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]

7 thoughts on “What was the “sexual revolution”?”

  1. That’s how I remember it. I noticed most of your comments in the previous post were LRY recollections. My recollections are largely of adults getting in way over their heads (with drugs too). Maybe that explains people recalling chaos at LRY events. The adult supervisors were awol.

    Your right much work needs to be done here to come to terms with this past. The strange thing I see today with UUism coming out of this past is a very focused OWL program for kids that teaches good sense about sexuality, coupled with total nonsense on a theological level e.g. blather about “sexual justice” which declares “rights” but says nothing about obligations, duties, and ethics. You’re free but we’re silent on what you should do. We don’t teach that (from my narrow perspective at UUSG) to our kids, but we preach something like it publically.

    I suspect that’s because for our Churches to survive they had to deal asap with the obvious wreckage of the revolution, but our theology/ethics has yet to catch up.

  2. Bill, I don’t know what OWL training you have had or what OWL classes you have attended, but you obviously slept through a large part if you missed the part about obligations, duties and sexual ethics.

  3. You entirely missed the point DSD. OWL at my Church did exactly that! (My daughter attended by the way, not me.)

    It’s our Theologies voiced to the larger community that miss the mark. Dig into some of the writers and you’ll find them deeply vague e.g. what in the world is Sexual Justice? in a way directly contrary to our practice.

    I attribute that in part to our first hand expeirence with the wrechage wrought by the sexual revoluion. We just haven’t gotten around to thinking our writing about it. In part that may be guilt for having lead some of it. I don’t know, but greatly appreciate Dan for opening up the topic here.

  4. Bill and Dairy State Dad — I guess I’m thinking that we’re still coming to terms with the sexual revolution and its aftermath. Some examples:

    — We claim that we’re great feminists, but I still see widespread examples of sexism within UUism (e.g., still something like 90% of religious educators are women, because raising children is women’s work).

    — We’re still struggling with the balance between sexual freedom and sexual responsibility, e.g., we still don’t have a clearly articulated theology of marriage.

    — We still haven’t come to terms with pornography, except in political terms (i.e., most UUs uphold First Amendment rights).

    Just a few examples — we could all come up with more. And we shouldn’t feel bad that we’re still struggling with this topic — so is the rest of society.

  5. Aurora Levins Morales has given me her permission to quote her comments from the LRY Reunion Facebook conversation on sexuality and consent. Aurora notes that as a young immigrant from Puerto Rico in 1969,her Hyde Park,Chicago LRY chapter “was a true life-saver.” She goes on to comment,prior to discussing her two non-consensual sexual experiences at LRY events:
    Sexual assault is minimized all the time. What matters
    is not a legal definition of rape but the impact of having sex when you don’t want to,whether that happens through violence,shaming,surprise,etc.

  6. @Bill #1: I agree that at times the adult advisers were AWOL; I remember 2 examples,both literally and figuratively, in local and state MI events between 67-69.

    Rocky Mt. MiCon,which I attended in summer ’67,was an example of mostly responsible adult leadership,and I have good memories from that week-long camp. The theme was sensitivity training,or t-groups; the days were structured and well-supervised,important considering the emotional work we did. I think we youth learned some good communication skills and did some positive bonding. There was one serious situation with a young woman who came a day or two late to camp, felt very left out,and became very distressed. We were informed of this,had time to discuss it,and the adult advisers spent considerable time talking to and supporting her. My recollection is camp ended on a positive note.

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