Illegitimacy, Postwar Psychology, and the Reperiodization of the Sexual Revolution

By Petigny, Alan | Journal of Social History, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Illegitimacy, Postwar Psychology, and the Reperiodization of the Sexual Revolution


Petigny, Alan, Journal of Social History


In the minds of most social historians, the sexual revolution was primarily the product of the 1960s. While acknowledging the earlier rise of Alfred Kinsey, Hugh Hefner and an increasingly defiant youth culture, most scholars portray these pre-sixties developments as precursors of the rapid liberalization of sexual behavior that was soon to follow. This is to say, while most scholars identify a general loosening of sexual attitudes during the forties and fifties, they do not detect a significant upswing in premarital sexual behavior until the 1960s.

In Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty, Arlene Skolnick sounds this very theme. Whereas the incidence of female premarital intercourse "leveled off in the 1940s and 1950s," Skolnick maintains that premarital sex soared during the 1960s, as "young women abandoned their desperate struggle to remain categorized as virgins." (1) Similarly, in Him/Her/Self, Peter Filene insists that "a 'revolution' in middle-class sexual behavior" did not take place during the 1950s. (2) Over the past two decades, a string of scholars, including John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Stephen Mintz and Susan Kellogg, John Heindry, Elaine Tyler May, Steven Seidman, and Robert Francoeur has joined Filene and Skolnick in positing a virtual explosion of premarital intercourse during the decade of the 1960s. (3)

Thus, with the debut of rock 'n roll and Playboy magazine, and the publication of such novels as Lolita (1955) and Peyton Place (1956), the 1950s are seen as an era of increased sexual titillation, while the portrait of the sixties--with its free love, coed dorms and oral contraceptives--is one of increased sexual activity. Such bifurcations between titillation and consummation, or between sexual suggestion and sexual license, have enabled historians to depict the sixties as a morally tumultuous decade, while viewing the 1950s as largely a conservative time with regard to sexual behavior.

This article offers a very different interpretation. Contrary to popular belief, the sexual revolution (on a behavioral level) did not did start in the 1960s, it was not ignited by the introduction of the birth control pill, it was not significantly fanned by the baby boomers' coming of age, and, most important of all, the sexualization of the popular culture did not anticipate the liberalization of mass behavior. Through an examination of single motherhood and premarital pregnancy rates, and by carefully distinguishing between norms and values, it is possible to understand the sexual revolution in a way that departs sharply from the meta-narrative that dominates the historiography and the journalistic accounts of the sexual revolution.

By its very nature, premarital sex is difficult to measure. It is likely that those who are willing to respond to detailed questions about their sexual histories harbor fewer inhibitions than the larger population. In fact, in most sexual surveys a large proportion of people--sometimes as high as ninety percent of those initially approached--refuse to take part in the study. (4) But even when people are willing to answer inquiries about their sexual pasts, their truthfulness remains very questionable. An intriguing study, conducted in the mid-1960s, demonstrates the dangers of such self-reporting. Students at a university filled out a question-naire that asked them to disclose a number of non-normative behaviors--such as masturbation, hitting one's girlfriend or wife, buying pornography, and having sexual relations with a person of the same sex. Students were then told that they would be compensated for their participation in the study, but only after they took a polygraph examination that probed the truthfulness of their responses. When given the opportunity to "correct" their answers, every student made revisions to the questionnaire--that is, they changed one or more of their original answers. (5) What this study suggests is that when it comes to sex the value of respondent answers should be approached with a great deal of skepticism. …

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