The women’s movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, generally referred to as ‘second-wave feminism’, put the politicization of sexuality at the heart of their agenda, but did so in an entirely different social context. Second-wave women’s movements emerged in societies whose traditional gender relations had been fundamentally transformed by the massive post-war entry of women into the workforce. Against the backdrop of greater economic independence that resulted both from women’s entry into paid work and from the emerging state provision of welfare which offered alternative support mechanisms, wider (and partly linked) detraditionalization processes occurred which transformed the institutions of marriage, the family, and gender. Overall, women’s control over their own life options increased significantly, especially for middle-class women; though rising divorce rates also produced a feminization of poverty, primarily among single mothers in those countries where welfare state support was weakest.
Meanwhile, a further major set of social changes took place in the area of reproductive control. The prominent American birth control campaigner (and eugenicist) Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League in 1921, had long called for the development of a pharmaceutical birth control product,
meeting up with scientists in 1950 to explore possibilities. Sanger joined forces with the philanthropist Katherine McCormick, who funded the majority of the scientific research and development of the Pill, and from 1960 the modern contraceptive pill, invented by Karl Djerassi, became available to the wider public in the Western world. With the availability of reliable birth control for the first time in human history, and the subsequent elaboration of new reproductive technologies such as IVF (in vitro fertilization) which mean that conception cannot just be prevented but also artificially produced, Freud’s famous claim that ‘anatomy is destiny’ is no longer true. And yet, many feminists initially received the Pill with hostile suspicion. They considered it as another example of male medical control over female bodies, especially given the negative side effects of the initially highly dosed new product.
The uncoupling of intercourse and reproduction involved a radical transformation of the conditions of female sexuality with, in turn, profound consequences for male sexuality. How far access to contraception encouraged the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s has been hotly contested, but it was certainly an important precondition. The rise of sexual permissiveness and the emergence of new meanings around love, sex, and relationships, which spread from the pioneering countries of the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark across the Western world, transformed the landscape of sexuality. The countercultural social movements that emerged in the 1960s, most prominently the American Civil Rights and anti-war movements with their slogan ‘make love not war’, as well as the anti-authoritarian student movements in countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, were heavily influenced by sexual liberation theorists such as Fromm, Reich, and Marcuse. They promoted the liberation of ‘natural’ sexual desire from bourgeois repression as part of a wider project of political subversion of capitalist, authoritarian society.
Symbolized by the ‘summer of love’ of 1967, the increase in sexual permissiveness has conventionally been interpreted by
sociologists such as Anthony Giddens to be ‘gender-neutral’, and to have led to greater female sexual autonomy. Many feminists initially embraced the sexual revolution with great enthusiasm, seeing sexual liberation as crucial for women’s liberation generally. From the end of the 1960s, consciousness-raising groups sprang up in many countries which encouraged women to explore their bodies and capacities for sexual pleasure, such as the ‘bodysex workshops’ that the sex educator Betty Dodson organized from 1973 in the US. Having presented female masturbation as a means of reversing the repression of female sexuality in her book Liberating Masturbation, Dodson’s workshops guided a circle of naked participants in collective ‘orgasm rituals’ with the help of vibrators. Dodson further celebrated ‘swinging’ and campaigned against monogamous possessiveness, jealousy, and sexual guilt – ideas that were promoted with considerable enthusiasm by many other sexual revolutionaries at the time. More Joy of Sex, for example, the follow-up of the international best-selling sex manual The Joy of Sex (1972) written for a mainstream public by the sexologist Alex Comfort, presented a positive picture of swinging among members of a community, though it warned against choosing to do it with close friends or with strangers (while later editions warned against swinging altogether, on the grounds of HIV/Aids risk).
The sexual revolution was nothing like the ‘fulfilling love and sex between equal partners’ which the free love feminists had imagined, however. The cultural transformations involved in the sexual revolution were primarily led by men, and largely reproduced the unequal relations of power between men and women while celebrating a normative promiscuity which, feminist critics suggested, benefited men more than women. Works such as Sheila Jeffreys’s Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution, published in 1990, argued that, in retrospect, the revolution was less an increase in sexual freedom for women than the fulfilment of male fantasies about female availability. The rhetoric of sexual liberation legitimized male control of women’s
sexuality and made it impossible to ‘say no’ to sexual advances, they claimed. As feminist author Beatrix Campbell put it in 1980:
… the permissive era had some pay-off for women in so far as it opened up political-sexual-space. It permitted sex for women too. What it did not do was defend women against the differential effects of permissiveness on men and women… It was about the affirmation of young men’s sexuality and promiscuity; (…) The very affirmation of sexuality was a celebration of masculine sexuality.
Nor was the sexual revolution quite what Marxist liberation theorists had pictured. Far from the subversion of capitalism by the free reign of the pleasure principle which Marcuse and Reich had hoped for, the lifting of obscenity and other morality laws that resulted from the relaxation of moral controls over sexuality opened the floodgates to the commodification of sex at a previously unprecedented scale. The national and international sex industry dramatically expanded, and it became a major player in the capitalist global economy. Whereas The Joy ofSex had predicted that sexual freedom would render prostitution unnecessary, since women would now be willing to meet all male sexual needs for free, commercial sex in reality greatly increased – as did pornography. Both prostitution and pornography consequently rapidly returned to the agenda of the women’s movement.