Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of the Masses, 1911-1917

By Leslie Fishbein | Go to book overview
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Chapter 5 The Sexual Revolution

Sex O'Clock in America

With the rise of industrialization in the nineteenth century and the accompanying problems of alienation, there was a growing separation between work and personal life among the proletariat. Those who could no longer rely on their ownership of property to define their right to community esteem turned to the subjectivity of the family in order to establish a sense of identity and self- worth: "The proletariat itself came to share the bourgeois ideal of the family as a 'utopian retreat.'"1 At the same time that personal life grew more crucial to individual self-esteem there was a dissolution of the moral authority of the family as a result of urban conditions.2 The freedom from moral scrutiny that cities provided weakened methods of social control so drastically that a "revolution in manners and morals" occurred during the Progressive era well before the first rumbles of the Roaring Twenties.3

The most intimate aspect of personal life -- sexual behavior -- became a focus of public discussion. If the "repeal of reticence" meant that the "conspiracy of silence" on the subject of sex had been broken, many worried that the new concern with sexuality verged on obsession.4 The tone of popular magazines reflected the general dismay: "A wave of sex hysteria and sex discussion seems to have invaded this country. Our former reticence in matters of sex is giving way to a frankness that could even startle Paris. Prostitution, as Life remarks, is the chief topic of polite conversation. It has struck 'sex o'clock' in America, to use William Marion Reedy's memorable phrase."5 For bohemians, talk about sex helped to clarify the ambiguities of their nonconformist life-style, and for artists it provided a means of breaking free from the narrow confines of romantic tradition to discuss the whole of life, to recognize lust as well as love. In his Chicago period Sherwood Anderson wrote approvingly of the "healthy new frankness...in the talk between men and women, at least an admission that we were all at times torn and harried by the same lusts."6 Aside from improving personal relations, the new

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