Sexual Revolution & Sexual Counterrevolution Research Paper Starter

Sexual Revolution & Sexual Counterrevolution

Social scientists continue to debate when and how the sexual revolution began. Certainly one of the pivotal events of the twentieth century was the development of oral contraceptives. The combined oral contraceptive pill, or simply "The Pill," gave women the ability to control their reproduction systems for the first time ever and is often credited with ushering in an era of sexual inhibition. However, contemporary research has revealed that American society's attitudes about sex had been changing for decades. The work of Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s and 1950s revealed that sexual freedom and nonnormative sexual behavior were actually quite prevalent in the 20 years before the 1960s. However, some believe that the liberal sexual practices of the 1960s and ’70s have exacted a cost on society and contributed to the spread of STDs and AIDS. As a result, a sexual counterrevolution began during the 1980s.

Keywords Comstock Law; Counter Culture; Free Love Movement; Non-Normative Sexual Practices; Oral Contraceptives; Patriarchal Society; Sexual Liberalization; Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD); The Pill

The Sexual Revolution


The sexual revolution in the United States is not easily pinpointed to a specific set of events or decade. Although the phrase almost invariably elicits the 1960s era of free love, in actuality more relaxed attitudes toward sexuality began to emerge long before the 1960s. To fully understand the liberalization of sexual attitudes in the US, one must begin with examining a number of events and influences dating back to the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The Late Nineteenth Century

In the US, the nineteenth century gave rise to the nuclear family. During this time, men worked outside the home and women largely stayed at home to attend to domestic duties and raise children. A growing middle class arose as populations migrated to cities and gained greater affluence. Middle-class adherence to the Victorian ideals of male strength, female purity, and restrained sexual desire was common (Williams, 2002). While nonmarital and nonreproductive sex was publicly condemned, male patronage of prostitutes was tolerated (Williams, 2002).

By the 1870s, women's rights activists, temperance reformers, and members of the Protestant clergy aligned themselves in an effort to promote a "social purity" movement. These constituents advocated for a number of divergent social causes including ending prostitution and encouraging family planning, or, as they called it, voluntary motherhood (Williams, 2002). Another movement around the same time was led by utopians and proponents of free love. These cohorts opposed religious authority and largely rejected the idea of traditional marriage. Victoria Woodhall was one outspoken opponent of traditional marriage, which she saw as perpetuating the oppression of women. She supported a free love model that she believed would permit men and women to join as equal sexual and life partners outside of the confines and regulations she associated with traditional marriage.

A backlash to the free love movement was lead by Anthony Comstock. He was responsible for establishing the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the 1873 Comstock Law, which banned the mailing of "indecent and lascivious" materials, including medical information on reproduction. Comstock also opposed the free love advocates by demanding that authorities arrest them and any others who supported their liberal views of sexuality.

The Early Twentieth Century

During the twentieth century, urban populations continued to grow as US middle-class values shifted from the Victorian emphasis on thrift, sobriety, and self-denial, to more modern ones of personal consumption and self-gratification (Williams, 2002). Women began entering the workforce in greater numbers at the turn of the new century, and many also entered college. Recreation and leisure activities became much more important to the middle class and were less likely to be church supervised. Young people began to enjoy the liberty to meet without supervision or chaperones.

For most women at the beginning of the twentieth century, sex was largely procreative because, aside from abstinence in marriage, effective birth control was, for the most part, unavailable to women. However, as time passed, women began to actively look for other ways to prevent pregnancy. From the 1910s onward, Margaret Sanger was a tireless advocate for providing women with birth control options and the power to control their reproduction.

Many researchers and historians believe that the greatest shift toward more liberal views of sexuality began after World War I. Involvement in a foreign war had exposed many servicemen to Europe's more liberal sexual attitudes, and nonmarital sex was not uncommon during the war. Condoms were available to GIs, as was penicillin, which was termed the "VD Magic Bullet" (McPartland, 1947).

All of these influences lead to what some have called "America's first sexual revolution" during the 1920s. Rising economic affluence and increased leisure time triggered increased consumption and consumerism, and led people away from rigid Victorian social values. Money was the "ingredient for sophistication" during the carnival of the 1920s. More and more Americans owned automobiles, which offered unprecedented freedom and mobility. And when women entered the workforce in greater numbers and started earning money for themselves, they began to enjoy an unprecedented level of freedom and equality. As the decade wore on, literature, movies, and advertising began taking on sexual overtones (Williams, 2002).

However, despite the era's mood of sexual liberalism, mainstream society adhered, at least publicly, to conservative views of women's sexuality, perpetuating a double standard (Williams, 2002). Sexual attitudes had begun to shift in the nineteenth century, but, for the most part, American society retained traditional views of sexuality through the first quarter of the twentieth century. The Great Depression held sexual standards in check, though some have argued that after years of war and economic instability, the country was ready to adopt more liberal attitudes (McPartland, 1947).

The 1940s

Alan Petigny has suggested that the sexual revolution did not start in the 1960s, but rather really took shape during the 1940s and ’50s. The "silent generation" of this period did not talk much about sex but that didn't mean that they were not having any, according to Petigny (2005). His study of US Census Bureau statistics on premarital pregnancy and single motherhood between 1940 and1960 pointed to the "unexpected conclusion that there was much more sexual activity during those decades than Americans were willing to admit" (Petigny, 2005, p. 7).

After World War II, according to Petigny (2005), more liberal attitudes on topics from "child rearing to religion" took hold in American society. On the surface, public attitudes may not have overtly reflected this liberalization, but Petigny found that people's actions often did not reflect their admitted moral values. He referenced Albert Kinsey's findings on American sexuality as proof that people's actions tended to be inconsistent with societal rules. For example, the 1940s and 1950s saw a dramatic increase in premarital pregnancies while the public continued to espouse traditional views of sexuality that disapproved of premarital sex (Petigny, 2005).

Additionally, researchers speculate that premarital sex during this period would have been much higher if people had not married at such young ages. On average, during the 1950s, women married around the age of 20 and men around the age of 22. Cultural historian Stephanie Coontz offered that "when it came to sexual intercourse, young people were not taught how to ‘say no’, they were simply handed wedding rings" (Coontz, 1992, p. 12, as quoted in Petigny, 2004).

According to Petigny, the differences between postwar sexuality and the 1960s free love era boils down to dissimilarities between convention and conduct. Though Americans' sexual behavior was more or less the same during the two periods, during the 1960s, Americans were much more willing to publicly acknowledge their behavior. People talked more openly about their behaviors and views, and as a result, public morality fell into step with personal conduct. In effect, public opinion converged with private morals (Petigny, 2005).

The Kinsey Report

Alan Petigny's use of US Census data and demographic statistics to extrapolate sexual trends in the 1940s and 1950s is quite different than the methodology that Alfred Kinsey used to study American sexuality during the same two decades. According to Richard Rhodes (1997), Kinsey's more than "18,000 sexual histories [are] the most extensive record of human sexual behavior ever compiled" (¶ 2).

In 1938, Kinsey, a biologist, found himself lecturing on sex education at Indiana University. When he found that existing research did not provide him with enough information for his lectures, he took it upon himself to start collecting the necessary data and began conducting surveys as a means of assessing the sexual behavior of American men and women.

Kinsey's findings were published in two volumes: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male...

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