Sex is an integral part of human existence. Whether it is used simply as a means of procreation or for more erotic purposes, sex is a staple of society and humanity. The fundamental reason for having sex was merely for the purposes of reproduction. This perception has changed over decades, present day theories suggest that sex is used as a measure of one’s social standing. The term ‘sexual revolution’ was first coined in 1929 by Austrian psychiatrist F. Werfel in reference to the sexual revolution in France (“Oxford English Dictionary”). This transition of ideology behind sex started in the 1920’s, shifted towards a joyful, less devil-inspiring activity in the 1950’s and moved towards having more open qualities in the 1970’s.
With the introduction of contraceptives during the roaring 20’s, attitudes towards sex began to shift away from the conservative ideology that sex, a dirty habit, was to be used only as a means of reproduction. The introduction of counterculture in the 1960’s through the 1970’s lead to freer exploration of sexual attitudes and orientations, posing the idea that joy and pleasure from copulation was not the devil’s work. Modern day attitudes towards sex reflect the philosophy that one’s social standing derives from one’s ability and ranking in bed. This shift in the paradigm of thought towards sexual activity in the United States can be seen through advancements in contraceptives, the emergence of counterculture, the breaking of sexual taboos and the sexuality of popular media.
Previous to the 20’s, sex was viewed solely as a means for breeding and was considered to be in some ways a vile, scientific necessity. This view began to change drastically in the 20’s. With the introduction of contraceptives, sex became less risky, the benefits outweighing the consequences. Margaret Sanger appeared at the forefront in the battle of birth control. Her goal was to de-stigmatize the negative view of contraceptives and find a safe and reliable method. Her research showed the diaphragm as the most plausible form of contraception (Baughman et al). The insertion of the diaphragm became considered a legitimate medical practice in 1937, its existence bringing more people together without the risk of another person coming along nine months later. This was the first step that began to separate copulation from reproduction. Sanger began a revolution of thought towards the way sex is viewed, reversing the stigma surrounding it to one of a safer and plausible activity.
The 1920’s came roaring into the spotlight in a haze of jazz, liquor, and a new sexualized perspective towards life. Due to prohibition, youth rejected conservative values in a dull raoar that became known as the roaring twenties. Along with contraceptives, the breaking of sexual taboos accompanies the presence of speakeasies and jazz in American culture. Having a “heavily sexual beat”, jazz stimulated the youth . In fact, “the word jazz itself in the dominant culture, meant copulation” and adjectives such as “jazzy, has it up… soon developed” (Maurer 5-24). Jazz and prohibition set the stage for sexual taboos to be broken in a society beginning to shift away from conservative ideals.
The Great Depression only furthered the shift in attitude towards sex that had been started in the 20’s. The economic collapse of the United States economy in 1929 left many jobless with empty pockets and hungry stomachs. Youths who could not find work remained in school longer, creating a higher concentration of adolescents in proximity to one another. To save money on housing, people moved in with each other and to pass the time, they had sex; “they did what people naturally do, and love-making in the daytime was no longer taboo”(Maurer 5-24). Men began to compete promiscuously, “thwarted in by their ambitions for jobs and independence, dating provided youth with an avenue to social prestige that helped compensate for cutoff economic opportunities” (Baughman et al). The emergence of the “dating and rating system” created a tool to measure the exact social stature of the dating population in 1930’s America. Men were rated on their material representation of power; women were rated on their sexual reputation. Once the young began to date, they began to pet and neck which eventually lead to sex. Dorothy Bromley and Florence Britten conducted research to see how many college students in 1938 were having sex. The data shows that “one-half of the male students and one-quarter of the female students had premarital sex. Those born between 1890 and 1900, 74% remained virgins until marriage, but among those of the generation born after 1910, only 31.7% remained virgins” (Baughman et al). There is a clear increase in the participation of youths in sexual activity from the 1900’s to the 1930’s, portraying a shift in attitude towards sex from an act of procreation to one of enjoyment and socialization.
Following the breaking of sexual taboos in the 30’s, the 1940’s saw an attempt to reverse new sexual trends due to the effects of the Cold war. During the outbreak of the Second World War, soldiers were introduced to new sexual experiences, which lead to the spread of venereal diseases. Contraceptives were becoming more accessible than ever and being used more ubiquitously, “older groups reported extensive use of condoms by their husbands, and 31% said they used diaphragms. By contrast 61% of the respondents in the younger group said they used diaphragms frequently” (Baughman et al). The use of birth control methods in youths was becoming widespread and older generations were on their way to frequent usage. Following the war, anti-communist attitudes supported by McCarthy lead to a more strict sexual culture, linking sexual desires with moral depravity. As the decade continued, ”’free love’ increase, but still very much under cover. The communism of the 1930s ran head-on into the overkill of the McCarthy era” (Maurer 5-24). Homosexuals were specifically targeted by statements that “gay-baiting was as fierce as red baiting” and homosexuality “linked so-called perversion to national weakness” (Baughman et al). The 1940’s prompted a setback in revolutionary sexual thought by comparing previous promiscuity with communist thought.
As the red scare began to wane during the 50’s, restrictions of outward declarations of sexual behaviors began to lessen. Sex came to the forefront of people’s minds in many revolutionary ways during the 50’s. Never before had sex been used as a marketing tool. The fifties provided an era in which sex sold magazines, books, movies and music. Playboy first came out in 1953, sporting nude women as an ode to what publisher Hugh Hefner called “disobedience, a triumph of sexuality, and end to puritanism” (Baughman et al). Hefner spoke to the true revolution of sexual activity and sexual thought occurring in the United States. Author Grace Metalious wrote Peyton Place in 1956 challenging sexual taboos of incest and abortion, a term still used today to refer to neighborhood scandal. She was one among many authors whose tales began to take a sultry spin to provoke readers to buy their books. Hollywood also began to shift its marketing strategy to a sexed-up feel as a way to reel in viewers. Actors such as Marlon Brando, Marylyn Monroe, and James Dean made their claim to fame through chiseled abs and plunging necklines. New to the scene of music, Rock ‘n’ Roll became the epitome of sexualized song. The new style of dancing that accompanied Rock left many of the older generation worried, especially after Elvis Presley’s hip-swinging madness on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. They were right to worry, “rock ‘n’ roll, with its celebration of teen hormones, probably contributed more than any other factor to widening the generation gap and launching the sexual revolution” (Baughman et al). Through graphic novels, Hollywood films and Rock ‘n’ Roll, sex came to the forefront of American culture as a marketing device of enticement to a newly re-sexualized youth.
The 1950’s was not only groundbreaking in its appeal to use sex for business strategies but it also gave birth to an unparalleled sexual scientific study, the Kinsey Report. Conducted in 1953, Alfred Kinsey interviewed 5,940 females in a study whose results would shock a nation. While it was known that society had been sexually charged, Americans were unaware of just how much sex was going on. The results were as follows: “half of the women were no longer virgins when they married. Among married women about one fourth had committed adultery by age forty. About half the adulterous wives had only one partner outside the marriage, and a third committed adultery only once or a few times. Women were generally found to have a much lower sex drive than men” (Baughman et al). In the first study of female sexual practices in the United States, Kinsey suggested that it would be better to educate young women to have “limited sexual experience before marital commitment”, yet his message got lost in the criticism that his research was non-judgmental and inconclusive (Baughman et al). This widespread collection of data provided a real-time look into the shift of sexual activity in the United States.
Previous to the 1960’s, the most widely used forms of contraception were diaphragms and condoms. Women began using Envoid, the leading birth-control pill; “400,000 women by the end of 1961 to nearly 1.2 million the year after that and 2.3 million by the end of 1963” (Baughman et al). With the introduction of birth-control pills, sex was even further separated from reproductive purposes. This switch in contraception lead to a whole new way of looking at sex for females. Societal views supported that “a woman who has had several lovers before wedding is no longer regarded as ineligible for marriage” (Birenbaum 285). This ideology towards sex was the culmination of years of sexual progress that divided sexual preferences and desires from public opinion. It was no longer mandatory for women to follow the church’s rules and regulations towards copulation, they out rightly decide on their own. The emergence of the counterculture movement only furthered the ideology of self-thought by directly contradicting conservative ideals towards copulation. Critics of the freer sex movement came from Protestant and Catholic churches, claiming the pill would lead to “sexual anarchy” yet “20% of practicing Catholic women and nearly 30% of Protestant women had used the pill” (Baughman et al). This shift in thought toward the personal allowance of indulgence in sex lead to the belief that sex could be joyful, cherished and personal.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s, until the shift in ideas was in full swing that the public fully began to realize the ground-breaking context of the sex revolution. With the outcast of traditional sexual limitations, the 70’s brought about the full whirl wind of the destruction of sexual taboos in the presence of counterculture. All kinds of people were having all kinds of sex, breaking taboos of “interracial dating, open homosexuality, communal living, casual nudity, and dirty language…open marriage and wife swapping” (Baughman et al). The presence of sex in the media spiked, reaching extremes in music, novels, and led to the creation of sex manuals. Pornography came into a new age, stripping itself of negative stigmas associated with prostitution and drug culture. Stars such as Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems gained fame at the forefront of cinematic erotica. The “complete reversal of the old Christian anti-sex attitude, where sex was seen as basically evil” had come full circle in the social acceptance in the thought that sex was free and joyful (Botermans 235). The United State Supreme Court case of Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion created an even more complete form of contraception. Compared to the conservative limited sexual activities of the past, in the 70’s, “by age nineteen, four-fifths of all males and two-thirds of all males had had sex” (Baughman et al). Sex in the 70’s was laced with free spirits and supported by the movies of the time to create an attitude of acceptance to more pre-marital sex and the breaking of sexual taboos.
While popular thought supported the idea of a more sexually charged public, the revolution had many critics. Refutes stemmed from religious institutions and conservative politicians. President Nixon, along with fervent feminists fought the legality of pornography. Clergymen rejected open sexual attitudes and condemned premarital sex. Conservatives’ main concern was that “sexual promiscuity…was immoral and dangerous, ultimately compromising social discipline” (Baughman et al). Concerns about morality and guiltless copulation circulated within the conservative sphere. Other critics were Public-Health officials who were more concerned about medical implications rather than social ones. New concerns about the rise in teen pregnancies arose. Venereal diseases such as HIV/AIDS rose in the U.S., posing threats to the health of millions of Americans, although it wouldn’t become an epidemic until the 1980s. The dawn of ‘safe sex’ came about as medical officials’ defense against new problems resulting from the sexual revolution. Although a shift in attitude towards sex favored a more open attitude there were critics who fought against the emergence of these new ideals.
Since the 1970’s there has been a small shift in the way in which sex is viewed as a societal factor of popularity. Thoughts have continued to change, altering views towards sex as a way to gauge the social acceptance of an individual, similar to the “date and rate” system of the 1930’s. Scholars argue that a dehumanization of sex will only lead to isolation, powerlessness and self-estrangement; “sex has become ‘free’ only to be fetishized in modern society as the only area of social life open to establishing fully human interpersonal relationships” (Birenbaum 265). This attitude towards sex as a social stigma is best portrayed in a recent letter from a fraternity brother to his chapter. The email details strategies on how to “get lucky” at a party by getting a girl drunk enough to get in her pants. However crude the email is, it defines societal views towards casual, non-interpersonal sex in America today. While “each person is radically responsible for selecting his own definition of god, or ethics or values” in regard to sexual relation, this shift in ethics represents a shift in the views of sex in society today (Botermans 237). The shift in thought of the sex revolution provides the attitude that casual sex reflects one’s social standing in modern day culture.
Gloria Steinem said it best, “sexual behavior is something you have to decide for yourself” (Baughman et al). However, that decision wasn’t always something people considered moral. From the 1900’s to today, views towards sex have changed dramatically. At first, sex was solely a means of procreation, a lustful thing that represented evil otherwise. With the emergence of contraceptives and sexualized marketing, sex began to be viewed as a separate entity from reproduction. In the late 1960’s and into the 70’s, sex came to the forefront of society in a whirl wind of counterculture and rock ‘n’ roll. Following the flare of open sexual behavior, sex became a tool through which partners were ranked and social standings were based. Through the breaking of sexual taboos, the introduction to sex through marketing, the rise of counterculture and especially the creation of contraceptives it is clear that there was a shift in ideology and attitude surrounding sex in the United States.
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