Swans Commentary » swans.com April 23, 2012  



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


by Michael Barker



[Read the first part of this essay.]


(Swans - April 23, 2012)   But while governments all over the world were fighting against the spread of so-called eugenically "abnormal" humans, they were far less concerned with the propagation of abnormal "literature," i.e., pornography. Backed by famed (misogynistic) novelists like Norman Mailer, Charles Rembar (Norman's cousin) led the charge against existing obscenity laws that prevented the easy spread of pornographic literature. Censorship laws were now destined for the scrapheap in the name of sexual liberation, and as far as the campaign was concerned there was no middle ground, the antagonists were "heroic progressives" while their enemies were "reactionary prudes." (1)

The much-vaunted great works of literature and sexual openness that the contest centred upon were, according to their admirers, simply telling the truth about sex. Those who opposed such work, they averred, simply objected to and were afraid of sex. This was in the days before the development of a feminist critique of pornography. The books, which were all by men, included D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, and William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch. When we look at the sexual values portrayed in the books we discover female submission and male aggression, male sexual abuse of female children, and sadomasochism. The "truth" about sex that these books reveal does not seem to be anything to do with relationships of equality and mutuality between adults of any gender or sexual orientation. The script laid out in them was, I suggest, the script that was largely followed in the "sexual revolution" that was to follow. (pp.58-9)

Jeffreys provides a detailed examination of Lolita and The Naked Lunch, illustrating that "no real distinction can be drawn between 'pornography' and works of literary merit when the values demonstrated in such literature and in pornography about women and sex are identical." On Nabokov, Jeffreys points out that the book's "main legacy seems to have been to spread the sexological orthodoxy of the 'seductive' child among a broad public"; while on Burroughs she acknowledges that, "Like many of the supposed sexual liberators of the 1960s and 70s he seems to have been unable to associate sex with anything but lavatories, shit, death, or disease." Consequently it should come as little surprise that the success of the decensorship crusade "ushered in" the development of a highly profitable and exploitative pornography industry. In summary, the "banned books and their progeny provided the propaganda of the sexual revolution, and they provided the plot." (2)

Contrary to the stifling sexological prescriptions of the 1950s, the sex advice of the sexual revolution proper (which rose to the fore in the 1960s) appeared at face value to be about liberation and equality, but this was not the case. As in the decensorship campaign, there was of course much talk about freedom and equality. However, this was all window-dressing for the coercive efforts to force women to adjust their sexual behavior to cater more effectively to male demands. The sexologists' scientific, allegedly apolitical, approach to documenting sexuality "encouraged [the public] to see sex as a range of practices, so that according to this analysis the wider the range of practices, the more liberated the sex." Forget marriage, that institution had already been shored up sufficiently -- the focus was now firmly on celebrating the pleasures to be derived from sexual intercourse: no matter if these sexual practices were constructed to maintain a patriarchal status quo. "The sexual revolution," Jeffreys observes, "was a counter-revolution and constituted a timely adjustment to the fine-tuning of the heterosexual institution." (3)

Women were now expected to lose their sexual "inhibitions," which was code for losing their sexual autonomy. Contrary to the idea that such inhibitions were due to female "ignorance," it is clear that the development of inhibitions "resulted from the concrete reality of men's sexual violence." Thus under the supervision of the sexological community, a new sexual liberalism was being constructed, "based upon a moral relativism" that meant that all sexual activities were now deemed natural. "If a woman did not like a sexual activity, whatever the basis of her objection, whether personal, political or aesthetic, she was considered to have had some problem in childhood which constructed for her an inhibition." In such a climate, power differences between partners were rendered null, and all sexual practices were "equally morally neutral." (4)

Surprisingly perhaps, the ideas of the sexual revolution were seized upon by those on the left of politics, particularly those "who saw themselves as progressive and avant-garde," and longstanding ideas about the repressive power of sexuality were erected afresh. The prophets of this revolutionary revival, promoting sexual liberation in the name of socialism, were Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich. (5) Sexual repression was the problem, and the sexual revolution was the solution.

Reich saw the orgasm as the measure of health. He believed that neurotics fell ill because they could not achieve a satisfactory orgasm. He took from Freud the hydraulic model and took it to extremes. In this model a biologically given amount of sexual energy wells up and demands release. If all the energy were not efficiently released then illness would result. Reich defined orgasm as "the capacity for complete discharge of all dammed-up sexual excitation through involuntary pleasurable contractions of the body." Orgasm had to be of the right type, i.e., heterosexual. Most people, according to Reich, were not having the right type of orgasm with full discharge, and suffering as a result. (p.101)

In Reich's mind, the expression of this unsullied natural sexuality "turned out to mean more frequent sexual intercourse." This, Jeffreys adds, was very much in keeping with sexological orthodoxy laid out by the likes of Kinsey, who boldly "assert[ed] the need of the adolescent male for sexual 'outlets' because of a biological drive." (6)

As mentioned earlier, given its rising popularity marriage was not a major concern of sexologists in the 1960s; however, they were worried about single women. Virginity was no longer in vogue, and a welter of books were published that instructed single women how to perform sexually, with the "most famous" one being Helen Gurky Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (Bernard Geiss Associates, 1962). "With new opportunities for education and career, young women had more money and independence than ever before." The problem was that between leaving the control of their families and marrying, women evidently had too much freedom, and so the eroticising of single women played an important role in delimiting their independence and safeguarding patriarchy. In this blossoming literature, men "were assumed to be interested in nothing but sex" and consequently single women were enjoined to use all their sexual wiles to attract and satisfy a man: marriage might then result, but even if this did not eventuate, "she was at least occupied putting her energies into a man or men rather than into women or revolution." It was "precisely [this] straitjacket that women revolted against in creating the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s." (7)

Contrary to the more challenging and egalitarian sexual frameworks that were proposed by the developing women's liberation movement, there is no doubt that the new era of sexual liberalism awoken by the sexual revolution was primarily intended to enforce heterosexuality. However, there wasn't outright hostility to homosexuality and in fact there was some degree of tolerance, but as Jeffreys observes, this is to be expected of the sexologists, especially given that "they were liberal about everything else from paedophilia to necrophilia." But there were exceptions: anarchist sex radical Alex Comfort, who wrote the "most famous sex advice book of the sexual revolution," The Joy of Sex (Simon and Schuster, 1972), although happy to talk about the joys of both group sex and anal sex, singularly failed to discuss homosexuality. (8) Comfort instead normalizes "[a]ll that most women find most inconvenient or distressing about male sexuality," and suggested that the solution was for women to give up their prudish ways. (9) Jeffreys writes:

Women are told in The Joy of Sex that they should cheerfully accept every variant form of sexual interest or fantasy that their male partner might suggest and act it out joyfully. The woman should be joyful even though the fantasies consist of degrading and humiliating her. (p.117)

Key words to good sexual practice are fun, good-old "unanxious" fun -- unanxious being a favourite descriptor of sex for comfort. On the other hand, according to Comfort, failure to sufficiently enjoy sex and satisfy your husband "lands people in the divorce court for incompatibility." Thus as Jeffreys appropriately observes: "Behind the velvet glove of this 'fun' sexual-revolution bible lies the iron fist of male power and punishment." (10)

Swinging was all part of the prescribed fun of the sexual revolution; and during the early 1970s, Alex Comfort was a regular participant at the "upmarket swinging" venue, the Sandstone Mansion in California. This Wilhelm Reich-inspired (revolutionary) replacement for brothels (and revolutions too) proved to be truly sexually liberating, and given that the predecessor of "swinging" was the porn industry-inspired concept of "wife swapping," it was fitting that swinging was considered to be the "most advanced and most liberated" activity of the so-called sexual revolution. Men, as it turned out, had fewer adjustment issues to swinging than women, and so the latter often needed to be educated to dissociate sex from emotions, and to overcome detrimental feelings of jealousy (or "possessiveness"). In this way, men could have as much sex as they desired, and women could be freely dominated by men who evidently had "natural" desires and needed to vent their "uncontrollable" sexual energies. (11) As Jeffreys comments:

Before swinging, the only opportunity for men to have access to large numbers of women was in brothels. The Joy of Sex claimed that prostitution would disappear as women in general imitated prostitutes and were prepared to perform free all the functions of a prostitute. It would be a reasonable extrapolation then to see swinging as the substitute for the brothel. (p.131)

Other well-known participants at the revolutionary Sandstone brothel in the early 1970s were William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the two sexologists who "are seen as responsible for a revolution in sex therapy in the 1960s." But although their work "acquired a progressive veneer" -- largely because of their promotion of the idea of the clitoral orgasm, as opposed to the hallowed vaginal orgasm -- "the underlying purpose of the sex therapy they advocate remains the maintenance of male dominance." Jeffreys describes how Masters and Johnson mythologized men as being indispensable to female pleasure, with the penis, and only the penis, being able to provide vaginal orgasms. Masters and Johnson also said that with regards to the digital manipulation of the vagina, men needed to restrain themselves to "superficial finger insertion." Evidently it seems that the sexologists were "afraid that women [would] prefer fingers in their vaginas to penises" and might then choose to abandon sexual intercourse, and possibly even heterosexual relationships. (12)

Unfortunately, early feminists took Masters and Johnson's ideas too far, and Jeffreys notes how Anne Koedt's 1970 feminist article, "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm," actually denied the sensitivity of the vagina as a sexual organ; a position that was subsequently satirized by lesbian writers. Similarly, upon discovering the pleasure that could be derived from heterosexual sex, early feminist theorists set up the highly problematic ambition of emulating male sexuality; an ambition that was just as unproductive as oppressed workers seeking to replicate capitalist methods of exploitation within the working class itself. Of course, emulating the oppressor class is not a solution by any means, because as opposed to working in solidarity, the adoption of strategies that aim to emulate ruling-class oppression only serve to intensify division and oppression within the subordinate class, be it women or workers. (13)

A more radical, and arguably sustainable, method of promoting women's liberation would start from the ideological premise "that a world beyond heterosexuality is possible." Just as capitalism needs to be challenged at a political level, so does heterosexuality; and just as capitalism is considered to be the means through which the ruling class exploits the working class, heterosexuality should be viewed as the "political institution through which male dominance is organised and maintained." Seen in such a light, it is clear that heterosexuality is "an institution founded upon the ideology of 'difference'" and, as such, that: "Sex as we know it under male supremacy is the eroticised power difference of heterosexuality." Working from this position it is clear that individuals committed to an egalitarian and socialist future for all should strive to promote "a sexual desire and practice which eroticises mutuality and equality." This is perhaps commonsense, but to undertake such a reconstruction of conventional sexuality, the oppressive legacy of heterosexuality will need to be eradicated just like capitalism. (14)


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1.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.58, p.59. Kate Millett expounds on Norman Mailer's misogyny in her book Sexual Politics (1971), and she does the same for D. H. Lawrence, amongst others.

In 1953, Maurice Girodias founded Olympia Press and published books that had been banned in Britain in France in what he called a "deliberate attempt to destroy censorship as a moral institution, as a tradition, as a method of government." (p.63)  (back)

2.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.64, pp.77-8, p.73, p.64, p.90.  (back)

3.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.91, p.93. Marriage in the UK was far more common in the 1960s than ever before, such that by the mid 1960s, 95 percent of men and 96 percent of women were married by the age of 45, building upon a longstanding trend that had seen a significant increase in marriage rates since 1911 when just over 55 percent of women aged 21-39 were married compared to fifty years later when almost 81 percent were married. (p.93, p.94)  (back)

4.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.240, p.97, p.95, p.98. Jeffreys refers to Susan Griffith's 1971 article, "Rape: the All-American Crime."  (back)

5.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.101. Jeffreys notes how: "Women have, historically, shown less enthusiasm for the opportunity to have sexual variety whereas radical men have always seen it as liberating for women." (p.3) She then talks about such examples from the nineteenth-century and cites as a "fascinating account" of the Oneida Community, Louis Kern's article "Ideology and Reality: Sexuality and Women's Status in the Oneida Community," Radical History Review, 20, 1979, pp.181-205.  (back)

6.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.103. For a feminist critiques of Kinsey, see Margaret Jackson, "Sexology and the Universalisation of Male Sexuality (from Ellis to Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson)," In Lal Coveney et al. (eds.), The Sexuality Papers: Male Sexuality and the Social Control of Women (Hutchinson, 1984); and Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (Women's Press, 1981); for further critiques of the history of sexology, see Thomas Szasz, Sex by Prescription (Doubleday, 1980); Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (Women's Press, 1985); and Margaret Jackson, The Real Facts of Life: Feminism and the Politics of Sexuality, 1850-1940 (Taylor & Francis, 1994).  (back)

7.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.106, p.107, p.106. Another notable book from this period is The Sensuous Women (1969), whose author, J., demanded "that women should become no more than objects and servicers for men." (p.109)  (back)

8.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.110, p.91, p.111. Alex Comfort's book did however have a "section on 'bisexuality' which positively warns readers not to treat sex with their own gender as anything other than a way to jazz up their heterosexual relationships." (p.111) Jeffreys highlights the fact that during the 1930s, in the wake of the strong feminist movement, leading sexologists were able to talk about the joys to be found in lesbianism, something that was not possible by the 1950s. (pp.39-45)

On the broader issue of homosexuality, Jeffreys acknowledges that the sexual liberalism of the period did enable lesbians and gay men to engage in political activities more openly; but even with the decriminalisation of homosexuality (in the UK this took place in 1967), heterosexuality was still the preferred norm: "tolerance never meant acceptance." Moreover, although the focus of legislative changes meant that private sexual behavior was to be ruled outside of the purview of the courts, in the long-run this separation of public and private life has proved more problematic. Consequently, Jeffreys points out that "the idea that whatever takes place between consenting adults in private should be seen as exempt from politics has led to a sexual libertarianism in the 1980s which is in direct opposition to feminism." (p.112) Another problematic development for those wishing to critique heterosexuality was the rising influence of humanistic psychologists who, instead of pathologising sexual deviance, developed "the sexual preference model, or what Celia Kitzinger, in her book The Social Construction of Lesbianism, calls liberal humanism." This had the unfortunate effect of serving to depoliticise discussions of sexuality, and simply presented homosexuality and heterosexuality as equally valid. (p.288)  (back)

9.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.118. "In the section entitled 'Men (by him for her)' Comfort remarks:

'Prof. Higgins was right -- men wish that women's sexuality was like theirs, which it isn't. Male sexual response is far brisker and more automatic: it is triggered easily by things, like putting a quarter in a vending machine. Consequently, at a certain level and for all men, girls and parts of girls are, at this stimulus level, unpeople. That isn't incompatible with their being people too. Your clothes, breasts, odor, etc., aren't what he loves instead of you -- simply the things he needs in order to set sex in motion to express love. Women seem to find this hard to understand.

'Second, most though not all male feeling is ultimately centered in the last inch of the penis...'" (p.118)  (back)

10.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.117, p.118.  (back)

11.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.126, p.127.  (back)

12.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.135, p.141. "Participants at Sandstone included, besides Comfort, the Kronhausens [a couple who authored an influential anti-censorship book] and Edward Brecher [an important popularizer of sexology] (described as a 'close friend of Masters and Johnson'), 'the marriage counsellors William Hartman and Marilyn Fithian, often referred to as the Masters and Johnson of the West Coast', Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, Betty Dodson, 'artist and feminist', the editor Kent Carroll of Grove Press, the American equivalent of Girodias' Olympia Press and publisher of the banned books of the 1960s, and Art Kunkin of the Los Angeles Free Press, an alternative culture publication. So Sandstone brought together all engines of the sexual-revolution propaganda machine: sex therapists and radical sexologists, the alternative press, an early feminist prophet of sexual liberation, and pornography publishers." (p.130)

In her later work, The Idea of Prostitution, Jeffreys would go further in her criticisms of "sexologists such as Masters and Johnson and sex advice doctors such as Alex Comfort," arguing that they actually "constructed a theory and practice of sexuality based on prostitution." (p.36)  (back)

13.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, pp.231-2, p.237. For a discussion of Anne Koedt's work, see Jill Johnson, Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (Simon and Schuster, 1973).  (back)

14.  Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p.299, p.3, p.299, p.3, p.313.  (back)


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Published April 23, 2012