Imagine, for a moment, putting together a piece of furniture, but stopping before it was finished. Depending on where you stop, chances are the furniture isn’t going to be as useful as you’d hoped. Sure, it may still function to some extent, but it’s incomplete. As a result, it can’t entirely do what it’s supposed to do.
With that idea in mind, imagine the same thing happening to a major social movement, a new vision for society, or a full-blown revolution. What happens if it stops before it realizes its goals? Even if some of those goals were unachievable, abruptly stopping an ongoing process or not bothering to adjust the methods of that process is bound to cause issues.
Some argue that the civil rights movement that began in 1950s was never completed. Others may argue that the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution were never complete, which was why they resulted in so much chaos and destruction. I’m not an expert on those subjects so I’m not going to wade into them.
However, I would support an argument stating that the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s was not complete and that has heavily influenced ongoing controversies involving sex, gender, and everything in between. Again, I am not an expert in this field. I am an aspiring erotica/romance writer. I’m about as much an expert as I am a wizard.
Expert or not, I do think that incomplete revolution is worth talking about in the context of ongoing gender-driven issues. We’re in the midst of pretty significant upheaval in wake of the anti-harassment movement, which I’ve talked about on more than one occasion and in some pretty eclectic ways. It may seem like this upheaval is very recent, but I believe its roots go back to the sexual revolution in the 1960s.
With each passing year, the sexual revolution gets a worse and worse rap. Conservative types will blame the sexual revolution for everything from human trafficking to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. Liberal types are starting to blame it on current social ills like the Harvey Weinstein scandal and so-called toxic masculinity.
To some extent, that’s understandable when you consider the context of the sexual revolution. As I’ve noted before, this major social upheaval emerged in a perfect convergence of factors. First, contraception and modern medicine made exploring sex less risky. Second, a generation of young people that has grown up in the exceedingly uptight 1950s rebelled.
Regardless of how you may feel about the sexual revolution now, it’s easy to understand why it happened when you look at the circumstances. A generation saw the state of sex in society and were not satisfied with it. As such, they sought change. Moreover, they sought radical change and not just in the classic hippie sort of way.
It wasn’t just about unmarried men and women having sex just to enjoy it and not make grandkids for their parents. The sexual revolution dared to explore and undermine taboos about homosexuality, monogamy, and gender roles. To some extent, the sexual revolution helped facilitate a new era of feminism that pushed for greater gender equality.
While I know feminism has some controversial connotations these days, the brand of feminism that emerged during the sexual revolution is one that I think most would support in 2018. They helped push for some of the legal protections and educational opportunities that have helped multiple generations of women and men alike.
Moreover, and most importantly to the gender issues of today, the sexual revolution attempted to normalize discussions and depictions of sexuality in general. One could argue that was the most critical aspect of the revolution, beyond the hippies and free love. After all, it’s next to impossible to have a meaningful discussion about anything if the topic is so taboo.
It’s also in this critical area, however, that the sexual revolution came up short. Sure, those involved did plenty of outrageous things, in private and in public, that shocked and terrified their more repressed elders. That was revolutionary for its time. However, they didn’t confront the stigma surrounding sex, at least not in a way that was gender neutral.
This is where I’m sure I’m going to draw the ire of both sides of gender-driven debates, but I think this needs to be said to add a little insight to the current debate. Yes, the sexual revolution did a lot to make sexual activity outside of marriage less taboo. However, that impact did not affect men and women the same way.
In wake of that revolution, men no longer faced as much stigma for fooling around sexually. The idea of “boys will be boys” became an accepted mantra. A young man fooled around in his youth, had multiple partners, and generally enjoyed himself without much shame. The sexual revolution helped him a great deal in terms of realizing his sexuality.
Ideally, women should’ve enjoyed the same freedom. However, that’s not what happened. There’s no “girls will be girls” equivalent. Even during the sexual revolution, women who slept around like their male counterparts were still subject to stigma. They were still called sluts and whores. They were generally looked down upon.
Now, before some start bemoaning “patriarchy” or something of the sort, it’s important to note that the source of that stigma does not come exclusively from men. In fact, according to a study done by Demos, other women were far more likely to slut-shame or use derogatory words to other women compared to men.
Regardless of the source, that lingering stigma that the sexual revolution attempted to confront has helped maintain a significant gender gap with respect to sexual freedom. It’s why men can be studs, but only women can be sluts, a frustrating double standard that has lingered well beyond the 1960s.
It may also be a significant factor in the current orgasm gap between men and women. Whereas the male orgasm is seen as routine and uncomplicated, the female orgasm has this elaborate mystique surrounding it. Just talking about it seems akin to talking about the meaning of life.
In many respects, that vast disparity reflects the current sexual divide. Men are still expected to be sexually aggressive. Women are still expected to be sexually reserved. Any deviation is subject to stigma. As is often the case with expectations, it doesn’t take much for them to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Due to that aggression, society has done a lot to cater to male sexual desires. That same system has done just as much to mystify female sexuality. It’s a grossly imperfect system, one that limits the ability of women to explore their sexuality without fear while giving men in positions of power more reason to pursue sex as though it were a holy relic.
That is not in line with the ideals of the sexual revolution. Love them or hate them, hippies had the right idea in terms of openness about sex. They did not divide the sexuality of a particular gender into something entirely different. They saw it as one thing that was worth exploring, but stopped short of pursuing it fully.
That shortcoming has had some noteworthy consequences. Reason Magazine nicely summed it up in a recent article about the sexual revolution and the sexual frustrations that current generations face.
The problem is not that sex has been over commodified as hardline feminists and conservatives (talk about strange bedfellows!) like to assert; the problem is that it hasn’t been commodified enough. The sexual industry in the broadest sense hasn’t matured enough yet to cater to the myriad and diverse needs of lonely single people (of both sexes). Where are the Dr. Ruths for single people facing confidence issues or looking for advice?
Now, none of this is to detract from the aspects of the sexual revolution that were misguided or had long-reaching consequences. The law of proportional backlash for social movements doesn’t care how complete or incomplete it is. Even if the sexual revolution had succeeded, it would’ve still incurred a counter-revolution of some sorts.
Regardless of its shortcomings, the sexual revolution got the conversation going on how we stigmatize sex. It wasn’t completed and there are plenty of flaws in our current sexual landscape to show that. Even so, that conversation is still worth having and I would argue it’s more important to have now than at any time in 1960s.