13. THE "SEXUAL REVOLUTION"
At the end of the Second World War, Wilhelm Reich introduced American readers to some of his earlier writings under the title The Sexual Revolution (1945). Explaining that this revolution went to the "roots" of human emotional, social, and economic existence, he presented himself as a radical (from Latin radix: root), i.e. as a man who examines these roots and who then fearlessly speaks the truth that sets humanity free.
The truth, according to Reich, was that Western civilization had made people sick by imposing on them an unnatural, destructive sexual morality. However, thanks to various modern social and scientific upheavals, the natural human life functions were finally awakening after a sleep of thousands of years. The future would restore sexual health and, for the first time, bring full human autonomy.
Reich left no doubt that, in the interest of human happiness, he hoped for profound political changes, and thus, when he spoke of "revolution", he meant it quite literally. In this respect he upheld the tradition of many earlier writers. After all, for a long time before him fighters for sexual freedom had defined themselves as rebels and revolutionaries. Notably, the American feminist movement had never been shy about using such terms. During the First World War, for example, Margaret Sanger had published a magazine The Woman Rebel, and as early as 1868 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had edited a suffragist newspaper The Revolution. Indeed, even in 1776, at the birth of American independence, Abigail Adams had threatened her husband John with a "Rebelion" of women unless they were given political rights. (For details see "The Social Roles of Men and Women—The Emancipation of Women".)
This brief hint may suffice to remind us that the so-called sexual revolution is not a sudden, isolated phenomenon, but that it is related to the many other revolutions of modern times, most notably the industrial revolution which began in 18th-century England, and the subsequent political revolutions in America and Europe. If the American Revolution was not yet explicitly concerned with sexual liberation and even failed to discuss the emancipation of women, it nevertheless laid the groundwork for later changes by proclaiming a natural human right to the "pursuit of happiness." The French Revolution of 1789 directly addressed many sexual issues, and while the best of its impulses soon came to naught, it succeeded in freeing the criminal sex laws from the influence of the church.
In 19th-century France and Germany several new "small" revolutions tried to speed up the process of modernization and to expand individual rights, but they failed. Repressive marriage and family laws and the denial of suffrage kept women "in their place". Literary censorship hampered the free flow of ideas and kept the public sexually ignorant. Nevertheless, when technological progress made the mass production of condoms possible, many men and women began to plan the size of their families and thus quietly started a "contraceptive revolution". As a result, they gained at least some measure of sexual self-determination, even if it remained unrecognized by the state. Eventually, however, the gap between traditional ideology and practical reality grew so wide that a drastic readjustment was all but inevitable. This readjustment was brought about by the First World War which announced the collapse of the rigid old political order. In 1917, when the revolution came to Russia, it expressly included equal rights for women and universal sexual freedom in its program. Thus, for the first time, a "sexual revolution" became official government policy.
Unfortunately, as Reich described in his book, after a few years the Russian Revolution betrayed its libertarian goals by becoming sexually oppressive. Reactionary laws were reinstated, and soon, together with many other civil rights, the right to free sexual expression vanished. Reich concluded from this observation that the mere transfer of power from one social class to another was not enough, and that a much more profound transformation was required. Indeed, he felt that such a transformation was already well under way in the United States and other enlightened Western democracies. Therefore, it was no longer a question of wealth or poverty, communism or capitalism, but simply a question of individual autonomy, of a "self-governing character structure". This was an ideal that had to be realized in defiance of all existing political systems with the help of natural science.
The self-governing, autonomous individual is, of course, essentially a bourgeois ideal. It is a model of human existence that reflects the interests and hopes of the modern Western middle classes, and thus it has always provided the impetus for the middle-class revolutions of the past. However, it seems that the political revolutions of our own century no longer follow this pattern. The Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions, for example, did not serve the ends of the bourgeoisie and had little patience with individualism. Therefore it hardly comes as a surprise to find that they also failed to produce an increase in sexual freedom. Indeed, they even cancelled some freedoms that had already been won. (A good illustration is Cuba which, like most other Catholic countries, had abolished its sodomy laws as a result of the French Revolution and the following Napoleonic reforms. Yet after its recent "socialist revolution", Cuba once more began to harass homosexuals.)
By the same token, in the bourgeois, capitalist societies of the West which are dedicated to individual freedom, the sexual revolution continues. The right to sexual self-determination is considered as important as ever, and, indeed, various sexual liberation groups are working hard to extend it. In the United States, the struggle for an Equal Rights Amendment, legal abortion, the repeal of sodomy, prostitution and obscenity laws, and an end to discrimination against homosexuals are perhaps the best known current examples. At the same time, more and more people also take advantage of those sexual rights that have already been granted. Thus, the movement toward sexual emancipation is still gaining in strength.
However, some contemporary observers do not believe this movement to be part of the bourgeois revolution, or any other revolution, for that matter. Instead, they prefer to speak of a natural evolution, a gradual development without abrupt and dramatic changes. In support of this view, they point to the persistence of courtship and marriage patterns, the survival of many traditional moral values, and the rather conventional behavior of "average" men and women. The "evolutionists" further remind us that pre- and extramarital sex, contraception, abortion, homosexual behavior, prostitution, and "pornography" are nothing new. Actually, these norm violations may well have been just as common among our ancestors as they now seem to be among ourselves. Since reliable statistics for past generations are not available, we simply have no way of knowing whether any revolutionary changes have, in fact, occurred. The prevailing impression of changing sexual mores may not be due to any loss of restraint, but merely to greater candor.
There is clearly some merit in this supposition. Generally speaking, people today are less hypocritical about their sexual needs than they used to be, and thus behaviors that were once concealed or denied are now being discussed quite openly. This, in turn, can create a misleading, idealized picture of the past. Still, even if we assume that in actual fact our ancestors behaved very much as we do, one very important difference remains: When they violated traditional sexual standards, they usually suffered from guilt. They certainly did not advertise their breach of convention or demanded it as a right. They accepted the rules even if they could not help breaking them, while we today feel entitled to setting up "easier" rules of our own.
It is this change in attitude, more than anything else, that amounts to a revolution. Instead of blindly following inherited customs, we now decide for ourselves what sexual activity is proper. Therefore, even if our overt behavior remains the same, it now has a different meaning. We have learned that there are alternatives, that there is nothing eternal or sacred about our sexual morality. We no longer submit to blanket taboos or suspend our judgment. In short, we have become used to questioning the legitimacy of our traditions.
At least in this sense, the talk about a "sexual revolution" is fully justified. We have to remember that significant social changes occur not only when people change what they do. It may be enough that they change the way they think about it. It may be enough that different behaviors become defensible, that moral options develop which did not exist before. The old sexual standards seemed unassailable as long as they were taken for granted. However, today radical changes of all sorts have become conceivable and even plausible to many formerly uncritical men and women. Thus, past and present are no longer reliable guides to the future. Religious dogmas have been replaced by scientific hypotheses, certainties by doubts. At the same time, our choices and responsibilities have increased. There is cause for great joy as well as for great anxiety, in the area of sex, as in so many other areas of life, virtually anything seems to have become possible.
Obviously, an introductory textbook such as this cannot cover the "sexual revolution" in all of its aspects. Therefore, the following pages briefly discuss only three issues which are receiving special attention today—sex research, sex education, and the difficulty of creating new, sensible sexual standards. For further study, the bibliographies at the end of this chapter and at the end of the volume are recommended.