What came of the sexual revolution?

I was at a very cool party of sorts the other night with a range of feminists of various generations, and we started dishing about the sexual revolution. I don’t know about you, but to me, the sexual revolution always brings about a sort of foggy cloud of confusion and longing in my head. On the one hand, I understand that it emerged from a perfect storm of societal shifts—the legalization of the birth control pill, the de-shaming (at least in part) of sex outside of wedlock and not for procreation, the feminist, gay, anti-war, and civil rights movements all flaring up in big and beautiful ways. On the other hand, I remain confused about what, exactly, it felt like and whether it really had a lasting impact.

“It was amazing!” my older feminist friends exclaimed, when I asked. “It was really the first time we felt free to explore and have pleasure and have fun.” There was “the clap,” they said, but other than that one felt largely liberated to have sex without fear of consequences to either health or reputation. (Of course this is a very white, privileged interpretation of the sexual revolution.)

So it’s obvious why we don’t feel as free with regards to the health consequences these days. We’ve got AIDS. We’ve got HPV. We’ve got a whole range of STIs.

But why are the consequences of reputation (all that stud/slut business) and just general toxic bullshit surrounding sex still so prevalent? Why do I know so many people who have sex in ways that make them feel terrible? I’m thinking of hook-ups that seem liberating and pleasurable at the start, that turn out to be dehumanizing. I’m thinking of friends who have set out to have sex without ties, but ended up feeling like they played themselves by not being honest about what they really wanted out of an encounter. I’m thinking about friendships ruined by sexual encounters that simply weren’t worth it.

Is this just a natural part of the corrupting and incredible power of connecting sexually with other human beings or is there something criminally undone about the sexual revolution we still need to enact?

Your thoughts?

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6 Comments

  1. Posted August 23, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    It’s one thing to entertain freedom, but participating in the act itself is insufficient. One must first unpack all of the unresolved issues within oneself. I think, in all fairness, being part of a sexual revolution requires responsibility, which is not what happens when the best intentions become seen as justified hedonism.

    There have been awkward moments in my life with sexual partners, and often our own issues created problems. But this wasn’t true with everyone, either. I think that perceiving of oneself as a sexual being despite the restrictions and taboos takes time and some get there sooner than others.

  2. Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I think that sex, emotions, and interpersonal relationships are things that take a lot of figuring out, and everyone’s going to deal with them differently. You can’t say, “Hey, I’m just going to have sex and not have it affect my emotions at all.” without your hormones and less logical mental processes making a mockery of your plans. People will have expectations about what sex and relationships should be like and the realizations that their expectations were based on too little experience. It seems that everyone must make their trial and error journey to a healthy sexuality. Just as soon as they achieve it, there will be others just starting out.
    I don’t think that this is something that we’ll ever perfectly resolve, and we’ll never have a one size fits all solution. I think that I’m doing pretty good, but I know that I still have a ways to go and more hard earned learning to accumulate.

  3. Posted August 23, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    But why are the consequences of reputation (all that stud/slut business) and just general toxic bullshit surrounding sex still so prevalent?….

    One of the main battles of the culture wars has been regarding sexual freedom. Of course there is the ploy of the double standard. i.e. womanizer vs. slut. But there is something deeper, the patriarchal control of women’s sexuality and for that matter bodies. Hence the war on abortion and birth control.

    There has been feminist ambivalence regarding sexual freedom issues as well. Women are often the first to condemn other women for not acting properly.

    Often this seems tied in with religious misogyny but I also suspect something perhaps more instinctual and primal in male possessiveness and claims over females like what is seen in certain primates.

    Sexual freedom and free love have always been risky topic. Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman and other anarchist women as well as many early feminists were condemned as advocates of free love.

  4. Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    While there are many empowering aspects of sexual liberalism, I think some of these aspects of it can prove harmful to those who believe in the ideals of mainstream feminism because the depiction of mainstream feminism (at least in the media) is that it tends to promote the view that being a feminist also means having “sex like a man” as Samantha from Sex and the City would say. There are some flaws in equating feminism with solely sexual liberalism.

    1. The expectation that one can have sexual relations without guilt, regret or commitment

    Some women can do this and enjoy this and are able to keep emotional attachments out of this. However, if we don’t acknowledge that there’s also plenty of other women out there (and men as well, gasp) who wouldn’t be able to engage in such a relationship without regretting it afterwards, we are blinding ourselves to the fact that feminism can also promote long-term, fulfilling relationships and not just casual sexual interaction (which can just be fulfilling mind you–but it depends on the person).

    2. The idea that sex without commitment is cool, always empowering, and never ever wrong because women have been so deprived for so long it’s time they come out and do whatever they want

    Yes, it is the time, and they get to make their choices just as men do. However, that does not mean they will necessarily feel the same as the general male population when you consider the immense amount of slut-shaming, socialization and sexual stigma they have to overlook and overcome. Also, who says every woman finds it empowering to exercise her sexuality in this certain way? What if they don’t, regardless of the stigma? Do we expect every woman to have this desire? Again it depends on the person and the circumstances–people who come from more restrictive cultural or religious backgrounds like me may be facing an even bigger load of this stigma.

    3. The white woman’s priviledge

    Unfortunately we have to address the fact that this sexual liberalism is also tied to racial priviledge. Why do I say this? Because the stereotypical hot “latina chica” or the sexy black woman doesn’t get treated the same way when it comes to sex as does the white woman. And the oppressed stereotypical Muslim woman doesn’t even get to enjoy such liberalism without hatred and resentment from the rest of her community and judgment placed upon her by the men around her. We have to start thinking of the sexual revolution through a heightened multicultural lens if we’re going to impact change.

  5. Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s just that human beings are fickle creatures. We want to be nasty and dirty, sexually aggressive and we’re hungry for human touch, but at the same time we crave to feel loved and protected by one person that has our heart. No matter of socially accepted sexual freedom will change that fact of human nature (men AND women). But it sure makes it interesting… ;)

  6. Posted August 24, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Whenever I think of the “sexual revolution” I think of hippies–I think of people who lived in New York City or San Francisco. I think of a small group of people.

    Even with birth control, people can still have certain views on sex—religous couples will still wait until they’re married and use birth control afterwards. A person can still view a small number of partners as morally better. Also, birth control information is still not available to many teens–the sexual revolution didn’t change the teen birth rate (actually, I don’t know if that is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t).

    I think that’s why the stud/slut problem still exists. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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