X-raying the sexual revolution

27 juin 2005 par  Aude

Born under the sign of pleasure and joy, the western world’s 60’s and 70’s sexual revolution, brought us some new liberties : freedom of abortion, visibility of gays, freedom of speech on sexuality. Children of this inheritance, in order to understand what is at stake today in our sexual relations and their representations, we must go beyond these commun ideas, and look more carefully. Soon an other profile appears.

So-called non-judgemental but strict norms
From the most practical point of view, the sexual revolution is the appearence on a large scale of more or less diverse practices, (according to the commitment in the avant-garde) : sex at three, group sexuality, sado-masochism, pedophilia, oral sex, anal sex, necrophilia, etc. The days best-sellers , The Joy of Sex by Dr Alex Comfort (1972) or Everything you always wanted to know about sex but never dared to ask by the psychiatrist David Reuben (1969) want to sum up a variety of human sexualitys in a non-judgemental and exhaustive way. These guides to sexuality, which had a good reception, want to be reassuring and non-normative. But they miss their aim on two main points.
First in the speech about homosexuality. As varied as may be the practices described by Dr Comfort, he hierarchises sexuality placing on top of everything “the good old matrimonial face to face”. And despite his will for exhaustivity, the homosexuality doesn’t appear in his book, one can find there’s only half a page on bisexuality, about its possible apearence in scenes of collective sex. As for Reuben, he writes in Everything you always wanted to know about sex but never dared to ask : “as well as a penis and a penis equal zero, a vagina and a vagina equal zero”.
Besides homophobia, the thinkers of the sexual revolution accept an other point of inequalities. It is the non-reciprocity of certain heterosexual practices. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the S and M practices described in the papers of the days, the “bottom”, victim and submissive position are reserved to women, the premise being that the female gender makes women seek this very position. In the same style, swinging is called “wife swapping” wich depicts an husband’s point of view. I would like to quote this last example of inequality as present before and after 1968 : the use of sex toys never implies that anal sex would be performed by others than men, the husband always penetrates his wife, fucks her in all the possible meanings of the term.

Men/women inequalities still active
The new sexual norm is built by men for men, around their desire, without the female desire being taken into account, whether it is known or not. The Japanese sexologist Sha Kokken in 1960 admits that women have more pleasure when their vagina is stimulated by finger penetration than by a coït. Nevertheless he forbids that practice on the reason that “vagina is normally reserved to the penis”. At the end, what really matters is the male’s desire. In a beautiful slip of the tongue, a disciple of Wilhelm Reich tryes to convince us of his feminism but says "I’m attentive to a woman’s desire and the demands of his sexual pleasure".
The point is that biologically, women can always adapt, while men’s desire is an untaimable flow ... That’s nature, that’s life, ladies you have to adapt to this violence.
In this setting, many women feel uncomfortable when asked to sexually perform. Sexologists calls these reactions “inhibitions”. The wording "inhibition" imposes an other level of symbolic violence towards women, when their fears are legitimate ! Women have coped with it. In a letter exchange published in a magazine, women admit that they cannot stand to swallow the sperm of their partners. They then give each other good housewifes tips on how to make this sexual work easier. The “liberation” that we are told about, is in fact the submission of women to a new domestic work and to a new pressure on their sexual behaviours. The question to ask is : did the sexual revolution really aim to liberate women ?
It condemned very firmly lesbianism, like pedophiles condemned the expression of child sexuality when the desire led a child to another. Men’s refusal to see women and children’s "liberation" which they could not take advantage of, must be interpretated like a conquest by men of new sexual objects of desire.

Sexual revolution will be political
Comfort and Reuben, to whom can be added the famous Masters and Johnson, are far from making of sexuality a political tool. Their only point is to live better and take advantage of life. It is not that surprising that they have no theory on issues of power and domination in sexuality.
But though the sexual revolution was lived and written about by very political personalities such as Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, the French publisher Maurice Girodias and their successors, they never worried about the inequalities that could be reproduced or made stronger in sexual relations. Sex is only the expression of man’s freedom, and this freedom is not to be repressed anymore by capitalism and its right arm, the family institution.
If sexuality was political, women should not have expected to see a new sexuality be the factor of their emancipation. The most radical feminists proposed the idea according to which, if the sexual relations of unmarried young women were at last accepted, it was because of the fear of their social emancipation and a way to keep them under the masculine control of their lovers, sexuality being then a way to lessen female freedom.

A confiscated revolution ?
From the freedom of the 70’s, we moved on to the liberalism of the 80’s. The lack of reflexion on the process of domination in a sexual relation between a man and a woman, or between a man and a child, is linked to the capitalist liberalism that wants to make us believe in equal chances for all of us, to justify the lack or the destruction of processes of redistribution of social wealth. Equal chances, and each one of us fights for himself.
An other interesting point is that the injunction to have pleasure was linked to moral relativism. There was no victims of acts of sexual violence, just women who were not open minded enough and children who invented things. This injunction to consume the other without taking into account his or her desire looks very much like the capitalist injunction to consume objects. Sexual consumerism and a fierce individualism seem to constitute the most visible inheritage of these years of missed revolution...


Quotations and facts were found in Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax (The Women Press, London, 1990). This feminist historian made an essential work of analysis of the mainstream sexoligic speeches all along the 20th century. This text is strongly influenced by the chapter “The sexual revolution”, pp.91-144. However the quotations are not precise, being translated from English to French and backwards !
Linguistic adviser : Suzanne Husky