The so-called "sexual revolution" in the era of peace, love and rock 'n' roll was good for the goose if generally not for the gander.
I came of age on the cusp of the ’70s when, much to my excitement, I discovered the so-called “sexual revolution” was in full, shall we say, deflower.
It was a revolution, of course, but it also actually wasn’t. At least it wasn’t for women, it seems to me, viewed in admittedly gauzy retrospect from my now 72-year-old vantage.
I hate to admit it but, regarding who most benefitted from this carnal sea-change in America, I am in complete agreement with the stuffy, uber-conservative Wall Street Journal. On August 19, the newspaper’s Saturday Essay was titled “How the Sexual Revolution Has Hurt Women: In today’s hookup culture, the sexual playing field is not even, but it suits men’s interests to pretend that it is. Women are entitled to be angry.”
On the other hand, a lot of women aren’t angry about the new normal today and weren’t in the 1960s and ’70s when “The Pill” and subsequent “love the one you’re with” ethos from the Stephen Stills song seemed to inspire a generation of young Americans to completely relax about sexuality. After all, what’s good for the goose did, in fact, turn out to be very good for not a few ganders as well.
But the overall satisfaction distribution ratio seems decidedly lopsided. Apparently and probably unsurprisingly considering some biological gender traits, a lot more men than women were enthusiastically down with freewheeling promiscuity in the era of peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll. Data and anecdotes indicate that a majority of women during the sexual revolution weren’t really onboard with all of the frenetic bed-hopping and heavy breathing but seriously didn’t want to seem overly prudish or unhip, either.
So they just went along to go along. You know, do guys a solid.
Even ’60s feminist icon Germain Greer, initially a kind of priestess of free love, years later spun on her heels. By the early 1980s she had re-concluded that while the revolution was perfectly designed for men’s pleasure and self-worth, the theme song for far too many women was more like the bluesy Janis Joplin rendition of the Kris Kristofferson classic, “Me and Bobby McGee.” In Joplin’s command, it was about a woman dumping a man.
In a 1984 review of Greer’s then-new book, Sex and Destiny, the New York Times’ Justine de Lacy wrote:
In three excerpts published recently in The Sunday Times of London, Miss Greer, an Australian who became one of the leading figures in the feminist movement with the publication of her 1970 best seller, “The Female Eunuch,” says that the sexual revolution has done more harm than good by encouraging women to ”endanger their bodies” with contraceptives and making them feel that something is wrong with them if they are not promiscuous.
The essential point of the book is that women have been harmed rather than helped by the sexual revolution and are worse off now than they were before it.
Greer’s change of heart greatly annoyed many women, liberal and conservative. Her liberal sisters felt betrayed, and conservatives interpreted her evolution as hypocrisy.
One Daily Mail reader, Lynda Lee-Potter, was exasperated by Greer’s seemingly hypocritical “tone of great discovery” in Sex and Destiny. In a letter to the editor, she complained that Greer “acts as if whatever she believes at the moment is a gospel by which all other women should live.”
Polly Toynbee, a columnist for another British paper, The Guardian, sniffed:
Here you have someone who was going around in the 60’s saying you should have sex all the time with anyone you wanted anywhere you wanted who now says, “Oh, my! We got it all wrong.” She assumes we all made the same mistakes she did. Well, not all of us got it so wrong.
So the sexual revolution apparently wasn’t the universally joyous, kumbaya movement some might make it out to be, even among those who didn’t trust anyone over 30.
Jumping to the present, as Louise Perry explains in the new Wall Street Journal essay:
Critics of free-market capitalism have observed that the pleasures of freedom are not equally available to all. As the economic historian and socialist R.H. Tawney wrote in 1931, “freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” This is also true in the sexual marketplace, which was once strictly regulated but has now been made mostly free. In this case, however, the classes are not the workers and the bourgeoisie but, rather, men and women. More precisely, the group of people who have done particularly well from the free-marketization of sex are men high in the personality trait that psychologists call “sociosexuality”: the desire for sexual variety.
Perry contends that the distribution of that trait in a relatively free-love environment is far more pronounced in men than women.
Citing a 2005 study in 48 countries led by psychologist David Schmitt in the journal Behavioral Brain Sciences, Perry said Schmitt found large sex differences, as with sociosexuality, to be “a cultural universal,” no matter a nation’s economic and social equality between the sexes.
So, it’s not just an American thing but a gender-specific phenomenon across cultures.
We see this play out in male and female sexual behavior. Men, on average, prefer to have more sex and with a larger number of partners, while the vast majority of women, if given the option, prefer a committed relationship to casual sex. Sex buyers are almost exclusively male, and men watch a lot more pornography than women do.
Men and women also differ dramatically in their baseline levels of sexual disgust, with women much more likely to be revolted by the prospect of someone they find unattractive.
In other words, whereas guys might commonly think about females they find unattractive but are sexually available, “Whatever, it’s sex, right?” a woman might far more likely think, “Yuck. Only in your dreams, dude.”
But culture, sadly, still too often coerces women to do what they’d prefer not to.
“In the West, hookup culture is normative among adolescents and young adults,” Perry wrote in the Journal. “Although it is possible for young women to opt out, research suggests that only a minority do. Absent some kind of religious commitment, this is now the ‘normal’ route presented to girls as they become sexually active. And hookup culture demands that women suppress their natural instincts in order to match male sexuality and thus meet the male demand for no-strings sex.”
While free, fully consensual sex is generally speaking a beautiful, enriching, even transcendent activity, supposedly free but in fact, barely-consensual sex isn’t.
One celebrates freedom and humanity. The other cynically co-opts freedom of the female “partner” with masculine expectations.
Maybe we need a more equitable do-over of the sexual revolution.
The #MeToo movement was a long-overdue start.