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From Barnes & Noble100 Years of Sexual Attitudes
Though we have witnessed the first appearance of the bra, the Pill, the vibrator, Trojan condoms, the automobile, the motion picture, the television, and the Internet in these last 100 years, it may seem initially surprising that sex itself is not among the great inventions of the 20th century. Nor did the sexual revolution begin with the Beats of the 1950s, or the free-lovin' hippies of the 1960s. From the moment 1899 gave way to 1900, sex has been in a perpetual state of revolution in American culture, so much so that it would be accurate to say we have seen it reinvented.
The Century of Sex, James R. Petersen's survey of sex in 20th-century America, is as much a social history of the sexual revolution as it is of sexual repression, suppression, censorship, and hypocrisy. To watch the revolution unfold is to chart a dance, the cha-cha to be exact. For every step forward, it has been shoved back two steps by rabid conservative groups through the years. Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger had to contend with Anthony Comstock's unrelenting antivice campaign at the turn of the century. Hollywood had to endure the Production Code of the 1930s. And at the end of the century, no one can think about phone sex without recalling Kenneth Starr's salacious report on President Clinton's sexual proclivities.
This story arguably begins with Ida Craddock, a member of the Free Love Movement, who wrote one of the earliest marriage manuals. Entitled "The Wedding Night," this instructional pamphlet for newlyweds distinguishes clitoral orgasms from vaginal ones and suggests that women "perform pelvic movements...riding your husband's organ...resembling the movements of the thread of a screw upon a screw." When Anthony Comstock, a special agent to the U.S. Post Office and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, caught wind of it, he had Craddock prosecuted in federal court for circulating "obscene literature." She committed suicide in 1902 before being sentenced for a crime she "did not commit."
Comstock appointed himself national censor, and his reign of terror over the nation didn't end until the 1930s, when Margaret Sanger triumphed over him for the right to dispense birth control and Franklin Delano Roosevelt repealed Prohibition. But Comstock was far from the last of the puritans. In 1932, one of the fiercest censors, Joe Breen, inflicted Victorian principles on modern cinema and went on an anti-Semitic rampage, proclaiming that "Hollywood Jews" were a "rotten bunch of vile people with no respect for anything beyond the making of money." J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, started his own campaign in the late 1930s, raiding "vice dens" in Baltimore, Atlantic City, Wilmington, and Philadelphia in an effort to blow up the "white slave trade." He reported to Congress in 1950 during Senator Joe McCarthy's "Red Scare" that he identified 406 "sex deviates in government service," spearheading one of the most virulent homophobic panics this nation has ever experienced.
The Century of Sex explains how the city became the cultural epicenter of the 20th century, and with the advent of urban life came a sexual energy that was impossible to ignore. "The city itself changed sex.... Crowded apartments filled with working men and women or families were not designed to shelter the innocent." The streets were filled with nickelodeons, which soon gave way to movie palaces. Filmmakers recognized "that the market wanted sex," so they provided titillated moviegoers with "stag films" in the early 1900s, which later evolved into porn-movie houses and peep shows. Playboy magazine first emerged on the scene in 1953, and by 1960, Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club. By the 1980s, with consumers buying VCRs for home movie viewing, porn would prove to be one of the most lucrative industries in America, with millions of porn videos available for private screening.
But porn wasn't the only evidence of the sexual revolution. The first birth control clinic opened in Brooklyn as early as 1916, although we wouldn't see the legalization of abortion until 1973. By the 1950s, we had penicillin to treat syphilis and gonorrhea; cars and movie theaters as ideal make-out zones; sex symbols; the provocative Beat poets; the obscenely funny Lenny Bruce; pelvic-thrusting rock 'n' roll; and the revelatory Kinsey Report. The 1960s saw a free love movement taken to new heights; the 1970s, the sex appeal of disco, key parties, and group sex. But the 1980s experienced a huge backlash, when herpes and, much more devastatingly, AIDS made their first appearances, giving the neo-Comstocks -- Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Jesse Helms, and the religious right -- ammunition to brutally attack sexuality.
The antisex campaign has extended itself through the present decade, with the likes of Ken Starr and his cohorts. However, the 1990s has been fighting the backlash with the development of protease inhibitors, extending the lives of people with AIDS; virtual sex and online porn web sites; Viagra for men with erectile dysfunction; prosex song lyrics sung by Liz Phair, Courtney Love, and the riot grrrl bands; prosex feminists like Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, and the editors of BUST magazine; and positive gay characters on both television and the silver screen.
Petersen's The Century of Sex is a breathtaking tour through the Depression, two world wars, the cold war, the rock-'n'-roll '60s, the sexually experimental '70s, and the harrowing age of AIDS. But more so, it is a deft chronicle of the ongoing battle for sexual freedom, and though we've come a long way in both public and private spheres, the Christian Coalition and other similar groups remind us of how we must continue to fight for our right to booty.