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Sexual revolution in 1960s United States

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Title: Sexual revolution in 1960s United States  
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Subject: Sexual revolution, Counterculture of the 1960s
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Sexual revolution in 1960s United States

The 1960s in the United States are often perceived today as a period of profound societal change, one in which a great many politically minded individuals, who on the whole were young and educated, sought to influence the status quo.

Attitudes to a variety of issues changed, sometimes radically, throughout the decade. The urge to 'find oneself', the activism of the 1960s, and the quest for autonomy were characterised by changes towards sexual attitudes at the time.[1] These changes to sexual attitudes and behavior during the period are often today referred to generally under the blanket metaphor of 'sexual revolution'.[2]

While the term 'revolution' implies radical and widespread change, this was not necessarily the case. Even in the 'liberal' sixties, conservative, traditionalist views were widely held, and many modern historians and social scientists are beginning to think that 'revolution' is too much of an overstatement.[3]

Most of the empirical data pertinent to the area only dates back to 1962, somewhat muddying the waters.[4] Despite this, there were changes in sexual attitudes and practices, particularly among the young. Like much of the radicalism from the 1960s, the sexual revolution was often seen to have been centered on the university campus and students.

With its roots in the first perceived sexual revolution in the 1920s, this 'revolution' in 1960s America encompassed many groups who are now synonymous with the era. Feminists, gay rights campaigners, hippies and many other political movements were all important components and facilitators of change.

Changes in social norms

The modern consensus is that the sexual revolution in 1960s America was typified by a dramatic shift in traditional values related to sex, and sexuality. Sex became more socially acceptable outside the strict boundaries of heterosexual marriage.

Studies have shown that, between 1965 and 1974, the number of women who that had sexual intercourse prior to marriage showed a marked increase.[5] The social and political climate of the 1960s was unique; one in which traditional values were often challenged loudly by a vocal minority.

The various areas of society clamoring for change included the Civil Rights movement, (see social norms.

With the success that the Civil Rights movement was having, others who wanted change knew that the time was ripe for them to bring it about. The combination of liberal government, general economic prosperity, and the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation marked the 1960s apart from any decade that had come before it, and while conservatism was by no means dead, liberalism enjoyed a widespread revival, which helped to facilitate the climate in which the 'sexual revolution' took place. Indeed, Lyndon B. Johnson was the first acting president to endorse birth control, a hugely important factor in the change of American sexual attitudes in the 1960s.

The Pill

"The pill" provided many women a more affordable way to avoid pregnancy. Before the pill was introduced many women did not look for long term jobs. Previously, the typical woman would jump out of the job market when she got impregnated and would reenter it when her child was of school attending age.[6] Abortion was illegal and there were too many health risks involved in most illegal abortions. There was a visible trend in the increasing age of women at first marriage in the decades between 1930 and 1970 after contraception was provided to non-married females.[6] As part of the woman's quiet sexual revolution, pills gave women control over their future.[7] In a way, the ability to pursue higher education without the thought of pregnancy, gave women more equality in educational attainment. Since women could have a choice to use birth control to finish their education, a higher percentage graduated from school and college ultimately gaining professional careers.[6]

This was due in part to fears over illegitimate pregnancy and childbirth, and social (particularly religious) qualms about contraception, which was often seen to be 'messy' and unchristian. Modernization and secularization helped to change these attitudes, and the first oral contraception was developed in 1951 partly due to Women's Rights campaigner Margaret Sanger who raised $150,000 to fund its development.[8]

While the Pill eventually came to be seen as a symbol of the Sexual revolution, its origins stem less from issues of women's sexual liberation and more from 1960s political agendas. In the early 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson instituted his social reform policy, The Great Society, which aimed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice.

During this time, the Pill was endorsed and distributed by doctors as a form of population control to counter the fear of over population which coincided with President Johnson's goal to eliminate poverty.[9] By 1960, the Food and Drug Administration had licensed the drug. 'The Pill', as it came to be known, was extraordinarily popular, and despite worries over possible side effects, by 1962, an estimated 1,187,000 women were using it.[10]

The pill divorced contraception from the act of intercourse itself, making it more socially acceptable, and easier to tolerate for many detractors than other types of contraception (which had been around for years).

Heralded as a technological marvel, the pill was a trusted product of science in an increasingly technological age, and was heralded as one of man's 'triumphs' over nature. It was often said that with the invention of the pill, the women who took it had immediately been given a new freedom—the freedom to use their bodies as they saw fit, without having to worry about the burden of unwanted pregnancy.

It was also not the case that the pill went completely unopposed. The Pill became an extremely controversial subject as Americans struggled with their thoughts on sexual morality, controlling population growth and women's control of their reproductive rights. Even by 1965, birth control was illegal in some US states, including Connecticut and New York.

Campaigns by people like Estelle Griswold went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where on June 7, 1965, it was ruled that under the First Amendment, it was not the business of the government to dictate the usage of contraception by married couples. Unmarried women who requested gynecological exams and oral contraceptives were often denied or lectured on sexual morality. Those women who were denied access to the Pill often had to visit several doctors before one would prescribe it to them.[11] In 1972, a further ruling in Baird extended that right to unmarried couples.

Some women's rights movements also heralded the pill as a method of granting women sexual liberation, and saw the popularity of the drug as just one signifier of the increasing desire for equality (sexual or otherwise) among American women. The pill and the sexual revolution was therefore an important part of the drive for sexual equality in the 1960s.

As a consequence, the pill and the sexual freedom it provided to women are frequently blamed for what many believe are regressions in quality of life. Since the sexual revolution, out-of-wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and divorce have all risen considerably. Since the 60s, marriage has declined by a third and divorce has doubled. During the 1960s there were only four big STDs, now there are twenty-four. Since the sexual revolution, children living in single-parent families has tripled.[12]

Feminist criticism

Despite claims that the pill and sexual revolution were positive for women in America, some feminist writers have criticized the changes that occurred. Some books published which promised sexual freedom and liberation were not wholly positive for women, for instance Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex, which advised women "don't get yourself raped."[13]

Lesbian feminism advocated full dismissal of heterosexual relationships, claiming that lesbianism was the only solution to male oppression.[14]

The Women's Movement

Feminist movements combined with important literature such as Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique helped change peoples concepts of the woman’s role in relation to sex. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan tackles the issue of the domestic role of women in 1960s America and the feeling of dissatisfaction with it. Friedan believed that women should not conform to this popularized view of the feminine, (The Housewife) and that they should participate in, if not enjoy the act of sex.[15] The book itself was very popular on college campuses, among the young and is synonymous with the counter-culture ethic. Its importance to 1960s feminism and the sexual revolution lies in that it created a new wave of thinking in regards to the domestic and sexual role of women in society.

Gay Rights and the "undocumented" sexual revolution

Even in a time of unprecedented societal change, and burgeoning liberal views and policies, homosexuality was still widely publicly reviled, and more often than not was seen as a malaise or mental illness, instead of a legitimate sexual orientation. Indeed throughout the 1950s and 1960s the overriding opinion of the medical establishment was that homosexuality was a developmental maladjustment.[16] Though doctors were supposed to act as objective scientists their conclusions undoubtedly reflected the biases of their cultural settings, which resulted in prejudices against homosexual behavior being cloaked in the language of medical authority and unproven claims being accepted by the majority of society as fact.[17] Essentially, labeling homosexuality as a psychological condition prevented this group from being able to make demands for social and legal rights as well as cultural representation.

Homosexuals were often characterized as predatory deviants who were dangerous to the rest of society. For example, the Florida Legislative Committee, between 1956 and 1965, sought out these so-called 'deviants' within the public system, with the particular focus upon teachers.[18] The persecution of gay teachers was driven by the popular belief that homosexuals did untold damage when around vulnerable young people as naive adolescents were considered easy prey to recruitment into homosexuality by perverse teachers attempting to unnaturally reproduce.[19] In addition, male homosexuals were often seen as inherently more dangerous (particularly to children) than lesbians, due to stereotypes and societal prejudices.

Many modern commentators on the gay sexual revolution in 1960s America allege that this area of the decade has been severely under emphasised, lacking the attention that they feel it deserves. While it cannot be said that the 'gay revolution' had as much impact as some others during the decade (the movement only really began to gain significant momentum and more public support during the 1970s), it is important to consider the part that the gay liberation crowd had to play in the overarching 'sexual revolution'.

Indeed in an age of sexual revolution and urban chaos many spontaneous acts of defiance occurred as homosexuals found creative ways to resist heteronormative social codes throughout the 1960s. Frank Kameny's homophile movement had already set about undermining the dominant psychiatric view of homosexuality.

The Stonewall riots, 1964

An instance of gay activism that had a substantial effect on the progress of gay liberation came in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1964. A four-day conference between gay activists and progressive Protestant ministers in May of that year resulted in the formation of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual and, in order to publicize its existence, a New Year's Eve dance was planned.[21] However, on the night the police failed to honor their promise not to interrupt events with unnecessary interference and as a result arrests were made.[21] This event was particularly significant for advancing the status of the homosexual community because when the case came to court the judge refused to prosecute the gay defendants and instead reprimanded and curtailed the police's tendencies to harass gays.[21] The fact that heterosexual ministers had defended the humanity of gay individuals and the courts had sided with homosexuals was proof that organized defiance could yield positive results for gay activists.

Another important element of the 'gay sexual revolution' is how the sex/gender system that was in place throughout the 1960s allowed forms of domination to continue to oppress minority groups, such as homosexuals. The Mattachine leaders emphasized how homosexual oppression was a socially determined pattern and held that strict definitions of gender behavior led men and women to unquestioningly accept social roles that equated 'male, masculine, man only with husband and father' and that equated 'female, feminine, women only with wife and mother'.[22] These early homosexual emancipationists saw homosexual women and men as victims of a 'language and culture that did not admit the existence of a homosexual minority'.[22] Ultimately, the way in which the homophile movement understood the roots of its ostracism and oppression reveals how the homosexual crowd fought for an expansion of rights based on similar theories that drove some heterosexual women to reject American society’s traditional ideologies of sexual norms.

The homophobia and intolerance. Moreover, gay life after 'Stonewall' was just as varied and complex as it was before. In the era following 'Stonewall' there was still a variety of approaches taken by homosexuals to propagate their message, which included not only the confrontational approach of 'Stonewall' but equally an attempt at assimilation into the broader community.

See also


  1. ^ M. J. Heale, The Sixties in America; History, Politics and Protest, (Edinburgh University Press, 2001) pp. 13–14.
  2. ^ "A Report: The Sexual Revolution?" Tom W. Smith, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3. (Autumn, 1990), p. 415 at [1]
  3. ^ "A Report: The Sexual Revolution?" Tom W. Smith, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3. (Autumn, 1990), p. 419 at [2]
  4. ^ "The Social Control of Sexuality", John DeLamater, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 7. (1981), p. 263 at [3]
  5. ^ "The Impact of the Female Marriage Squeeze and the Contraceptive Revolution on Sex Roles and the Women's Liberation Movement in the United States, 1960 to 1975", David M. Heer; Amyra Grossbard-Shechtman, Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 43, No. 1. (February 1981), pp. 49–65, at [4]]
  6. ^ a b c "The Quiet Revolution in Woman's Labor Force Participation", Leah Boustan, ECON 183 LEC 1: Development of Economic Institutions in U.S., 2009 at [5]
  7. ^ "Rocking the Cradle: Downsizing the New England Family", Gloria L. Main, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 37.1, 2006, pp. 35–58
  8. ^ On this day Accessed on 29 October 2009
  9. ^ Bailey, B: "Prescribing the Pill: Politics, Culture, and the Sexual Revolution in America's Heartland". Journal of Social History, 1997, 30(4):828, 845
  10. ^ Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History by David Allyn (Routledge, 2001), Chapter 3 ( at [6]
  11. ^ Bailey, B: "Prescribing the Pill: Politics, Culture, and the Sexual Revolution in America's Heartland". Journal of Social History, 1997, 30(4):841
  12. ^ Mary Parke, CLASP Center for Law and Social Policy, Policy Brief, Couples and Marriage Series, Brief #3, p. 1, May 2003
  13. ^ The Joy of Sex
  14. ^
  15. ^ Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (Penguin Books, 1963) pp. 91-105.
  16. ^ William Scroggie, "Producing Identity: From Boys in the Band to Gay Liberation", in Smith, Patricia (ed.), The Queer Sixties (New York and London: Routledge, 1999) p. 238.
  17. ^ David Allyn, Make Love Not War: The Sexual Revolution, an Unfettered History (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2001) p. 154.
  18. ^ Stacy Braukman, "'Nothing Else Matters but Sex': Cold War Narratives of Deviance and the Search for Lesbian Teachers in Florida, 1959-1963", Feminist Studies 27(3), 2001, pp. 553–575,
  19. ^ Stacy Braukman, "'Nothing Else Matters but Sex': Cold War Narratives of Deviance and the Search for Lesbian Teachers in Florida, 1959–1963", Feminist Studies 27(3), 2001, p. 571.
  20. ^ Peter Nardi, Sanders, David and Marmor, Judd, Growing Up Before Stonewall: Life Stories of Some Gay Men (New York and London: Routledge, 1994) p. 13
  21. ^ a b c Martin Duberman, Stonewall (London, New York, Victoria, Ontario and Auckland: Penguin Books Ltd, 1993) p. 100
  22. ^ a b Jeffrey Escoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1998) p. 41
  23. ^ David Allyn, Make Love Not War: The Sexual Revolution, an Unfettered History (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2001) p. 155.
  24. ^ a b Benjamin Shepard, "History or Myth? Writing Stonewall", Lambda Book Report 13 (1/2), 2004, p. 14.
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