A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Sexual Revolution(s)

Beth Bailey

It is hard for contemporary college students to imagine what life was like for students in the early 1960s. Women were subject to rigid curfew systems called parietals—but men weren’t. Despite the existence of The Pill, very few doctors would prescribe it to unmarried girls or women. Abortion was illegal. A woman who had “premarital” sex was, in the eyes of much of American society, “ruined.” Homosexual sex was grounds for expulsion. A great deal has changed. Is that evidence of a revolution?

In “Sexual Revolution(s),” historian Beth Bailey argues that the answer to that question depends upon how one defines “revolution.” Focusing on the early years of “revolution” in the 1960s, she argues that there was no single sexual revolution, but rather a set of complicated and contradictory movements that people at the time called “the” sexual revolution. Do you agree with her argument that the most modest strand of the “revolution” was probably the most revolutionary? After reading both this article and the previous pieces on women’s liberation, why do you think that so many Americans conflated women’s liberation and sexual revolution? What, if anything, do the two broad movements have in common? And after reading the previous document, “Gay Is Good,” consider whether the Gay Liberation movement that began in 1969 owed more to the movements for women’s liberation or to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

In 1957 America’s favorite TV couple, the safely married Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, slept in twin beds. Having beds at all was probably progressive—as late as 1962 June and Ward Cleaver did not even have a bedroom. Elvis’s pelvis was censored in each of his three appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956, leaving his oddly disembodied upper torso and head thrashing about on the TV screen. But the sen-

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