What was the “sexual revolution”?

If we’re going to talk about the impact of the sexual revolution on Unitarian Universalism in the 1960s and 1970s, we’re going to have to have some understanding of what it was. David Allyn, in his book Make Love Not War: An Unfettered History of the Sexual Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000) tells us that the phrase was coined in the 1920s by Austrian psychoanalyst William Reich. As applied to the events of the 1960s and 1970s, Allyn points out that the phrase “sexual revolution” had different meanings at different historical moments for different people:

In the early sixties, the “sexual revolution” was used to describe the suspected impact of the newly invented birth control pill on the behavior of white, middle-class, female college students. A few years later, the term was employed to describe the sweeping repudiation of literary censorship by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was borrowed to characterize developments in the scientific study of sexual behavior, most notably by Masters and Johnson. In the late sixties, the “sexual revolution” was invoked to refer to the new candor in American culture, especially the sudden acceptance of nudity in film and on stage.

By the early seventies, the “sexual revolution” was taking on new meanings with each passing year. It was adopted to describe the showing of hard-core sex films in first-run theaters, not to mention to opening of private clubs for group sex. It was used to capture the new spirit of the swinging singles life, as well as the popularization of open marriage. For those in the counterculture, the “sexual revolution” meant the freedom to have sex where and when one wished.

In the highly politicized climate of the late sixties and early seventies, the “sexual revolution” was given a range of meanings. Some student radicals used the term specifically to refer to the end of the “tyranny of the genital” and the arrival of an eagerly awaited age of polymorphous pansexuality. Young feminists equated the “sexual revolution” with the oppression and “objectification” of women and saw it, therefore, as something to stop at all costs. Gay men considered the “sexual revolution” to mean a whole new era of freedom to identify oneself publicly as gay, to go to gay bars and discotheques, to have sex in clubs and bathhouses.

Events and developments shaped popular perception of the “sexual revolution.” Sex-education courses in schools and colleges were radically redesigned to replace euphemism and scare tactics with explicit visual aids and practical information. New books suggested that women were as eager for one-night stands and other sexual thrills as were men. Many states repealed their sodomy laws and introduced “no-fault” divorce. And in 1973, Roe v. Wade ended a century of criminalized abortion. Once again the “sexual revolution was reinterpreted and redefined. [pp. 4-5]