Swans Commentary » swans.com April 9, 2012  



A Sexual Revolution, But For Whom?
Part I of II


by Michael Barker



(Swans - April 9, 2012)   In patriarchal societies, males dominate women; that is simple enough -- and under capitalist forms of patriarchy, men not only oppress women, but capitalists also make immense financial gains from female subordination. So what exactly was the outcome of the much touted sexual revolution that took place in the 1960s? Certainly one can say that women didn't suddenly start dominating men, and there is no indication that patriarchal relations were brought to an end. Instead it appears that the main results of the so-called revolution was that men were given the liberating franchise to dominate women more regularly, but this time, all in the name of sexual freedom -- female freedom, mind you! Strangely, many historians have interpreted this newfound freedom as a positive development for women, and it is such misleading thinking that Sheila Jeffreys roundly demolishes in her book Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution (Women's Press, 1990). Jeffreys's text thus provides a welcome injection of lesbian political insight into heterosexual relations. However, before surmising some of the arguments made in Anticlimax, it is important to briefly introduce some of the patriarchal philanthropists who funded much of the research upon which the so-called sexual revolution was firmly based.

Patriarchy has served its purpose well for the ruling classes, and it is a central ideological means of containing the democratic aspirations of women trying to create a world based upon mutuality and equality. But all ideologies wear thin with repeated application, and with the insane consolidation of capital in the late nineteenth century, more far-sighted capitalists began to recognize that in order to counter the growing threats posed by organized opposition movements -- represented by both feminists and the working class more generally -- they needed to launch a renewed ideological offensive. In this way they set about institutionalizing more sustainable development practices to rationally manage the evolution of a fragile world order built upon inequality. This "new" offensive was social engineering; but in order to implement their offensive the capitalists first needed to collate accurate data on all aspects of the social, economic, and political system. Consequently, the creation of non-profit corporations, otherwise known as philanthropic foundations, presented an ideal way of guiding this process. Of course, there would still be research undertaken outside of the foundation world's tightly supervised power nexus, but the ruling class was hopeful that the few contradictory ideas that did arise would be quickly overwhelmed by their rising tide of reforms.

Amongst the most influential of the "thoughtful" elites committed to this new systematized form of social engineering was John D. Rockefeller Sr., of Standard Oil fame, who initially set about in his efforts to make the world safe for capitalism by founding the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1901, and then the following year setting up the General Education Board. Building upon the experience gained through such immensely well-funded philanthropic endeavors, in 1913 the Rockefeller Foundation was created to provide a more efficient means of guiding the collective Rockefeller philanthropies. By then, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had already taken over the mantle of his father's philanthropic work, and had shown a keen interest in promoting capitalist efforts to rationalize human sexuality. Having already taken a lead role on a special grand jury that was established in 1910 to investigate white slavery in New York City, Rockefeller Jr. had subsequently formed the Bureau of Social Hygiene (which was formally incorporated in 1913) to investigate, among other things, the problem of prostitution -- which often meant focusing on the alleged poor genetic endowments of the prostitutes themselves. (1) In terms of promoting sex education, the Bureau did this by supporting the American Social Hygiene Association and in 1922, Rockefeller interests helped set up the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex, which although formally established under the remit of the National Research Council, served as the Rockefeller Foundation's chief conduit for funding American sex research until the early 1950s. During this period Rockefeller funds supported all manner of sexologists around the world, and between 1914 and 1954, Rockefeller grants provided "almost the sole support of sex research in the United States." (2)

With the aid of generous capitalist benefactors, the science of sexology has served an important purpose for shoring up capitalist patriarchy, and since the beginning of the twentieth century its mostly male practitioners have sought to demonstrate that "sex is and should be a way of expressing and maintaining male dominance and female submission." As I discussed in an earlier article, "The First Sexual Revolution and its Discontents," between 1880 and 1930 sexological propaganda proved an invaluable means by which the ruling class was able to temporarily put to rest the threat posed by an increasingly demanding feminist movement. Following this tragic precedent, "resisting woman" similarly became a major concern of sexologists in the wake of World War II when it appeared that the future of male-dominated marriage was in danger. (3) The world was changing, and doing so rapidly, and in many ways the rise of the sexologists -- and the sexual revolution of the 1960s -- can be seen as a means of rationalizing heterosexual relationships in a manner most compatible with maintaining the capitalist and patriarchal status quo. Thus the sexologists were tasked with providing vitally important guidance for regulating marital sex.

As we shall see the rules of sexologic remained unaltered. Behind the baloney of liberation, the naked power politics of male supremacy were being acted out. The high priests of sexologic, helped by the pornographers, progressive novelists and sex radicals continued to orchestrate woman's joyful embrace of her oppression through the creation of her sexual response. Sexologists have for a hundred years dedicated their lives to eliciting orgasms from women in order to prevent our liberation. The 1960s was a period when greater opportunities were open to women and the "sexual revolution," rather than being liberating, helped to defuse the potential threat to male power. (p.2)

Taking heterosexual desire as their holy grail, sexologists operated from the working principle that healthy sexual relations should be based upon "eroticising the subordination of women"; thus sanctifying and extending, but certainly not challenging, the inequitable power relationships that already existed between males and females. For women, the ensuing sexual liberation that supposedly occurred as a result of the sexual revolution had nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with oppression. Repulsed by such sexologic, feminists presented their own radical challenges to their "liberation," which then faced an unfortunate backlash led by "sexual libertarians... devoted to persuading women that the enthusiastic celebration of [their] oppression in sadomasochism is the same thing as liberation." (4)

It is for these reasons that Jeffreys concludes that: "As a political system heterosexuality functions more perfectly than oppressive systems such as apartheid or capitalism." This is not to belittle other similarly adept techniques of repression, but it does emphasize the point that the oppression caused by heterosexuality extends right to the center of our most intimate and loving personal relationships, making such practices that much harder to challenge, let alone uproot. "As a result, a world of freedom beyond heterosexuality cannot be envisaged because it appears to require the abandonment of 'love' and 'sex'." (5) This is clearly not necessary, but given that alternatives are apparently so hard to perceive, it does make the promotion of alternative sexual options much more difficult.

Here it is important to acknowledge that sex, as currently constructed, is "not a natural and spontaneous seeking after pleasure by men and women," but instead is "a regulatory mechanism designed and constructed to enforce male dominance and female submission." (6) In this respect, heterosexual marriages, and the ideological baggage accompanying them, need to be regulated by the state to ensure continuity of governance; and such functions were especially necessary during the 1940s owing to the increasing divorce rates and the newly found independence (social and economic) of many women in the UK. At the time, this type of women's self-determination was described as a "wartime revolution" by feminist author Gertrude Williams in her book Women and Work (Nicholson & Watson, 1945). This was simply not cricket as far as the ruling class was concerned.

Referring to the situation in the UK, Jeffreys discusses the influential role played by the Marriage Guidance Council (formed in 1938), and the Rockefeller-connected Family Discussion Bureau (set up in 1948) which served to restore a male-supremacist status quo through the application of "therapeutic techniques" that women at the time "were not sufficiently familiar with to resist." Such marriage counselors were thus able to successfully wield sex as a potent weapon against women. (7) Attacks on motherhood also became more commonplace, with "poor mothering" being blamed for the creation of so-called problem children, an issue that was merged with eugenic concerns about the "subnormal mentality" of problematic mothers. This eugenic fixation was important to social engineers keen to encourage the reproductive efforts of eugenically fit women.

Motherhood was now something to be taken very seriously by all women, with feminists in particular being attacked by one prominent sexologist for being "auto-matricidal" -- a term of abuse that did not ultimately take off, but referred to "the killing of the mother in yourself." (8) In was in this milieu that popular writers contributed to an anti-feminist ideology of motherhood, with individuals like John Bowlby developing his (now famous) theory of material deprivation, a theory that demanded nothing less than "constant attention" to the demands of children if they were to grow up to be normal. As Jeffreys observes, so much attention was demanded "that one does wonder when mothers would have found time to go to the toilet, let alone commune with their thoughts." (9)

As far as sex itself was concerned, women had much to learn from men. Men were thought to be sexual creatures with urges that needed to be satisfied; women, on the other hand, simply needed to learn how they could develop their sexual desire. "Popular sex-advice writers" like Maxine Davis, author of The Sexual Responsibility of Women (Dial Press, 1957), "took their ideas from Freudian psychoanalysts who saw sexual desire as 'masculine' by its very nature." That women did not usually have vaginal organisms was now constructed as a social problem, an issue "so serious that women suffering from the complaint were recommended to acquire prompt psychiatric assistance." Never mind the fact that "premature ejaculation was so common in men as to be normal." Frigidity, the new disease for women, was unacceptable (to sexologists) and had to be cured: vaginal organisms were a must, and "A distaste for sexual intercourse was illegitimate, as was a desire for any sexual practice in preference to sexual intercourse." Sex theorists, therefore, came to prominence as "a force for social control" to meet this demand for remedying such illnesses, or sexual dysfunctions. (10)

It will be no surprise to discover that healthy sexual behaviour is seen by the sex therapists to be penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse. With the mounting concentration on female orgasm in the fifties rather more was expected of men. Where they had previously only been expected to enter the vagina for a brief period, they were now required to remain erect in the vagina for slightly longer after insertion. Correct sexual behaviour for the female was to have a lubricating vagina which welcomed the penis and to have an orgasm, preferably whilst the penis remained in the vagina. (p.31)

Marriages without sexual intercourse were considered especially problematic. In the late 1950s, this issue was studied by the Family Planning Association and the results were published by Lawrence Friedman as Virgin Wives: A Study of Unconsummated Marriages (Tavistock Publications, 1962), a book that makes clear how sexual intercourse was deemed "crucial to maintaining male dominance in marriage." The cured women described in Friedman's book eventually relented to the sexual demands made upon them by the sex therapists, and, as such, the therapists had to come up with a likely reason why the women submitted to their husbands' wills. The unlikely answer they came up with was the old cliché that the wives secretly desired "to be overpowered and made to submit by a strong man." This led to the prescribed therapy: marital rape. (11)

Having resolved the sexual problems evident in unconsummated marriages, the next step was to find a solution for single women too. Jeffreys argues that single women only became fair game for the sexologists in the 1950s, largely because feminist gains made earlier in the century had meant that "single women had grown greatly in numbers and independence in the 1920s and 1930s." Either way, in the postwar period these gains had been eroded to such an extent that unmarried women were now pathologised as well. For single women, alternative forms of sexuality were strictly off-limits, and as it turns out, the postwar decade "was a particularly bleak period for lesbians and gay men." This mainstream battle against homosexuality intensified as a result of Alfred Kinsey's sexological findings (published in 1948) that demonstrated that homosexual experience was in fact fairly common among men.

With male dominance now under threat from all angles, lesbianism became the number-one target of heterosexual-obsessed sexologists, who were "confident" in their "hatred of Lesbians," which accompanied the "total dominance of Freudianism in sexological thinking." (12) Sybil Neville-Rolfe in her edited collection Sex in Social Life (George Allen & Unwin, 1949)...

... explained this threat in eugenic terms in her chapter on "The Homosexual". She saw the welfare of "the race" as being "based on the family" and on "society devising customs which will select the fittest in character, physique and intelligence as the parents of the future". To this end "each generation" must "protect society from damage from its crop of abnormalities". (p.51)


[Continue to the second part of this essay.]


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  As in America, in Britain in the early twentieth century there were increasing concerns about white slavery, which in 1912 led to the passing of a bill aimed at outlawing the White Slave Traffic. On these developments, Jeffreys writes: "It was ironic that so many feminist energies and sympathies were diverted before 1914 into concern about the White Slave Traffic rather than about the thousands of women routinely used in prostitution by men. The exceptions had become more important than the rule, and did indeed constitute a concentration on 'forced' rather than 'free' prostitution." Sheila Jeffreys, The Idea of Prostitution (Spinifex, 1997), p.11.  (back)

2.  Vern Bullough, "The Rockefellers and Sex Research," The Journal of Sex Research, 21 (2), 1985, p.113. For a useful review of the involvement of the Rockefeller philanthropies' initial work into human reproductive issues, see Jennifer Gunn, "A Few Good Men: The Rockefeller Approach to Population, 1911-1936," In: Theresa Richardson and Donald Fisher (eds.), Development of the Social Sciences in the United States and Canada: The Role of Philanthropy (Ablex Publishing, 1999).  (back)

3.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.1.  (back)

4.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.2, p.3. Jeffreys suggests that such sexual libertarians inspired by "the ideas of the sexologists, the ideology of the 1960s 'sexual revolution' and the work of gay male theorists such as Michel Foucault" had "hijacked" the women's liberation movement by the 1980s. (p.261, p.3) This issue will not be explored in this article but is covered in depth in Jeffreys's book (pp.260-86). Moreover, an important and related chapter of her book, "The Failure of Gay Liberation," "is devoted to showing the extent to which the eroticising of power difference dominates male gay culture and sexual behaviour." (pp.2-3)  (back)

5.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.4.  (back)

6.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.5.  (back)

7.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.12. The founder of the Marriage Guidance Council, David Mace, went to live in the United States in 1948, where he later founded the religious organization, the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (now known as Better Marriage). The Family Discussion Bureau (now known as the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships) was "set up to do social casework in marital problems, after an approach to the Tavistock Institute by the Family Welfare Association." (p.8) Here one should note that the famous Tavistock Institute of Human Relations "was founded in London in 1946 with the aid of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation." Eric Trist and Hugh Murray (eds.) The Social Engagement of Social Science: A Tavistock Anthology; Volume 1. The Socio-Psychological Perspective (Free Association, 1990), p.xi.  (back)

8.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.16. The term "auto-matricidal" was promoted in Eustace Chesser's book Sexual Behaviour: Normal and Abnormal (Roy Publishers, 1949). Jeffreys writes: "Auto-matricidism lacks subtlety. There were plenty of psychoanalytical theories similarly damming of women's right to exist as an independent and self-respecting human being which had the advantage of being less blatant and fitting into Freudian orthodoxy." (p.17)  (back)

9.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.15. Here Jeffreys was referring to John Bowlby's book Child Care and the Growth of Love (Pelican Books, 1953), which incidentally is still in print.  (back)

10.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, pp.19-20, p.24, p.23, p.24, p.31. "Premature ejaculation is a wonderful example of an invented disease. ... Since a man could give a women perfectly fulfilling sexual pleasure without penile penetration, it would make little difference if a man ejaculated before he walked in the room." (p.23)  (back)

11.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.32, p.34, p.35.  (back)

12.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.39, p.53. "It was in the postwar decade that Freudianism swept the board in sexology and came to dominate the thinking of the 'caring' professions." (p.53)  (back)


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Published April 9, 2012