Whatever Happened to the Sexual Revolution?

article by maxine holz

Submitted by ludd on March 8, 2010

What would a future anthropologist make of the bizarre and seemingly contradictory assortment of information on sexuality available today? Place side by side: the Meese Report, with its sordid account of the social effects of pornography; an article in Self, a respectable women's magazine, by a professional journalist about the unexpected pleasures of moonlighting in a phone sex company; and On Our Backs, "Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian" which promotes sexual experimentation and sex education from a decidedly feminist point of view. How does one reconcile the fact that in our society, which places such a high premium on sexual pleasure, sexuality is also the object of intense public scrutiny and official censure?

A popular interpretation of this paradoxical evidence is that we are in a period of transition. According to the pendulum theory of historical change, sexual attitudes periodically shift from one extreme to the other. Thus the 40s and 50s were characterized by uptight, moralistic attitudes toward sex. In the 60s and 70s a cycle of sexual permissiveness followed, while now in the mid-80s, the pendulum appears to be in full swing back to the repressive extreme. Presumably, by the late 90s we can expect yet another reversal.

Such cavalier explanations of social/sexual "trends" ignore the diffuse, but profound effects that changes in the moral climate have on everyone's daily lives (not just on those who become the immediate victims of moral panics). These explanations don't account for people's susceptibility to these shifts, then ignore the moral crusaders' political motives, and trivialize the legacy of sexual freedom resulting from the social movements of the 60s, 70s and early 80s. The pendulum theory promotes a fatalistic passivity in response to the current moral crusade ("Don't worry, it's just a reaction, it'll pass in time"). But I, for one, am not prepared to sit out 20 years of sexual repression.

A history of attitudes on sexuality reveals that society has not always been so obsessed with it. Moral standards and definitions of what is sexually desirable vary immensely throughout history and between cultures, as do the manner in which sexual mores get encoded and enforced. It is only in the past century, for example, that medical and psychiatric institutions have played a significant role in setting standards for sexual normalcy and health, and in defining appropriate sexual behavior. Much more recently-- since the 50s--sexuality has become a key component of our self-esteem. We feel like failures if we don't have a good sex life. What has remained constant in our culture for centuries is a puritanical view of sex as a dark force, the wild side of human nature that society must tame. According to this view, which Gayle Rubin has termed the "domino theory of sexual peril, unchecked sexuality will devour everything in its path, leading to the demise of civilization as we know it" (see bibliography at the end of this article)

It is this view that keeps resurfacing in morality campaigns and that becomes the outlet of many fears and anxieties. It was this sex-negative attitude that the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s challenged. The result was new opportunities for personal freedom and sexual pleasure and experimentation which for the first time touched the lives of millions, and not just small groups of avant-gardists in bohemian quarters. For if sex is a vector of oppression, as Gayle Rubin puts it, it has also been a vector of freedom. The liberation of sex from its procreative function cleared the way for a complete re-evaluation of women's place in the world and furthered the public emergence of a homosexual rights movement.

The conviction that men and women could enjoy sex outside the nuclear family contradicted the ideal of Woman as guardian of sexual morality. The excitement and openness about sexuality allowed many women to explore their sexual passion. These developments helped break down double standards based on "natural" differences between the sexes. Even those of us who were too young or apolitical to be directly involved in the social movements of the 60s and 70s benefited from the change in the moral landscape that followed. I never expected to marry and have kids with the first man I had sex with--at fifteen, marriage was the furthest thought from my mind. What I sought was pleasure, adventure, experience, and, yes, romance. In a contrast to my mother's generation that should not be underestimated, I entered my first sexual relationship expecting to enjoy it, and without fearing pregnancy. This experience was momentous and scarcely free from anxiety, but it wasn't laden with immense burdens of guilt and fear either. Later, at sixteen, I discovered the pleasures of casual sexual relationships.

This historically unprecedented sexual freedom was intimately connected with my idea of myself as an individual with my own life to lead, with my own goals and desires. Twenty years earlier I would have been preoccupied mainly with seeking a man to append myself to, and hoping for children to devote my life to. When I did decide to have a child, I discussed the division of labor at length with my partner. There was an unquestioned assumption that life and work outside the domestic realm was equally important to both of us. A serious commitment to a life-partner and a child has not ended the process of sexual discovery and experimentation. I can hardly claim to have found the key to sexual happiness. My own experience has led to painful bouts of jealousy, sexual insecurity, and time- management nightmares, and I am still contending with the traditional gender division in many ways. I hope that my daughter will benefit from our continuing attempts to challenge these limitations.

Millions have enjoyed the opportunities for greater fulfillment that freedom from the traditional confines of conjugal heterosexuality has provided. For many of us, these private opportunities would have been unthinkable without a widespread conscious challenge to our traditional sexual heritage.


The initial wave of freedom and excitement that redefined sexual roles left in its wake a whole new set of problems and anxieties, especially for women. Sexual freedom came to mean too much and too little at the same time. Divested of their radical social implications, the new sexual attitudes were narrowly reinterpreted as "the more sex the better." The idea of sexual revolution became associated with a promiscuous "lifestyle"; this fit in nicely with the hedonistic ideology that has marked the 80s. ( Ironically, the divorce of sexual freedom from social implications has made it possible to put sexual passion in the service of traditional conjugal heterosexuality. In The Remaking of Sex [see bibliography] Ehrenreich et al describe the fundamentalist sexual revival, which encourages women to be sexy but only with their husbands and in their own bedrooms.)

Once sexual freedom and promiscuity had been equated, those who didn't get off on promiscuity- -who felt pressured into it or who tired of it when the novelty wore off--began to question the importance of sexual freedom itself. For many women, in particular, the freedom to have more sex doesn't do the trick. The route to sexual pleasure tends to be easier for men, who are often more comfortable with and aware of their sexual desires. Women are confronted with the double problem of freeing themselves from subordination to male desire while discovering their own. And it doesn't help that the discourse of sexual desire has, until very recently, been primarily a male domain. Our attempts to define our sexuality are complicated by efforts to counter what we have experienced as oppressive sexual objectification. For example, we want to free ourselves from our conditioned obsessiveness with our bodies, while discovering new ways to feel at home in them. For some feminists the solution has been to reject the whole concept of sexiness, which they consider to be inextricably associated with oppressive male standards. In its extreme form, the attitude holds that sexual objectification is the keystone to misogyny and is therefore central to the widespread violence against women in our society. This is the position of the feminist anti-pornography movement. Other feminists have attempted to broaden the notion of sexiness to encompass qualities that are more in tune with their own tastes.

Another ideology popularly associated with sexual liberation is sexual naturalism, the notion that all we have to do is recover our "natural" sexuality in order to transform society into a loving community. But what constitutes natural sexuality? One major problem with the idea that sexuality can be extricated from social and historical contexts is that it leads to new standards of "naturalness" that exclude acceptance of benign forms of sexual variation. There is nothing particularly natural about a vibrator, for example, yet many women have found their path to orgasm using one. Homosexuality has often been condemned on the grounds that it is a crime against nature. The new opportunities opened up by sexual freedom were thus riddled with confusion and ambiguity. Over the past few years, a new body of research and literature has attempted to explore and clarify these issues. (See bibliography ). Meanwhile, other social changes have exacerbated the confusion that became the breeding ground for reaction. The counterculture, which had provided a context for experimentation and discussion, collapsed. The disintegration of family and community networks accelerated, one example being the dramatic increase of single-mother families. Women, particularly those in rural areas where the traditional mores continued to hold sway, were afraid of the license the new sexual freedom gave their husbands. They feared that their husbands' ties to them would be weakened, leaving them in the lurch with little possibility of financial independence.

The sexual revolution (or, rather, a vague constellation of ideologies and images that the term has come to evoke) became a scapegoat for many problems that had little to do with sexuality per se. It also became a focus of disillusionment because of inflated expectations about the degree to which it could change people's lives.


Controversy over the meaning of the sexual revolution has led to contentious debate over the vast growth of the commercial sex world. The sex industry accounts for expenditures of billions of dollars every year. In 1985 alone, $375 million was spent on porn videos in the U.S. For some people this is an alarming indication that the sexual revolution has gone too far. Opposition to the sex industry has brought together feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon and right-wing zealots like Edwin Meese in an unlikely coalition. These people have targeted the sex industry as a primary locus of social decay and female oppression.

Certainly many entrepreneurs (pornographers, advertisers, media moguls), few of them concerned with feminist ideas, have capitalized on the popularity of sexual diversity and experimentation. Yet amidst the controversy over the sex industry's effects on women, there is a remarkable lack of analysis of what the industry means to the women who work in it, and how sexual liberalization affects them.

What is really going on in the sex business? Why do women work in the industry? How is the campaign against pornography and prostitution affecting the women in it? Does the freedom of sexual expression contribute to the oppression of women in the industry? It's difficult to talk about the sex industry as a monolithic whole. The kinds of people who work in it and their reasons for doing so, vary as much as the services the sex industry provides. For many female sexworkers, working in The Life is fraught with danger and violence. See, for example, Linda Thomas's "Your Knife in My Life" in this issue. But the stereotypical idea of how women enter into prostitution and why they are vulnerable to violence is badly skewed. Except for a small minority (accurate figures about the sex industry are impossible to obtain for obvious reasons) people don't get dragged into prostitution when some porn-addicted pervert forces them to sell their bodies. Violence and degradation often begin in a family life marked by poverty, desperation, and, in many cases, physical and emotional abuse. Whereas for some women prostitution continues the pattern, for others it provides a tangible escape to economic independence. In any case, the decision to market one's sexuality is often based on a perception of limited opportunities for economic survival in the straight world.
Much of the violence associated with this work stems from the stigma and repression. Clients who feel guiltiest about their sexual needs and the most disdainful of prostitutes are the most likely to treat them badly. The fact that prostitution is ghettoized in areas of high crime is also a major cause of danger. Other significant sources of danger are the police and the jails.

Directing moral campaigns toward the suppression of the sex industry, instead of addressing the underlying economic issues for the women in it, makes things harder for those women, especially the ones at the bottom. Prosecution of prostitution makes it difficult for them to get out of The Life. They need money while looking for new work, and the bail for routine arrests makes it difficult to accumulate funds. Prostitution's illegality also reinforces subordination of prostitutes to their pimps, who provide protection of sorts. One woman was robbed and threatened with rape by hotel security guards who accused her of soliciting. The fear of being turned in makes it hard to sustain a community--every bust leads to suspicion of betrayal. Many women in the industry say that escort services routinely turn in women in exchange for not being busted. Greater restriction on prostitution will not put an end to it. To the contrary. Intensified repression of the sex industry will most damage the women who are the most vulnerable to abuse. At this end of the industry, demand is created by society with limited opportunities for sexual fulfillment, while the supply of women is assured by poverty.

Some women believe that the changes of the past decades have affected prostitution. It may be, for example, that a stronger sense of independence has somewhat lessened women's reliance on pimps for protection and emotional support. Feminist organizations like the U.S. Prostitutes Collective and C.O.Y.O.T.E. (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), by defending the rights and dignity of women in the sex business, take away some of the stigma associated with it. Women like Linda Thomas (see her article in this issue) benefit from a sexually open-minded community that let them "come out" about their experiences, and put them in perspective. Their willingness to open up, in turn, is a valuable contribution to our own understanding.

Moral campaigns, on the other hand, force women sex workers deeper into the closet, and increase the stress of leading a double life. The stigma makes it harder to organize or demand better working conditions, and also to seek help or get legal protection. One woman, for example, who had a serious occupational accident on a porn set could not prosecute because the publicity would ruin her reputation. She also got fired from a "straight" job when her coworkers discovered she worked as a porn actress.

The stigma associated with sex work has led to a gross underestimation of a second category of sex workers, the "temps." Many women occasionally trade sex for some quick cash, or maybe in a good discount on a new car. Such trade can involve anything from a quick blowjob to a one-time session for a nude magazine or an orgy scene in a porn movie. We may wonder why our society creates a demand for such temp jobs, but it's hard to portray many women who do them as especially oppressed. The sex temps I know of come from all kinds of backgrounds and they look on these jobs as a way to make a fast buck--not something they'd want to do all the time but not particularly problematic either.

Many women, particularly dancers, models, and escort agency call-girls, choose the work because it pays better than most other jobs they could get, and they have a fair measure of control over it. This says more about the paucity of women's economic opportunities than it does about the degradation of female sex workers. "Dancing has meant I could spend time with my daughter for the first lime in her life" claims one working mother, a former university teaching assistant who now makes far more money doing three 5-hour shifts weekly in a strip club. Another woman who works in a booth, talking sex over the phone to men behind a glass wall, got the job after she found she couldn't make ends meet working for an insurance company.

Some women like erotic dancing and acting in porn movies because they enjoy performing or frankly admit to being exhibitionists and loving the attention they get. In any performing career there is the hazard of getting too caught up in an "egotrip." One woman commented that some performers begin to think of themselves solely in terms of their sexuality and appearance, leading to competitive attitudes towards coworkers. On the other hand dancing allowed another woman to overcome feelings of inadequacy about her appearance. "I was never a hot number with guys. I always felt like an ugly duckling. When I started dancing I fell in love with my body. Now I am more sexually self-assertive."

Working conditions in erotic dance clubs vary enormously. Some are cleaner and more well-kept than others. Some managers harass the women, demanding sexual favors in return for job security, while others leave the women pretty much alone as long as they show up on time. Sometimes women have completely different experiences working at the same place. These differences seem partly related to a woman's level of self-esteem and her ability to stand up for herself. A woman who appears vulnerable is more likely to be harassed. Wages also vary. In some of the clubs, women get paid a straight salary for their shifts, and any stars make more than the regulars. In others, the salary is negligible; the money comes from tips. Some women prefer this because they make much more money, and some like the contact with customers. Others, however, hate having to talk to customers and sit on their laps.

Another category of women involved in the sex industry is the "activists." Many have had careers in social work or sex education. One dominatrix working in the East Bay, for instance, rejects the classification of "sex worker." She believes that her occupation can teach men how to respect women. One woman, who has worked as a call girl in Marin, sees herself as a "sexual healer," providing a service that men need, but can't get because of repressive social attitudes. More recently, however, this woman has begun to question her own altruism, wondering whether identifying her job with social work isn't becoming a rationalization of problems she is becoming aware of. She admits to feeling degraded at times (though she has never been coerced in her work) but at times her work is a revenge against degradation. When she gets depressed or feels taken advantage of, turning a trick makes her feel in control and restores her self-esteem. The experience, which is not uncommon among sex workers at all levels, points to the complexity of the power relations in the work. Moreover, it shows that the male clients, too, are victimized by contemporary sexual morality. Women in the sex industry often feel that what drives men to pay for sexual services is more degrading than providing them.

One part of the sex industry really is a direct product of the feminist ideals of sexual revolution--a very small, but growing area of the industry that could be called the alternative sex industry. Many people who work in this area do so not primarily for the money, but as sex educators. The philosophy of Good Vibrations, a San Francisco vibrator store that sells many varieties of women's sex toys, is to help women discover and enjoy their sexuality. "We're 100 years behind men, asserts Susie Bright, editor of On Our Backs, whose circulation, she claims, has jumped to 12,000 in a few years, making it the best-selling lesbian periodical. She believes women need to become more knowledgeable about fantasies and sexuality. They need to learn how to enjoy porn, which includes finding sexy images that are not male-identified. The alternative sex industry is trying to address many questions that the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s left unanswered.


The sex industry has been held responsible for the proliferation of sexist images and ideas throughout society, for women's victimization and exploitation, for the destruction of families, and for encouraging rape and child-molesting. The growth of pornography and prostitution is held up as one of the nefarious consequences of the sexual revolution, an example of how dangerous loose sexual attitudes really are. So appealing has porn been as a target that it has united feminists like Andrea Dworkin (for whom the Meese Report was "a turning point in women's rights" [Time 7/21/86] with right-wing fundamentalists who want to put women back in the home.

Scapegoating the sex industry distracts the public from deeper social problems. What is really going on in the morality campaigns is an attempt to re-legitimate traditional values. The mission of restoring the nuclear family as a haven of warmth and safety is appealing for many reasons. It offers a hope that we can extract ourselves from the complicated horrors of the world, it allows us to close our eyes to the endemic sources of violence and degradation in our society. Singling out the figure of the sex-crazed child molester, for example, is easier than acknowledging the far more pervasive routine emotional and physical abuse that abounds in the American family. For the media, stories of psychotic sex criminals make good copy, for politicians, sexual fear is a political goldmine. The politicians behind the resurgent interest in sex-busting are at least appearing to do something about the anxieties created by social decay.

By deflecting fears from the real causes, moral panics exacerbate the anxieties they pretend to address. Even the most trivial social interactions become charged with fear: mothers react with panic when a stranger stops to pat their child on the head, childcare workers refrain from affectionate physical contact with the children in their care. Children themselves are taught to associate sex with fear and danger, reinforcing sex-negative attitudes.

Sexual license is a primary target of today's moral panic, and in response we assert our right to sexual freedom--not just on the grounds of free speech or privacy, but in affirmation of the positive side of sexual pleasure. At the same time it is important to go beyond the sexual to understand the anxiety that is being tapped by the sex-busters. We need to focus our fear and anger on underlying economic and social problems and not on false targets.

by Maxine Holz


Pleasures, Women Write Erotica (Harper & Row, 1984), Lonnie Barbach, ed.

A History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, by Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley, (New York, Pantheon, 1978).

"Thinking Sex" by Gayle Rubin in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Women's Sexuality; (Boston and London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). Carol Vance, editor.

"Pleasure and Danger: Towards a Politics of Sex" by Carol Vance in Pleasure and Danger, op cit.

Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985) by Jeffrey Weeks

On Our Backs, Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian, PO Box 421916, San Francisco, CA 94142.

Re-Making Love, The Feminization of Sex by Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986).


U.S. Prostitutes Collective
P.O. Box 14512
San Francisco, CA 94114

P.O. Box 26345
San Francisco, CA

(addresses were current in 1987)



11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by robertpatrick on December 11, 2012

Actually there is need for sexual revolution to get better sexual health and awareness.


11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by happychaos on December 11, 2012

The sexual revolution was premature. :groucho: