The sexual counterrevolution.
Accusations like Reagan's do not necessarily presume that liberals are friskier than other people--believe it or not, one study actually found that the very conservative are 10 percent more likely than the very liberal to be conducting extramarital affairs and three times more likely than the very liberal and the moderate to find sadomasochism an acceptable practice. Rather, Reagan's comments represent a typical version of the traditional conservative's interpretation of the "sexual revolution": It was part of the sinful sixties-seventies counterculture; it was a weakening of morals caused by trends and policies, such as wider availability of contraceptives and broader acceptance of premarital sex, that liberals advocated; and it was bad.
The sexual revolution is clearly one of those ideological battlegrounds--like the conflicts over college curricula, abortion, and "the sixties"--where liberals and conservatives clash over culture, politics, and religion simultaneously. Many liberals would insist--rightly--that the sexual revolution helped bring about changes for the better: broader rights for gays and women, wider use of contraceptives, acceptance of premarital cohabitation. Many conservatives would insist--also rightly--that the sexual revolution undermined traditional social and religious bonds and that this loosening of mores caused an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Conservatives have used the epidemics of AIDS and other STDs to reenergize their traditional moral arguments against sex outside marriage. Liberals, on the other hand, still champion what they consider to be the revolution's moral gains; they advocate improving contraceptive availability and sex education to preserve these gains while fighting disease and raising awareness.
Today we live with what many people believe--despite some studies showing sexual activity today to be as promiscuous as, if not more promiscuous than, at the height of the revolution--is a counterrevolution ushered in by AIDS. But is this backlash against the revolution a reality? What is the connection between public morality and public health? And who has more authority to speak on these issues: liberals advocating sex education and public health, or conservatives advocating abstinence and self-discipline?
SEX, SCIENCE, AND HISTORY
On May 10, 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the approval of a new drug produced by G.D. Searle & Company, called Enovid. Some 21 years later, on June 5, 1981, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly reported the appearance of a strange new pneumonia in five otherwise healthy gay men. On neither day were the consequences of these events imaginable to most people. But "the pill" and AIDS serve in the popular imagination as the watershed developments that catalyzed and then killed the sexual revolution.
It is not entirely clear, however, that a discrete "sexual revolution" is anything more than a cultural artifact. Although there is clearly a countervailing trend toward more puritanical attitudes in some segments of society, the preponderance of evidence shows that sexual behavior has remained "loose"--and may even be continuing on a loosening trend--in the time of AIDS. Nor, contrary to popular mythology, did the revolution really begin with the birth control pill: The same trends can be traced back to the end of World War I.
By 1918 sex had begun to escape its institutional confinement in marriage and was starting to become an accepted--or at least acknowledged--part of the culture. During the 1920s, for example, the number of young women engaging in premarital sex jumped sharply, to about 50 percent of the cohort. Economic prosperity after World War II shifted values away from puritanical self-denial and toward a demand for consumer goods; by the 1960s, having lots of sex had become almost a commercial moral imperative. Business began catering to nonmarital sex: A new kind of establishment, the "singles bar," became a standard feature of the urban land scape; convenience stores sold "one-night-stand kits" that came with a toothbrush, condoms, razors, and, for women, an extra pair of underwear; and the concept that "sex sells" became ever more apparent in the proliferation of sexual scenes and innuendoes in entertainment and advertising.
In the 1950s, less than 25 percent of Americans thought premarital sex was acceptable; by the 1970s, more than 75 percent found it acceptable. Between 1960 and 1980, the marriage rate dropped by about 25 percent; the average age of marriage for both men and women rose steadily; and the number of divorced men and women jumped by 200 percent. All told, according to a study by Adweek magazine, single people as a percentage of the total American adult population rose from 28 percent in 1970 to 41 per cent in 1993. The sexual revolution was in full swing.
It is significant that most people attribute the rise and decline of the revolution--now consolidated by popular understanding into a finite event--to developments that are not strictly speaking "moral" or "political." The birth control pill was a technological advancement; AIDS was a medical threat. Thus the vaunted loosening and then tightening of sexual mores that bracket the revolution are in some sense more reducible to biology and technology than to changes in religion or politics or morality per se.
This blending of science and morality is not a new phenomenon. In nineteenth-century America, physicians began to take the place of both church and state as the authoritative source of sexual norms. Victorian-era doctors and much of the public understood sex by analogy to the second law of thermodynamics, believing that profligate sex led to mental and physical degeneration. With this in mind, entrepreneurial inventors developed such devices as a genital cage that would ring an alarm when a boy wearing it had an erection, to prevent masturbation. STDs lent scientific urgency to calls for stricter sexual morality: In the 1890s, conservatives were quick to label a burgeoning syphilis epidemic divine retribution for an era in which the rules governing sexual behavior were losing their force.
A century later, AIDS was--literally, for some on the religious right--a Godsend. "AIDS is God's judgment on a society that does not live by its rules," declaimed Reverend Jerry Falwell. For the biblically inclined, this argument had a certain logic to it. After all, we had been warned: The herpes virus, afflicting as many as 30 million people by the early 1980s, had been deemed "the new scarlet letter" in a 1982 Time magazine cover story explicitly linking the disease to promiscuity. AIDS led to invigorated calls for monogamy and abstinence by religious leaders and public health officials. Both religious and secular authorities now had a powerful weapon, in the form of a medical threat, with which to bring the sexual revolution to a crashing halt.
Today, science has become so woven into moral discourse about sexuality that it is hidden in plain sight. Ironically, this conflation of scientific and moral rhetoric in discourse about sexual activity owes much to the work of an obscure midwestern entomologist who in the 1940s set out to separate religious and moral shibboleths about sex from actual sexual practices.
NATURAL, NORMAL, AND MORAL
In 1938, Alfred Kinsey, a professor in the zoology department at Indiana University, was known only for being the world's foremost expert on a small, stinging insect called the North American gall wasp. But that year, when the university inaugurated a new course on marriage and asked Kinsey to give lectures for it, the sexual world shifted on its axis. Kinsey, frustrated at not having enough statistical material for his lectures, began collecting his own data by surveying students in the marriage class. Finding that data insufficient, he distributed questionnaires to students and the faculty at large. Finally, relying on the help of a legion of colleagues, research assistants, and graduate students, Kinsey began surveying anyone who would consent to be interviewed, ultimately collecting data on 18,000 people. With funds from the National Research Council's Committee for Research in the Problems of Sex (underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation), Kinsey stopped teaching and devoted himself full-time to his survey, founding the Institute for Sex Research in 1947.
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which became known as the Kinsey report, dropped like an 800-page bomb into American culture in 1948. No one--certainly not Kinsey or his publisher, who brought out a first printing of only 5,000 copies--expected the reaction it elicited. Rocketing to the top of the bestseller list, where it stayed for 27 weeks, the report introduced facts and statistics into America's dinner table conversations that dramatically altered perception of sexual behavior in America. The statistics shocked and scandalized: 86 percent of men said they had engaged in premarital sex; 50 percent said they had committed adultery before turning 40; 37 percent of men reported at least one episode of homosexual sex; and 17 percent of men who had grown up on farms claimed to have had sex with animals. The Kinsey report blew the lid off the container in which sexual experience had been sealed. Sexual activity previously labeled "deviant" or "immoral" seemed rampant among the very people who outwardly condemned it.
One of Kinsey's explicit goals in publishing the report was to export discussion of sexual practices from the realm of morality to that of science. In a scientific context, whatever the surveys found was "natural" and whatever was "natural" was "normal" and whatever was "normal" was morally okay. In other words, he sought to demolish "normal" as a meaningful category of sexual behavior.
Whatever the moral
no scientific reason for
types of sexual activity as
intrinsically, in their
biological origins, normal or
legal determination of
sexual acts which are
acceptable, or "natural,"
and those which are
"contrary to nature" are
not based on data obtained
from biologists, nor from
Because previous study of sexual behavior had been little more than "a rationalization of the mores masquerading under the guise of objective science," the report aimed, in the words of its authors, to accumulate "scientific fact divorced from questions of moral value and social custom."
But despite its claims to separate sex from morality by inoculating it with science, what the Kinsey group managed to do was pretty much the opposite--to reify science as morality. Sex, one of the areas of life most laden with taboos, myths, and rules in every society, had historically been governed by traditional cultural authorities--religion, folklore, literature, law. The Kinsey report solidified science's role as the new, preeminent cultural authority. And Kinsey's version of the Word of Science was that, sexually speaking, anything goes. Whatever he found in his survey--and he found great quantities of adultery, homosexual sex, oral sex, prostitution, bondage, and bestiality--was by definition acceptable. Our moral values needed to be brought more scientifically in line with our sexual practices--and the sexual goal of society, the Kinsey report implied, was to maximize the number of orgasms per week. The sexual revolution, though it owed much to interpretations (and misinterpretations) of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich, found its intellectual underpinnings here.
Kinsey's methodology was badly flawed. Many of his respondents were simply the most eager volunteers; his statistical sample, while large, was hardly representative of the larger population. Thus the numbers he published in his reports were very likely grossly inflated. But this hardly mattered. Conservative critics attacked him on their terms, not his. It was not the specific quantities of "immoral" sexual activity reported by Kinsey that riled them; rather it was the report's attempt to use an implicitly moralizing social science to justify an anything-goes sexual ethos. "It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America," declared the evangelist Billy Graham when the Kinsey report's companion volume, Sexual Behavior in the American Female, came out in 1953. Tennessee Congressman Carroll Reece formed a committee to investigate foundation support of "un-American activities," targeting in particular the Rockefeller Foundation's funding of the Kinsey Institute.
From the Kinsey reports onward, this constant tension between permissiveness and restraint, between old cultural authorities and new ones, led to a growing moral bewilderment. What was right? Nobody knew anymore. The sexual revolution and its aftermath caused this tension to intensify. A 1977 Time poll found that 61 percent of Americans believed it was harder and harder to tell sexual right from wrong than in the past. And the most striking feature of the 1993 Janus Report on Sexual Behavior was the increase in uncertainty between its two polling periods. "For most items...the no opinion responses in Phase Two [1988-1992] were two to three times what they had been in Phase One [1983-1985]. We observed significantly less firm opinion and more irresolution in the second phase sample than in the first." Perhaps the most confusing thing was that "science," deployed by Kinsey to establish what Lionel Trilling called a "democratic pluralism of sexuality," was now, in the age of herpes and AIDS, fused to moral arguments for monogamy and restraint. The Age of Aquarius turned into the Age of Confusion.
AFTER THE MORNING AFTER
Katie Roiphe is nothing if not confused; hence she is well qualified to comment on our postrevolutionary era. As the subtitle of her new book implies, Roiphe's Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End undertakes to examine the contemporary American social setting in which the moral and social consequences of certain romantic acts have been replaced by technical and medical ones. Fears about committing a sin, about being ostracized, about experiencing shame no longer have resonance for many people, argues Roiphe; what really scares people today are things like having to get an abortion, contracting herpes, or dying of AIDS.
Technical limitations to sexual freedom have begun to take on the character of moral strictures. AIDS especially--the scourge in particular of drug takers and male homosexuals--has become swollen with moral force, as social and moral understandings of what's acceptable sexual behavior have been collapsed into medical ones. America, Roiphe writes, "embraced the AIDS epidemic--not the terrible disease itself, but, in its abstract form, the idea of sexual peril" because it was "an actual crisis to give form and meaning to our free-floating doubts about sexual freedom."
The 1993 publication of her first book, The Morning After. Sex, Fear, and Feminism, propelled Roiphe, then a 25-year-old graduate student in English literature at Princeton, to minor cultural celebrityhood. In that book Roiphe, prefiguring her arguments about AIDS in Last Night in Paradise, argued that the lobby against date rape was symptomatic of a more general anxiety about sex, an unwillingness to accept the idea that sex needn't always have consequences. Her most controversial position was that many instances of what campus fashion had determined was "date rape" were actually just bad sex--she knew, she said, because she'd had plenty of it herself. "The crisis is not a rape crisis," she wrote, "but a crisis in sexual identity."
In the initial flush of media attention, Roiphe was hailed as a new voice in feminism, a welcome corrective to politically correct sexual repressiveness. But in the subsequent caricature that emerged from the negative backlash, Roiphe became a young Camille Paglia, a neoconservative, neofeminist provocateur who made up in glibness and flamboyance what she lacked in logic and accuracy. Katha Pollit's brutal dissection of The Morning After in the New Yorker in October 1993 pretty well demolished any claim the book had to being a responsible intellectual project.
Unfortunately, no doubt urged on by her agent and publisher, Roiphe has chosen to continue this project in Last Night in Paradise. But this book comes by its intellectual confusion honestly: Roiphe freely admits her ambivalence, which may be the book's greatest strength. Roiphe can't decide whether she'd like still fewer rules or more of them. On balance, Roiphe seems to favor fewer rules, more wildness; beneath her analysis lies an implicit plea for joie de vivre, for recklessness, for abandon. Yet her longing for freedom and romance is tempered by a troubled reckoning of the consequences of so much freedom, so much fun. "We have no popularly accepted moral attitude about sexuality that can be passed down from one generation to the next.... Without God, without rigid rules of social class, we have no material out of which to form new values. "
Despite its serious analytical weaknesses, this is in some ways a sympathetic book. In seizing on our confused attempts to replace "old-fashioned morality" with "some new technical, institutional code" for sexual behavior, Roiphe is definitely onto something. She is right, for example, to point out that our "gentle moral relativism"-- which accepts legal abortion, birth control, same-sex marriages, and so on as no big deal--brings out a "vestigial need for strong social codes, for judgment, context, and tradition." And she is still right when she explains further that what most inspires nostalgia for a weakly defined "old-fashioned morality" is an unwillingness to tolerate the ambiguities, complexities, and desires of the individual. Struggling to find a comfortable middle ground between a nostalgically embellished "old-fashioned morality" and a similarly glorified sexual freedom, it is unsurprising that many people would feel the need for order, restraint, and rules.
THE GIRLS STRIKE BACK
Or for the Rules. In 1995, Warner Books published one of those advice-for-the-lovelorn pop-psychology books that line the self-help shelves of bookstores. Sales of The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, chugged along modestly for a few months. Then the authors went on Oprah. All of a sudden, the Rules were everywhere. In 1996, the book reached the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Articles about the Rules started appearing everywhere from Cosmopolitan and Glamour to the New Republic and the New Yorker. The authors started offering phone consulting--at $250 an hour. My copy of the paperback even comes with an application form for a Rules seminar.
The Rules consists of 35 simple precepts such as "Don't Talk to a Man First," "Don't Accept a Saturday Night Date After Wednesday," "Let Him Take the Lead, " and " No More than Casual Kissing on the First Date," arranged in rule-per-chapter sequence. "The purpose of the Rules is to make Mr. Right obsessed with you.... What we're promising you is 'happily-ever-after.'" The Rules amount, in aggregate, to a recommendation of playing "hard to get"-- and to a rolling back of women's liberation by maybe 40 years. A "Rules Girl," according to Fein and Schneider, doesn't put out. She also never tells a man what to do, always lets him be in control, and doesn't let her children (from a previous marriage) become an intrusive presence in the relationship. "In a relationship, the man must take charge.... We are not making this up--biologically, he's the aggressor." No wonder Katie Roiphe is still single.
The Rules no doubt taps eternal fears about spinsterhood, but its commercial success can be largely attributed to a neat intersection with the zeitgeist. The Rules may be inane (they recommend studying the mawkish film Love Story like the Bible), but they appeal smartly to an American society that won the sexual revolution--and then realized the spoils of victory were not all they were cracked up to be.
Modern women aren't to
talk loudly about wanting to
get married. We had
grown up dreaming about
being the president of the
company, not the Fife of
the president.... Still, we
had to face it: as much as
we loved being powerful in
business, for most of us,
that just wasn't enough....
We didn't want to give up
our liberation, but neither
did we want to come home
to empty apartments. Who
said we couldn't have it all?
This weirdly inverts the yearnings of 1950s housewives, for whom family and laundry were not enough. The question is a good, forward-looking one--why can't women have it all?--but the solution Fein and Schneider provide is retrograde.
Kinsey and the sexual revolution that followed him erased all the rules of romantic relations; the Rules, which the authors describe as "a simple working set of behaviors and reactions," put them back. The authors use a typical combination of pop science, fear mongering, practicality, and moral cajoling to urge sexual restraint. " Never get in a car with a man you meet at a party," they tell us, because "you might end up in his trunk." "Forget all the 'free love' theories from the swinging sixties," they tell us, summarily discarding the sexual revolution. It's not "cool to have an unwanted pregnancy or a disease."
The sexual counterrevolution is not limited to pabulum like the Rules. The most vitriolic backlash is reserved for gay men, who were in many ways both the primary catalysts and short-term beneficiaries of the sexual revolution--and who have also suffered far more than anyone else its costs. Gabriel Rotello's Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men argues that it was radical changes in the sexual behavior of homosexual American men that led to a large, sudden increase in the prevalence of STDs among the gay and bisexual population. AIDS, it should be made clear, is not a "gay" disease--outside of the United States, 90 percent of its victims are heterosexual. But the new intensity and variety of sexual activity among homosexual males during the sexual revolution generated an environment in which diseases previously "held in check" could thrive. The gay New York bathhouses of the 1970s made possible licentiousness on a positively Roman scale. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the first few hundred gay men with AIDS had an average of 1,100 (!) lifetime sexual partners. Rotello, who is gay, makes the argument that, contrary to what many in the gay political community like to believe, the AIDS epidemic wasn't something that "just happened." The sexual revolution caused it.
Given the facts, this seems an obvious point, and an important one to acknowledge. But whether by ignorance or design, many people--gays and liberals in particular--don't accept it. To do so, they believe, would be playing into the moralist rhetoric of fundamentalist conservatives like Falwell and Pat Buchanan, for whom AIDS is a punishment visited by God upon the sexually deviant. "The poor homosexuals," Buchanan sneers. "They have declared war on Nature, and now Nature is exacting an awful retribution." AIDS confers such a moral stigma because conservatives have--incorrectly--managed to connect AIDS to homosexuality, which they consider intrinsically immoral, rather than to the specific behavior patterns in the sixties and seventies that in the United States made gays the focal point of the epidemic.
Rotello, like Kinsey, tries explicitly to distance himself from any moral claims ("So let me say simply at the outset that what I describe below are biological, not moral, events") in making his epidemiological arguments advocating sexual restraint and safe sex. But Rotello's book effectively--if unintentionally-- illustrates that science, pragmatism, and morality are clearly interwoven in ways that resist untangling. Morality and public health are both concerned to protect and enhance the commonweal. But both can also be used to ostracize and deny rights--and they do so most effectively when they are mixed together.
IT'S OVER! NO, IT'S NOT!
The sexual revolution is such a contentious topic that even ostensibly objective social science gets tinged with the ideological predispositions of researchers. Though the data are now 50 years old, and though most experts believe its findings of sexual activity to be grossly inflated, the Kinsey reports remained the standard source for information about sexual activity until at least 1994. Various academic studies contradicted aspects of Kinsey's findings, but these studies were of much narrower scope. And broad studies of society that captured some data about sex, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), found quantities and varieties of sexual activity much lower than what Kinsey found. Would-be exegetes of the sexual revolution and its aftermath were left with a morass of conflicting and outdated information.
In 1993, Cynthia and Samuel Janus tried to rectify this situation, publishing The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior, for which they collected data between 1983 and 1992. Their findings only made things more confusing: They were unable to determine whether they were witnessing a backlash against the sexual revolution or a continuation of it. On the one hand the AIDS epidemic had made people claim to be more cautious about sex. On the other hand, they were having more sex with more people--especially among the most at-risk groups. Sixty-two percent of young men and 66 percent of young women reported that their sexual activity increased compared to three years earlier. Serious decline in sexual activity was shown by only 5 percent of the men and 9 percent of the women in the youngest group. Moreover, 24 percent of men and 20 percent of women reported Much more" sexual activity than three years earlier, and 44 percent of men and 41 percent of women reported "more" sexual activity. All told, 73 percent of men and 68 percent of women reported having the same or more sex in 1988-1992 than in 1985-1988.
Confronted with the conflicting data, the Januses weakly hedged their bets. This increase in sexual activity was, they said, the "Second Sexual Revolution." "The enormous tensions and backlash generated by these devastating sexually transmitted diseases made the practice of casual sex pause; from this hesitation, and the reaction to it, came the beginning of the Second Sexual Revolution." In other words, there was the revolution. Then there was the backlash against the revolution. Then there was the backlash against the backlash against the revolution. No wonder everyone is so confused.
The Janus report was based on a statistical sample of only 2,795, and many of the older respondents were found at sex-therapy clinics--so there is good reason to believe that many of their estimations of activity, like Kinsey's, are greatly overstated. But the following year another study appeared. Billed as the most comprehensive survey since Kinsey's, the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS), popularly published as Sex in America: A Definitive Survey, dropped into American culture in 1994 like the original Kinsey report had nearly a half century earlier. Only while the Kinsey report had titillated and horrified with its previously unimaginable picture of sexual variety in the United States, Sex in America did quite the opposite.
What happened to the sexual revolution ? Sex in America seemed to provide clear evidence that it was dead and gone, swept away by AIDS and a revival of sturdy family values. Some findings from its random sampling of 3,432 subjects: 94 percent of Americans were faithful to their spouses (up from around 60 per cent in the Kinsey, Janus, and other surveys); only 33 percent of Americans had sex twice or more per week; the median number of lifetime sex partners for women was two, for men six. One of its more telling findings was that married people had the most sex, single people the next most, and divorced people the least. "The more partners you have," the report's authors wrote, "the more time you are going to spend finding and wooing them--time that a married couple could be having sex." In other words, if you like sex it doesn't pay to be a swinging single. Instead, get married and stay married. Our findings, the authors wrote, "often directly contradict what has become the conventional wisdom about sex. They are counterrevolutionary findings, showing a country ... that, on the whole, is much less sexually active than we have come to believe."
Some found the study's conclusions dubious and its methodology biased, arguing that the opposition of politicians like Senator Jesse Helms--who in 1987 had blocked congressional funding for the study (and all sex surveys), forcing the researchers to apply for foundation money--had conservatized its results. John Heidenry, for example, writes in What Wild Ecstasy: The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Revolution that the Sex in America survey was "the logical culmination of the new and improved puritanism of the United States, dressed out in the guise of objective science." This is precisely the opposite of what critics of the Kinsey report had said: that its "objective science" gave moral license to sexually deviant practices. And while Kinsey had set out to abolish the whole concept of "normal"--or moral--sexuality, the NHSLS authors strove explicitly to preserve moral norms by warning that, "Of course, a survey cannot tell us what is normal, only what is frequent."
While the NHSLS's conclusions about sexual activity were generally much more conservative than the Janus report's, there were places where Janus's findings supported theirs. Though the NHSLS found that most young people did not have large numbers of sexual partners (more than 50 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds had just one partner in 1992), it also found that "the very sexually active people in the population, who are most at risk of being infected with HIV, did not seem to have been slowed by fears of AIDS." For example, 8.7 percent of people ages 25 to 29 claimed to have had 21 or more partners since age 18; 11.5 percent of 30- to 39-year-olds claimed to have had that many. The authors point out that if fear of AIDS had affected sexual activity, the highly promiscuous proportion of the younger group, who came of age after the explosion of AIDS, ought to have been much lower than it was relative to the older group.
But the most recent sex studies tell a more heartening story. On May 1, 1997, the National Survey of Family Growth, a government survey conducted every five years, released its most recent data, collected during 1995: The data showed that, for the first time since 1970, the percentage of teenagers having sex had declined. The percentage of girls aged 15 to 19 having sex declined from 55 to 50 between 1990 and 1995 (the number of married teenagers is so small these days, that even if marital sex is excluded, the percentage of girls having sex in 1995 falls by only 2 percent); and 55 percent of teenage boys had sex in 1995, down from 60 percent in 1988. Conservatives, no doubt, will take this as evidence that the sexual counterrevolution is, albeit slowly, taking hold. (And many adults think it should be taking hold faster; a March 1997 survey found that 95 percent of people surveyed believe teens should be completely abstinent.) But while something of a conservative sexual counterrevolution may finally be trickling down to younger Americans, the most encouraging data vindicate liberal sex-education policies: Condom use among young women has risen sharply, from 18 percent in the 1970s to 36 percent in the 1980s to 54 percent in 1995; in 1995, 91 percent of women said they had been taught safe-sex methods of preventing AIDS transmission. If condom use is up while sexual activity is down, then the conservative argument that sex education and contraception availability increase "immoral" and dangerous promiscuity looks less credible.
WHO WON THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION?
"Uninhibited sex," writes the conservative political scientist Harvey Mansfield in Reassessing the Sixties, "received a rude shock from the emergence of AIDS. Perhaps you should listen more carefully to the vague menaces of your mother... about what happens to people who do funny things for sex." Well, perhaps that's true--to a point. But then Mansfield continues. "Since the sixties, feminine modesty has reasserted itself, though partly in the guise of feminism. There are now plenty of nice girls...but they are confused, apologetic, and unsupported by social norms. What they get for advice is `safe sex.'"
Mansfield's tone--with his derisive "under the guise of feminism" and his patronizing "nice girls"--gives away the conservative game here. What conservatives like Mansfield want is less a curb on sexual excess than a rolling back of the political gains that women (and gays) have won under the auspices of the sexual revolution. It is difficult, of course, to tie victories in the political and social realms directly to victories in the sexual realm--maybe a right to sexual assertiveness is directly linked to a right to political assertiveness and maybe it isn't. But at the very least the sexual revolution for women was bound up in the larger revolutionary changes of the period that led to an improvement in their social status. You can't have the one without the other. Conservatives like Mansfield and Falwell would like to erase both.
Mansfield's strategy for achieving this erasure is typical. In fact, it's roughly what The Rules does. First, point out that sexual liberation had a tangible, "science"-based cost: AIDS and other STDs. Next, cast the net more widely so that if sexual liberation was associated with women's liberation, for example, and sexual liberation caused AIDS, then women's liberation caused AIDS. All forms of liberation and political change connected to the sixties and seventies get implicated in this way. Women's rights, gay rights, woman's right to choose, and the freedom to do what you like in the privacy of your own bedroom all get thrown out the window with the bathwater.
In 1885, the prestigious British scientific journal the Lancet published an article arguing that the best method for protecting the young against STDs was the "cultivation of purity"--was "purity" a scientific concept or a moral one? The ambiguous rhetoric of "purity," neither clearly scientific nor clearly moral, is what for so many years has enabled traditional conservatives to extract from biology and epidemiology moral messages that are broader than the science merits.
The sexual revolution eliminated some hypocrisy. Those who trace the ruination of society to the breakdown of sexual morality forget that the old sexual morality was honored in the breach as often as not. Sure, in 1960 colleges had curfews and sexually segregated dorms. But remember that even then--no matter if Kinsey significantly overstated things--when the curfew bell rang, the campus shrubbery would quiver as young men and women emerged frantically pulling up their pants and smoothing down their dresses ready to run back to their single-sex dorms. Failing to acknowledge this, the anti-fornication crusaders are either dishonest (Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker) or totally lacking in self-awareness (Robert Bork). In Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, Bork writes:
One evening at a hotel in
New York I flipped around
the television channels.
Suddenly there on the public
access channel was a
voluptuous young woman,
naked, her body oiled,
writhing on the floor while
fondling herself intimately.... I
watched for some
time--riveted by the
sociological significance of it
The sociological significance? Right. If Bork had been confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, we can guess the Court might have taken a lot more pornography cases for careful review.
The sexual revolution may not, in an important sense, have been worth its costs. Most gay men, the group most galvanized by the sexual revolution, would not say that the considerable political gains and social acceptance they've won over the last few years was worth human losses now numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But they would not want to give up those political gains and social acceptance. The Terror did not nullify all that the French Revolution achieved. Similarly, the ravages of AIDS do not mean that we should now abandon the liberal advances won by the sexual revolution. Less sexually wanton, yes; safer sex, yes; but we should not give in to rhetorical appeals for an oppressive new puritanism.
RELATED ARTICLE: WORKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right (Warner Books, 1995).
John Heidenry, What Wild Ecstasy: The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
Samuel Janus and Cynthia Janus, The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior (John Wiley & Sons, 1993).
Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (W.B. Saunders, 1948).
Robert T. Michael, John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata, Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (Little, Brown, 1994).
The National Survey of Family Growth, Cycle five (National Center for Health Statistics, 1997).
Katie Roiphe, Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End (Little, Brown, 1997).
Gabriel Rotello, Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men (Dutton, 1997).