Allyn’s revolutionaries were determined to make lasting changes to the various forms of sexual oppression they perceived. It remains to the current generation to ensure their still-blossoming accomplishments do not wither under cold conservative shadows.
A review by Fernando Ortiz Jr.
Discussed in the essay:
Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History. By David Allyn. New York: Routledge, 2001. Pp. 381. $30.95
David Allyn’s Make Love, Not War intelligently and creatively tours a sexual renaissance that ebbed and flowed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, sparking changes of varying longevity throughout society. Latino and black Americans fought throughout this era for equal rights as citizens and for the freedom to pursue and fully embrace the American Dream. The general public’s gradual tolerance of public gay culture, the rise of swingers movements, the gaveling of obscenity trials, the publication of sex studies, and the embrace of the birth control pill all comprise for Allyn a sexual rights movement, a “revolution” that silenced some prudes, raised legal eyebrows, and brought America a few sultry steps closer to the fulfillment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”1
Allyn designates the early sixties to the late seventies as the era of the sexual revolution, and he links its progression to general economic health in the United States. They rise and fall together. He utilizes dozens of interviews with men and women — some identified and some under pseudonyms — thirty years after their revolution takes place. Sexual histories, sociological studies, essays, novels, and academic reports supplement his study of the birth control pill, lesbian empowerment, gay rights, fights over literary censorship, public excitement over sexually-charged theater and film works, nudist colonies, swinger parties, and the general struggle to strip shame away from anyone’s sexual life.
The revolution was a multi-pronged and disjointed effort that lurched toward sometimes unclear objectives. Critics may condemn Allyn’s book for its seemingly disorganized structure, but it actually properly reflects the messiness of a series of efforts to change social mores and personal prejudices. Allyn’s great strength as a writer is his ability to gracefully transition from one theme of the era to another.
If anyone wanted to read a new sex manual to improve their sex life, Allyn argues that the sexual revolution made that possible. If a gay man or woman wanted to add legal sexual escapades at a sex party into their urban lifestyle, the sexual revolution made that available. If upper and middle-class women wanted to control their fertility, swap their spouses with other couples, or find and buy a book filled with sexual imagery, the sexual revolution eased strictures, opened doors, and soothed public outrage. Americans could fully and freely explore their identities, fulfill their aspirations, find their limits, and live their lives. For almost everyone, Allyn explores, the sexual revolution provided the freedom from fear.2
Allyn is enamored with the term “revolution,” which is his theme as his historical tour widens its scope over American society. From the very beginning, Allyn credibly admits the duality of his terrain, of which some aspects “were not revolutionary at all but evolutionary.” The era’s development of the pill, the rise of the sexual book publishing industry, the debates over obscene literature, the stronger roles women secured for themselves in American society — all were inherited from earlier eras in American history, all far from original movements. He admits this duality and does nothing to compensate for its contradictory influence on his narrative structure except pair stories of triumph with stories of eventual defeat or threat.
The era’s legacy is a mixed success of progression and regression, like all revolutions in American history. American society generally accepts the use of birth control and the popularity of premarital sex, though religious leaders and worried parents still frown on the still-expensive pill. Uncensored pornography — from hard-core videos to the soft sensuality of Anais Nin — is ubiquitous in the online world and easily found in the most popular bookstores, though erotica still faces many “family-oriented” enemies. Celebrities, news organizations, the military, scientific organizations, national leaders, and students across the United States embrace homosexuality as a normal sexual orientation, gay rights for citizens and servicemen, gay adoptions, and gay unions. But legal recognition of gay marriages retains its legal and political polarizing effect.3
Not everything can change all at once. Not everyone is won over when new ideas, new bathing suits, new aspirations, and new freedoms dawn over the raucous American society. When it comes to sex, each citizen had to make his or her own personal journey. People change as they grow older. Love and desire bring their own contradictory and revolutionary effects on one’s understanding and acceptance of the world around them. Jealousy, lust, insecurity, and fear can easily disrupt carefully constructed arrangements among sexual partners.
His interviews with the revolution’s participants best capture these intimate journeys. However biased or self-conscious they may be three decades later, Allyn’s interviewees echo the bittersweet afterglow the revolution’s sunset left in their lives. One father remembered his son loudly declaring in an airport terminal that his mother took a shower with a male sexual friend. One humiliated teenager remembers when her sexually supportive father left condoms on every bed in case she wanted to have sex with her male guest. Allyn deserves credit for including the long, dark slopes of the era’s gleaming aspirations for sexual liberation. He mostly maintained his balance between giddy celebration of short-term sexual bliss and grim acknowledgement of the long-term emotional consequences.4
His book’s duality also demands answers to eternal historical questions: Do changes deserve to be considered revolutionary if they are not all long-lasting? Was the sexual blossoming in the sixties an aberration in social values, enough to be considered revolutionary, or was the real revolution comprised of religious attitudes and social frigidity that put in place decency laws, targeted erotic literature, oppressed gay communities, marginalized women, and put shame into the hearts and minds of millions of sexual beings? Perhaps Allyn’s era was simply a counter-revolution, an attempt to take further the romantic aspirations of early twentieth century struggles for gender equality, sexual freedom, a more-just democracy, and fulfilled personal desires. Perhaps Allyn’s era consisted of a series of moments when Americans again grappled with and consummated fundamental American ideals that the original revolutionary generation left their descendants in a different and better America to achieve.
The book’s focus is mostly on urban upper and middle-class Anglo citizens. Blacks, Latinos, and lower-class citizens are not part of this study, which leaves readers hungering for a greater variety of voices and experiences. However, his study is linked to the economic health of the U.S. When the economy worsened in the seventies, the sexual revolution sputtered, which suggests the sexual revolution belonged only to those who could afford its luxurious promise. Impoverished minorities had larger and more immediate problems to worry about — how to feed their children and themselves, where to find work, how to avoid or at least endure an oppressive and heartless society — that they could not be concerned about swinger parties, literary censorship, or lesbian rights.
Overall, Allyn’s conflicted book is a valuable contribution to the study of postwar America. He brings together a detailed examination of various aspects of a sexual renaissance that benefited and benefited from other struggles for other freedoms. The arguments from this era came down — and still do — to eternal American issues: How much equality is necessary to fulfill our founding principles? How much are Americans entitled to? Where does private control — over our bodies, our gender, our children’s education, our moral principles — end and a democratic society’s standards begin? Allyn’s revolutionaries were determined to make lasting changes to the various forms of sexual oppression they perceived. It remains to the current generation to ensure their still-blossoming accomplishments do not wither under cold conservative shadows.
1. David Allyn, Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (New York: Routledge, 2001), 3-4. Allyn asserts that the every aspect of the sexual revolution “had an impact on how we as a nation have come to think of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” ↩
4. Allyn, 217, 297-299. ↩