The sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s was a global phenomenon that changed the way women and men, heterosexual and homosexual, live. But those changes were not welcomed by everyone, and some people are still, even today, fighting against the changes that took place in attitudes toward sex.
“The sexual revolution is probably one of the most significant historical events in the past three or four hundred years,” says Julian Bourg, associate professor of history at Boston College. “It derived in part from economic and technological developments — such as ‘The Pill’ — and in part from a series of social movements led by straight and gay women and gay men.”
According to Bourg, the sexual revolution was part of a larger gender revolution that saw dramatic improvements for women economically, politically and socially.
“The most powerful legacy of the sexual revolution for women is obviously the decline of cultural taboos repressing female sexual pleasure,” Bourg says. “But this is only part of the story. At stake in the sexual revolution was human freedom. It involved new possibilities and also introduced new ethical and political dilemmas.”
It did the same for gay men and women. In fact, the impact may have been greater. According to Josh Sides, author of “Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco,” gays and lesbians were the real sexual revolutionaries.
“Homosexuality had been grounds for expulsion, termination of employment, justification for harassment and violence — and it still is in much of the world,” Sides says. “The determination of gays and lesbians to live on their own terms was a critical dimension of the revolution itself.”
But while the sexual revolution brought about global change, it still faces a backlash, even today.
“Sexual conservatism and neo-traditionalism have been fighting, with limited success, the changes unleashed by the sexual revolution,” Bourg says. “Christian and Islamic fundamentalism would lose at least part of their force were it not for sexual freedom and nontraditional gender relations. To some extent, they are resentful phenomena that require an enemy in order to exist.”
While the revolution itself may be over, there may be no end in sight to the fight over sexual liberation.