual lineage had sought to map the relations between biological energies (libido) and capacities (oral, anal, and genital sexualities) and the social forms established to regulate them, primarily monogamous heterosexual marriage.

The Freudian tradition focused on repression and sublimation to control unruly libidinal energies, transforming sexual energies into cultural energies. In some of his early work, Freud saw the costs of sexual repression, but he also believed that the libidinal energies were powerful and disruptive forces. Toward the end of his life, he came to believe that sexual repression and sublimation were necessary to the survival of modern society.

Wilhelm Reich and Alfred Kinsey

Wilhelm Reich, one of Freud's most brilliant protégés, drew a more radical conclusion. He argued that sexual expression (primarily, the orgasm) was natural and that social control of libidinal energies by the family, institutionalized sexual morality, and the state was destructive. Reich believed that sexual repression profoundly distorted psychological development and led to authoritarian behavior (such as fascism).

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of Wilhelm Reich's thinking about sexuality on intellectuals and more indirectly on the general culture. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was initiated by people who shared many of Reich's beliefs (whether or not they got them from him directly) about the detrimental impact of sexual repression. Many of the first people on the barricades of the sexual revolution were inspired by Reich.

Reich's perspective on the social significance of repression was reinforced by Alfred Kinsey's empirical research. Kinsey's research showed the widespread ignorance and shame about sex promulgated by conservative sexual morality and religious beliefs. But his research also revealed patterns of sexual behavior theretofore unsuspected. Most importantly, it documented how Americans' sexual behavior deviated from their widely accepted norms.

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In her influential book Sex and the Single Girl (1962), Helen Gurley Brown (above, in 1964) argued that women have as much right to non-marital sexual pleasure as men.
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