Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby: A Look Back at the Sexual Revolution

In 1967, the Rolling Stones released their single Let’s Spend The Night Together and it would be banned or censored by radio stations across the United States and Britain.

Widespread censorship and banning of the song and others like it reflected a society that was in a constant state of change and conflict. On one side of the fence were the Americans who pushed for social change, refusing to box themselves into the rules dictated by the status quo. On the other side were those Americans who fought to protect the decorum of old school America, characterized by adherence to tradition and piety.

Sexually charged ideas, sexual expression, sexual orientation and the act of having sex itself were by no means invented in the 1960’s, but specific events would move those ideas into the political consciousness, turning them into arenas for stark public debate on a level never before seen in America. The campaign to re-conceptualize sex in the 1960’s was spearheaded by American women who realized that so much of their lives were being circumscribed because of their biological sex. Using the paradigm of the Civil Rights movement as inspiration, American women began problematizing those circumscriptions and traditional assumptions that dictated how a woman was expected to participate and fit into society via the Sexual Revolution. This new movement, now referred to as the second wave of feminism, would be challenged by the voices that encouraged the supremacy of conservative and puritan decorum, and therefore often times overshadowed the dichotomies that developed within the movement itself. Due to a lack of a centralized feminist doctrine combined with the subjective nature of sexuality itself, women of the liberation movement interpreted the Sexual Revolution in a variety of ways, creating conflicting attitudes as to how the revolution was supposed to materialize. The invention of the birth control pill, the emergence of new lifestyle literature like Playboy and Single Girl in the City and the repeal of the Hollywood Production Code can be used to answer how these sharp rifts developed.

When the first birth control pill was released in 1960, it offered women an unprecedented level of control over her sexuality, which had up until that point, been controlled by her male counterparts. By 1963, over two million women were using the pill. That number increased to 6.5 million two years later. Right-winged conservatives were staunchly opposed to the pill and all other forms of contraception including abortion and referred to the pill as state-sponsored immorality and a defiance of God’s will. Some black Americans also opposed the pill; calling it a government sponsored eugenics plot guised under social and health reforms for America’s most impoverished communities. Access to contraception was legalized for married couples following the 1965 Griswold vs. Connecticut Supreme Court case, but remained barred from unmarried and single women as per the Comstock Chastity Laws until 1972.

Besides the legal barriers to contraception, the social taboos that were placed on the pill were just as powerful. The pill posed a huge threat to what the time-honored life trajectory for a woman since WWII. That trajectory concluded that a woman would graduate high school, meet a nice boy, get married at twenty, have children, submit to a role of domesticity and live happily ever after in the suburbs. Historian Martha Bailey investigated the general age of a woman’s first pregnancy before the introduction of the pill. She found that in the years just before the pills release (1957-1959), 50% of women between eighteen and twenty were married and 40% of them had at least one child before they turned twenty-one. Her male counterparts believed that it was all a woman would aspire to, while her society reinforced the idea that it was all a woman should aspire to.

lets talk about sex baby 2

Betty Friedan would problematize those assumptions of heteronormativity throughout her book The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan berated western culture for teaching women that they could only live fulfilling lives as mothers and wives. She identified the ‘problem that has no name’ in reference to widespread depression for not feeling totally fulfilled by a life that they had been taught to want and guilt for aspiring to other things outside of motherhood and wifehood. One of the most famous passages of the book describes this feeling.

“It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: ‘Is this all?’”

In this regard, the pill offered women an opportunity to pursue that ‘more’ she craved out of life, which Friedan argued came in the form of formal education and a professional career. Having the ability to control the size of her family and at what time she would have kids presented American women with new social and economic freedoms to peruse alternative roles in the professional sphere. Friedan’s role in the establishment of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 that pushed for women’s equality in the workplace is a testament to that argument. Friedan’s book was aimed at enfranchising women who felt trapped by their domestic lives, but other feminists found serious issues with Friedan’s book and feminist ideology. In the 1980’s, Bell Hooks criticized Friedan’s work as being not only racist, but also elitist and homophobic because her ideas catered only to middle and upper class white married women. Moreover, contraception seemed to fit into Freidan’s argument as an organizing tool that allowed women to explore and realize their professional ambitions without having to sacrifice the ability to be a mother and/or wife. What about those who wanted to use the pill in order to simply enjoy sex without having to worry about an unwanted pregnancy? What about women who aspired to be neither wife nor mother?

The pill divorced the ideas of sex and pregnancy all together. Avoiding a pregnancy meant that a women’s sex life gained a new essence of privacy. In so doing, the pill also challenged the sexual double standard. If a woman wanted to have sex before marriage, the pill offered women a lifestyle that celebrated being single and even embraced premarital sex. The philosophy of this new culture abandoned all forms of social and sexual restraints including the shaming of premarital sex and to some degree, even the institution of marriage itself. Contraception would become central to the practice of free love. The philosophies that were put forward in Freidan’s book and in the free love movement were both feminist expressions that challenged a traditional norm. The pill was taken by single women and married mothers alike to pursue different lifestyles, but that does not mean that one women’s motive for using the pill was more intrinsically ‘right’ than the other.

In 1953, a young entrepreneur named Hugh Hefner published the very first issue of Playboy magazine. The small Chicago based company became a brand in its own right that had a hand in nearly everything from cologne to nightclubs and quickly transformed into the multi-billion dollar franchise it is today. Playboy used female nudity to attract its niche market of the ‘modern man’. In 1953 the magazine’s indiscreet use of female nudity was truly groundbreaking and was the living antithesis to American puritanism. A fully naked Marilyn Monroe adorned the first issue’s centerfold. Friedan would attack the magazine’s brazen use of female nudity, claiming that it only contributed to a self-perpetuating system of chauvinism that dehumanized female sexuality, turning it into something that existed only for the enjoyment of men.

In the early 60’s, Gloria Steinem was working for Show Magazine when she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny, recounting her very unpleasant experience in her famous article, A Bunny’s Tale. In the diary-styled article, Steinem attempted to shatter the myth of a glamourized Playboy lifestyle and recalled the long hours, low pay and constant sexual harassment that female workers experienced. Steinem believed that the Playboy image forced women to over-sex themselves for male enjoyment and that the popularity of the magazine represented a sexual revolution that was being orchestrated by men in pursuit their own interests.

lets talk about sex baby 3

Hefner had an entirely different perspective about what Playboy represented. In the October 1963 issue of Playboy, coincidently on the tenth anniversary of the release of its first issue, the magazine featured an article written by Hefner called the Playboy Philosophy. In it Hefner argued that America was in the midst of a social and sexual transformation that brought with it new levels of honesty and apprehiation about sex. He suggested that these changes were not illustrative of a society in moral decline, but instead one that was becoming more mature. From his perspective, displaying female nudity so brazenly was done to break down archaic conceptions about sexuality, that discussions about sex should never venture outside private spheres and that people should feel ashamed for expressing their sexual desires in public. In Hefner’s mind, Playboy was so much more than a nude magazine, it promoted a lifestyle that considered a satisfying and healthy sex-life to be an essential part of an overall healthy life. There were sections dedicated to sexually charged issues and articles that gave advice to men and women on how to live more sexually fulfilling lives. There was also a substantial creative and intellectual side to Playboy that was often overlooked. Between the sexy pictorial expositions were film and music reviews, fictional short stories, investigative journalism pieces and interviews with prominent politicians and celebrities. Throughout the 60’s, Playboy included interviews with authors Ayn Rand and Ian Fleming, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, and psychologist Timothy Leary among others. In 1992, Playboy even interviewed Betty Freidan and when asked about the magazine’s trademark nudity, Friedan replied,

Playboy strikes me as an odd mixture of sex, sometimes juvenile, and forward intellectual thought. Playboy articles and interviews are always quite brilliant and yet they are next to all this attention to woman as sex objects.”

 

Almost a decade after the first Playboy was published; New York author Helen Gurley Brown published her own lifestyle book that would be famously reincarnated as Carrie Bradshaw’s sex column in HBO’s Sex and the City. Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl (1962) as a survival guide that taught young women how to be successful singles in America’s urban environment and in many ways, repackaged a Playboy lifestyle that instead would appeal to the modern woman. Brown’s book sought to teach women how to emancipate themselves both financially and sexually. There were chapters devoted to how a woman could live a fabulous life on a budget, how to meet and talk to men, how to be sexy and flirtatious, how to properly apply cosmetics, stay in shape and how to cook and entertain. The kind of advice Brown was offering in her book was not unlike the advice that is available today in any Cosmopolitan magazine, which Brown would become editor-in-chief of in 1965. Sex and the Single Girl was not completely rejecting the institution of marriage, but it stressed that it was important for women to have sexual experiences before getting married. Brown’s book represented a growing social push for lifestyles that did not equate premarital sex with promiscuity and allowed women to express their sexuality without feeling ashamed. Brown introduced her book with several statements about her feminist philosophy including where she stood on the subject of marriage.

“I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen.”

 

Brown’s approach to female sexuality resemble many of the attitudes that have been adopted in western culture throughout the 21st century and it would not be wrong to say that Brown’s vision of feminism is the most dominant. However, at the time other women and self-professed feminists totally disagreed with her work and philosophy. Betty Friedan accused Brown’s feminist theory of feeding sexist traditions and playing into the women as sex objects stereotype because of the stock Brown often put into physical appearance. After all, Brown famously noted, “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.” Friedan’s opinion of Cosmopolitan magazine was that it was both quite obscene and quite horrible.

By the mid decade, ignoring a rapidly changing society was near impossible. Old attitudes towards sexuality were being replaced with new ones that promoted unprecedented levels of sexual openness in the name of healthy living. Whether they were the drivers or communicators of social change, American publications seemed to be at the forefront.

The Alfred Kinsey Reports famously liberated the female orgasm, Freidan’s Feminine Mystique gave a voice to unfulfilled house wives, Steinem’s Ms. Magazine was the flagship for feminist journalism, Hefner’s Playboy celebrated the female body, and Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response and Sexual Inadequacy clinically proved the merits of sexual therapy. In comparison, the mediums of film and television seemed to be falling far behind and it was because of the Hollywood Production Code.

The Motion Picture Code, also known as Heys code, was a set of moral guidelines that American production companies were compelled to follow. The code was adopted and remained unchanged since 1930 and so naturally it flew a rather conservative flag about what could and could not be displayed on film and television. Loopholes to the Heys code were found in foreign and sexploitation films, but on a whole Americans found that on-screen culture was not at all in tune with reality. Married couples could not be shown sharing the same bed, interracial couples, discussions about sexual hygiene or contraception, swearing, exaggerated sexuality and of course nudity were strictly prohibited under the Hays Code. The television shows and movies of the time were quite idealistic, but not at all realistic. Shows like Leave it to Beaver were wholesome, but the show’s familiar melody of happiness via marriage, family and suburban life could only play for so long before growing old.

In a now famous 1968 episode of Star Trek, telekinesis-wielding aliens force Capitan Kirk to kiss Lieutenant Uhura. It was the first scripted interracial kiss ever shown on US television and it left executives at NBC so concerned about how southern states would react, they insisted the scene be re-shot without the kiss. Ultimately the original episode was aired in November (kiss included) and it only confirmed the idea that the code was an outdated relic vainly fighting a rising tide. When the code was abandoned in the same year, the floodgates opened, revealing totally un-ventured possibilities for social and political commentary through film and TV.

If you compare movies of the late 1960’s to others from the first half of the decade, the contrast is stark. Moviemakers now had a platform from which to tackle previously heavily censored topics about sex from. They also had the major advantage of being able to pull at heartstrings better than any bill or senate floor speech ever could. Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a film about a young white woman played by Katherine Houghton who brings her black fiancé, played by Sidney Poitier home to meet her family. Kramer’s movie was clear commentary on the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case of the year prior that legalized interracial marriage in the United States. The movie not only embraced its controversial themes, but even capitalized upon them, marketing the film as a ‘love story of today.’ Other films like A Patch of Blue (1965) would solidify Poitier a place as one of the most influential black actors of the decade.

In 1968, Jane Fonda played the title role in the sci-fi film Barbarella. In one particular scene, the villain, Durand Durand traps Barbarella into his excessive machine in which she is supposed to experience such an overwhelming orgasm that she will die. Barbarella’s capacity to enjoy sexual stimulation however ends up breaking the machine leaving Durand Durand defeated. The movie not only cleverly introduced America to the female orgasm, it also drew on revolutionary material developed by researchers Masters and Johnson, who studied the origins and stages of the female orgasm in their book, Human Sexual Response.

lets talk about sex baby 4

In the 1969 film Bob & Carol and Ted & Alice, a couples experience at the Esalen institute, a well-known meditation and retreat center in California leaves Bob and Carol (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) determined to explore and experiment with alternative forms of sexual activity, including an attempt at multi-partner sex with Ted and Alice (Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon). Mazursky’s film was an expression of how open the issue of sex was becoming and keeping in line with many of the clinical publications at the time, the film portrayed sexual experimentation as being part of a healthy and normal lifestyle. Despite the film’s unapologetic sexuality, it was well received by critics and was nominated for four Academy Awards in 1970.

To say that sex has become a prevalent part of contemporary western culture would be a gross understatement. In the decades since the sixties, the pervasiveness of sex and issues relating to sexuality has bled into nearly all facets of public and private life. It has become nearly impossible now to watch television or cinema, listen to music, go on the internet or just be commercial consumer without being exposed to a sexually charged theme, idea or issue. We find ourselves so naturalized to sex and sexuality to a level that is unparalleled. That is not to say that society today agrees upon what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate feminist sexual expression or that the political debates on issues of sexuality are over because the exact opposite is true.

When Beyoncé released her self-titled album in December 2013, she marketed the album in part as a feminist statement and in many ways it was. She spoke openly about the struggles to balance being a new mother, a wife and a businesswoman and she also proudly discussed her sex life, while simultaneously addressing the double standard that she experienced that her husband did not have to. Others however, questioned Beyoncé’s feminist credentials after hearing lyrics like “bow down bitches” in a song about female equality and references to Tina Turner’s sexual and physical abuse with lyrics, “eat the cake, Anna Mae.” Earlier this year when she released her newest album, Lemonade, responses were equally as mixed. Fans praised Beyoncé for openly talking about her husband’s rumoured infidelity in a new and revolutionary way. Others equated her album as being a celebration of the black female body as a profitable commodity. In early May, noted feminist Bell Hooks accused Beyoncé of colluding in the construction of herself a slave and even equated the singer to a terrorist and anti-feminist in relation to her impact on young girls.

In 2012, after condemning then First Lady hopeful Ann Romney for never working a day in her life, stay at home moms across America criticized democratic strategist Hilary Rosen so intensely, she had no choice but to issue a public apology less than 24 hours later.

Like clockwork, the comments that flood in every time Kim Kardashain posts a nude photo of herself on social media, can be almost evenly divided between those that slut-shame and condemn and those that admire and applaud.

What every one of these examples makes clear is that there is really no right or wrong answer when it comes to expressions of feminism. The Sexual Revolution that erupted in the 1960’s was a movement that was shades of grey, not black and white. The feminist philosophies of Freidan, Steinem, and Brown were all individual conceptualizations of what femininity, sexuality and equality looked like for each one. Most people would associate the 1970’s as the time when Americans began to re-conceptualize their assumptions about sex, and while the movement certainly spilled over into to 70’s and clearly continues to this day, its origins are in the sixties. By the end of the 1960’s, feminist sexual liberation had become so diverse, it became fruitless to attempt to encapsulate what the movement meant or what it was trying to achieve for all women and it made more sense simply to express what the movement meant for each women individually. Almost fifty years later, a lot of people still seem to have a problem understanding that notion.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s