From Machismo to Mutuality: Essays on Sexism and Woman-Man Liberation
My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies
Binding with Briars: Sex and Sin in the Catholic Church
Sexual Behavior in the 1970s
The Homosexual Matrix
“Revolution,” like “tragedy,” is a bit overused; but there can’t be any doubt that we are in the course of, perhaps at the end of, a revolution in sexual mores. From Sweden there has just come a report that a government committee has recommended that children be legally free to make their hetero- or homosexual debuts at fourteen, that all legal prohibitions of incest be lifted, and that the word “homosexual” be dropped from the terminology of the law. As to what goes on, it is easy to say what has happened in our society, and I will attempt a short account presently, but it isn’t and can’t be clear how far behavior that is in one sense characteristic represents how most people conduct their lives.
Other questions even harder to answer are: how far the revolution has added to human happiness or misery, and if to both how the proportions are distributed; what the effects on civilization and culture will be; what the connections are between the revolution and other things that go on in the opulent societies of the West, things both good and bad. Finally, we must surely ask what we are now to think of what has been, in the matter of sexual morality, the central tradition of our culture; this comes from Deuteronomy and was given a circulation outside the Jewish tradition by the first Christians. It forbids fornication, adultery, incest, homosexuality, sexual connection with the brutes, and sacred prostitution (in our own day this last could perhaps be understood as sex as theater).
The content of the sexual revolution seems as follows.
In sexual practice virtually everything is interesting and nothing is grave. It is still thought wrong to force people, especially the young, to engage in sexual practices against their will, though there is sometimes to be heard a Pecksniffian voice claiming that rape is really a protest against a repressive social order. Apart from this, pretty well anything goes so long as it doesn’t harm other people. What is to count as harm isn’t easy to determine, for sadism and masochism are interesting too. It is supposed, strangely, that what is harmful is immediately evident. Whatever gives sexual pleasure is all right; the burden of proving that it isn’t rests upon the objector.
Masturbation is the prototype of all sexual activity, the most harmless, even the “best.” Proficiency in masturbation was a necessary condition of fitness for taking part in the Masters and Johnson experiments. Paul Robinson observes in The Modernization of Sex that “from its pathogenic status among the Victorians, masturbation has risen to the position of final sexual arbiter”; its rewards are held by some to be superior to those of any other sexual activity. In particular, female masturbation is the badge of sexual independence. Virtually all the sexual fantasies in Nancy Friday’s compilation are used in masturbation as well as in other activities. It is now commonly known that the nineteenth-century belief that (male) masturbation causes a variety of physical and mental ills is groundless. There isn’t absolute unanimity that masturbation is without bad emotional consequences, but most students of sex think it at least harmless, like chewing gum or back-scratching.
Oral sex—fellatio and cunnilingus—is now a very big activity. Morton Hunt finds there is a great increase of these practices among the married. Such practices, once called perversions, live in a legal twilight in many countries. Even more noteworthy is the fairly wide acceptance of buggery between heterosexual partners. (It is curious that “buggery” is seldom used, though the vernacular terms for other acts and for the male and female genitalia are often used and their use is taken to be a mark of emancipation; but for “buggery” is commonly substituted the prim “anal penetration.”) The acceptance by so many of the practice of buggery makes very plain one of the messages of the sexual revolution: that there are now in sexual matters no common principles of decorum.
Homosexuality, male and female, is now thought to be a native sexual orientation, not a genetic endowment but in most cases as firm and as unalterable as though it were genetic. Homosexual men and women are often pictured as members of an oppressed third sex in need of emancipation.
In many cities of the Western world there are openly advertised emporia that stock curious “objects.” These are such things as vibrators (Morton Hunt has a sad and hilarious story about a lady whose Acapulco holiday was ruined because she had forgotten to pack her vibrator), dildos, boots, chains, underclothes of unusual cut, books, photographs, even (though these are perhaps more often procured by mail order) life-size plastic dolls in female shape with which the shy and lonely may cohabit. These emporia correspond in their own field to gourmet shops for lovers of rare foods, and it is characteristic of our time that the publication of gourmet books on sexual techniques reinforces the analogy.
Such periodicals as Playboy and Penthouse and their proliferating imitations should be mentioned. Their appearance both satisfies and stimulates demand. They represent big money and their proprietors have a strong interest in persuading readers to accept the picture of the sexually liberated human being they offer. Such periodicals are beginning to achieve a kind of respectability and are not too slowly moving into the picture of the normal American home, along with the Reader’s Digest, cola beverages, contraceptive pills, laxatives, instant coffee, and stuff to make the floor shine.
No doubt these six “notes” of the sexual revolution could be added to and subdivided in various ways; but as they stand they provide enough material for discussion. It is also clear that the revolution as I have described it is confined to Western, free, middle-class, capitalist societies of some degree of opulence. The governments of even the more prosperous socialist societies proscribe most of its manifestations as signs of a bourgeois corruption against which they wish to protect their citizens.
As for the poor societies, of whatever political complexion, these are delights they can’t afford. In them the much derided (in the West) machismo of the males keeps an uncomplicated heterosexuality as the predominant pattern; and even where, as in some of the Arab countries, male homosexuality is traditional, the business of procreation is well attended to. Here homosexuality seems not so much a way of life as a kind of gentlemanly relaxation. This is how it must have seemed to Maynard Keynes, who, before the First World War, wrote to Lytton Strachey to recommend Tunis as a place where “bed and boy” were not dear.^1
In 1948 Lionel Trilling published in Partisan Review a comment on the first Kinsey Report. It is a classic statement, calm, judicious, prescient. Trilling was the first to remark on the bland assurance implied in the chosen title of the Report: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. A cross-section, not even complete, of North American males was to serve as material for generalizing about all human males. The article is still worth reading: indeed, it may be said to have gathered weight in the almost thirty years since it appeared. I wish to mention two of its points. First, there is what might be called the vulgar democratic (on the analogy of “vulgar Marxist”) view of social research.
We might say that those who most explicitly assert and wish to practice the democratic virtues have taken it as their assumption that all social facts—with the exception of exclusion and economic hardship—must be accepted, not merely in the scientific sense but also in the social sense, in the sense, that is, that no judgment must be passed on them, that any conclusion drawn from them which perceives values and consequences will turn out to be “undemocratic.”2
All the books under review (setting apart, obviously, Mr. Owen’s study of courtly love) are influenced in some degree by this assumption.
Then Trilling spoke of “the large permissive effect the Report is likely to have.” It was, in fact, as he saw, a powerful agent of revolution; it changed the sexual mores of the time. Its scientism, its half-concealed complacency toward mechanical models of the life of feeling and action, the bad faith which presented as a purely technical work what it was foreknown would be widely read by an audience quite unable to weigh its claims, all these gave it a unique authority wherever it was read. Without Kinsey’s work other writings about sexual matters would have taken a different form. Perhaps none of our authors except Father Ginder and Dr. Tripp takes Kinsey’s conceptual apparatus quite seriously—the idea of “outlet” in particular is much blown upon—but they are all of them influenced by Kinsey’s investigative techniques and “democratic” assumptions.
Morton Hunt’s Sexual Behavior in the 1970s is the outcome of a “national sex survey” (sic) conducted under the auspices of the Playboy Foundation. Thoughts of lung cancer research by the makers of cigarettes may trouble the mind; but I think we may accept without fretting Hunt’s assurance that no pressure was put upon him by any of the Playboy entrepreneurs or personalities to come up with what they wanted. What the survey shows is no doubt much the same as what the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research would have found had they conducted the survey (they were in fact invited to do so but declined).
The year 1966, in which Human Sexual Response by Masters and Johnson was published, is a critical date. Morton Hunt comments that the study “was considered obscene only by a few intellectual troglodytes.” This seems to mean that the principle that sexual performances should be studied by witnesses, photographed, monitored by machines, and that these performances should be between partners provided for experimental purposes, is not open to moral objection. There is a curious inconsistency—perhaps a remnant of the troglodyte mentality?—in the Masters and Johnson procedures: male subjects were sometimes provided with surrogate partners, that is, females with whom they had had no earlier emotional or sexual involvement; female subjects never.
Voyeuristic attitudes to sexual activity were being popularized at the same time, through X-rated movies and such spectaculars as Oh! Calcutta!; the works of the Marquis de Sade and Genet (these two were given awards for moral pioneering by unimpeachable authorities) were to be had in cheap editions; innumerable popular works combining descriptive material with how-to instructions were being published. Things went hard with the troglodytes in those years. We had left behind the period in which it could be a matter for thrilling moral dispute whether or not to put The Catcher in the Rye on reading lists for adolescents.
Morton Hunt is able to establish that since the time of Kinsey there have been some important changes in activities and attitudes: a decline in petting among adolescents and young adults and an increase in copulation; a blurring of the distinction—this had been one of the most emphatic and surprising of the Kinsey findings—between working-class and middle-class sexual behavior; a substantial increase in extramarital sexual activity among young couples under twenty-five—this seems to go with a lessening of guilt feelings and anxiety over adultery, whereas among older couples, even among the liberated practitioners of serial monogamy, adultery is still a grave matter; a slight but significant increase in sadistic and masochistic practices, and a notable increase in sadistic and masochistic elements in sexual fantasies.
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (Doubleday Anchor, 1957), p. 234.↩
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (Doubleday Anchor, 1957), p. 234.↩