An Ongoing Sexual (R)evolution: Parallels to Other 1960s Movements and Today

The readings this week pointed to significant parallels and connections between the sexual revolution and the other movements of the 1960s; moreover, they exposed parallels and ongoing struggles still present in today’s society.

Multiple documents echo rhetoric of the civil rights movement, and a few authors explicitly note the influence civil rights had on the sexual revolution. Gloria Steinem, for example, likens women’s issues to issues face by black Americans, saying in “What Would It Be Like If Women Win,” that, “men assume that women want to imitate them, which is just what white people assumed about blacks” (B&B, 419). Additionally, John D’Emilio lists the civil rights movement as having significant influence on the emergence of gay rights activism. Though both civil rights and gay rights date back to decades before the 1960s, gay liberation leaders of the 1960s became increasingly active, motivated by events like the lunch counter sit-ins in the early 1960s by civil rights leaders. D’Emilio states that “the African American students who initiated the southern sit-in movement in February 1960 launched a kind of political activism that was new to the era” and that “with the model of the civil rights movement before them, new voices emerged among gay activists (Bloom, 212-213). The oppression faced by black Americans and the response of civil rights activists motivated activists of the sexual revolution.

Activists in the sexual revolution also drew influence and had connections with the antiwar and student movements of the era. The increased political action of women, such as those who destroyed draft files to protest the war and American imperialism, makes this clear (B&B, 436). D’Emilio adds to this when he writes that “gay activists were also following the lead of other social movements of the Left in the effort to create ‘alternative institutions’ to replace what were seen as the corrupt oppressive institutions of liberal capitalism,” and the increasing popularity of antiwar and campus protests encouraged sexual activism (Bloom, 214). As with other movements of the era, the role of the college campus was relevant to activists of the sexual revolution. Beth Bailey notes that “the members of the generation that would be labeled “the sixties” were revolutionary in that they called fundamental principles of sexual morality and control into question… [and] rejected a system of sexual controls organized around concepts of difference and hierarchy” (Bailey, 245). She implies that the activists seeking out sexual progress were similar to, and largely a part of, the youths of this era that sought an honest society without such a huge gap between the reality of private life and the illusion of public expectations. Additionally, these documents suggest the similar role played by authenticity in the sexual revolution. This is perhaps most obvious in the Radicalesbians’ “The Woman-Identified Woman” document that calls for women working together to “find, reinforce and validate our authentic selves” (B&B, 448).

In addition to the parallels and connections to other movements of the “sixties” era, some of the major focuses of the sexual revolution parallel ongoing struggles faced today. The sexual double standard, for example, still exists today. Women may not be kicked out of school for getting pregnant, but they are still expected to be the primary caretaker and assumed to have maternal impulses. More people understand the sexual anatomy of women, but pornography and sexually-explicit advertisements are still aimed at men. Like Playboy, consumerism based in sexuality continues to largely exploit women and fetishize the idea of the sexual women (Bailey, 249). It is more widely accepted for women to be openly sexual, but it is still assumed that men are inherently sexual creatures. Non-heterosexual relationships and identities are stigmatized, misrepresented, or unrecognized. Sexual identities not fitting into this box, like asexuality, are rejected by many. People still mock those that identify with pronouns other than “he” or “she”. Transgender citizens continue to face violent discrimination. The perspective that feminism is anti-male or anti-stay-at-home-mom still exists. Conservative and religious institutions are still repressive to women and gay citizens. Demands of the “NOW Bill of Rights” echo demands of women today; specifically, “the right of women to control their own reproductive lives by removing from the penal code laws limiting access to contraceptive information and devices, and by repealing penal laws governing abortion” (B&B, 418). There is also still explicit and silent resistance to sexual identity progress. When D’Emilio notes that, “for political and religious conservatives the growth of the gay movement and the rise of visible gay communities are elements of moral decay… many liberals and progressives also experience varying levels of discomfort at the spread of sexual identity politics,” his words ring true to this day (Bloom, 225). When he says that the church was one of the major “pillars of cultural power, stigmatizing gay men and lesbians by rendering their sexual desires immoral or pathological,” the same can be said today (Bloom, 213).

None of this is meant to undermine progress that has been made politically and socially; rather, it is meant to point out the work that is left. As D’Emilio and Bailey point out, the sexual revolution was more of an evolution, with a long history of change and struggles that continue today. Though much progress has been made, issues still exist. The sexual revolution of the “sixties” was a part of an era of drastic social and political change, and its connections to other movements of the era highlights this. Beyond that, it is a part of a historic and ongoing struggle for sexual identity progress, as its parallels to issues today shows.