Sex Throughout Time
It’s a widely-accepted notion that sex was taboo in the United States until the 1960s and ‘70s, when the so-called “sexual revolution” began to flourish. However, the relevant history of sex started much, much before then — and continues to influence our cultural attitudes towards sex to this day.
As Laura Carpenter explains in her 2005 book, “Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences,” religion, politics, and broader cultural norms have all influenced how Americans view and treat sex. We’re always going to advocate that you are the first and best authority on your own sexual impulses and desires — but it’s also important to remember that those freedoms were not given readily by those in power for years. Below, we’ve created a timeline of how the broader perception of sex has changed drastically over the last century in the United States.
Prior to the 1920s
Sex and sexuality were primarily thought of within the context of marriage, mainly due to deeply-rooted religious beliefs. Christianity, which was the most commonly practiced religion in the country at this time, venerated abstinence before marriage, particularly for women.
As Carpenter notes in Virginity Lost, early theologians believed that sexual intercourse between Adam and Eve triggered the Original Sin — otherwise known as the story with the snake and the apple. It’s worth noting that there is little support for this idea in the Bible itself.
As a result, self-denial of sex was considered part of being religious and therefore being “civilized.” This notion was weaponized against non-European people who were often forcefully converted to Christianity. It was also weaponized against people who had sex outside of heterosexual marriage as they were considered cultural deviants, and experienced oppression as a result.
The power dynamic between the sexes began to shift after World War I. Famous writers, such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, began to openly embrace female sexuality, and Carpenter says this helped challenge the rigid expectations of chastity from previous eras. A subculture for gay, lesbian and other people who weren’t heterosexual or cisgender also became more prominent during this decade. Socioeconomic factors were major predictors of many aspects of sex, including the age at which someone started having sex, as well as their level of sexual expression.
By the mid-’30s, the concept of an ideal marriage had substantially evolved from what it was in the 19th century, Carpenter explains. Marriages were seen less as strategic, submissive relationships and more as partnerships based on mutual love. However, the Great Depression caused many people to desire marriage for its financial stability, thereby restricting the budding sexual freedom that characterized the 1920s.
1940s & 1950s
Following the Great Depression came World War II, another event that reinforced broader cultural desires for stability and marriage. The visibility of female sexuality and the LGBTQ+ community suffered as people put a premium on more traditional ideals surrounding the American family.
This cultural shift was also reflected by changes in marriage age: Both women and men got married younger between 1939 and 1951, and according to the Los Angeles Times, nearly half of women married before they turned 19 by the time 1960 rolled around.
People commonly think the 1940s and 1950s were marked by sexual frigidity, but these years had a few key cultural contributions: First, prominent sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey began to point out the double standard of sexual activity for men versus women (though this idea did not become commonplace until much later). A new term also entered the scene: Carpenter reports that “Petting” was used to refer to making out.
The 1960s marked the beginning of the infamous sexual revolution, led by a generation of “Baby Boomers.” More and more young adults were attending college and moving to shared campuses, a change which resulted in increased casual sex (although female sexuality remained widely condemned).
These cultural changes rang alarm bells for more conservative lawmakers and Christian traditionalists, Carpenter notes. In 1959, lawmakers banned books with pornographic content. It was not until 1968, when the Supreme Court determined that adults had the constitutional right to access such content, that the ban was removed. Nevertheless, tensions remained: After John Legend and Yoko Ono released “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins,” a record with a nude image as its artwork, which Apple Records had to cover before selling.
The 1970s marked true progress for sexual expression, particularly for the LGBTQ+ community. Most notably, the American Psychiatric Organization removed homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973, the Human Rights Campaign notes, and many states overturned existing anti-sodomy laws during this era. Interestingly, oral sex gained more prominence as a foreplay activity during this time, Carpenter writes in “Virginity Lost” — it had been previously considered to be a post-sex ritual.
Once again, such cultural changes were met with strong resistance by Christian traditionalists (known as the “Christian resurgence”), though with somewhat less success than before.
The 1980s have become famous for the AIDS epidemic, which defined and hobbled the growing gay community. The first confirmed case was detected in 1981, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes, although viral spread had been occurring long before that incident. As cases began to rise and the consequences of HIV became better-known, a wave of fear regarding sex swept over the nation. This was accompanied by general apathy towards the sufferings of gay men and other LGBTQ+ people, who were hit the hardest. Progressive movements that started in the ‘70s were stifled by these rising sentiments.
In the wake of the ongoing tragedy, Carpenter writes, the Adolescent Family Life Act initiated their famous “Just Say No” campaign to prevent premarital sex. The tragic consequences of this campaign are evident in sex education programs within the United States to this day.
1990s & early 2000s
The 1990s and early 2000s were a “recovery period” from the devastating events of the 1980s. The mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people throughout the AIDS epidemic became more widely known and condemned. As a result, members of the LGBTQ+ community gained more and more of a platform to talk about their experiences and express their identities (though not without some resistance).
While some states had already begun to remove anti-sodomy laws from their books, the 2003 Supreme Court ruling Lawrence v. Texas invalidated all of the remaining sodomy bans in the country. It also invalidated the 1986 ruling in Bowers v. Georgia, which protected such laws, that were typically weaponized against gay men.
What can we learn from this examination of sexual history? For us, a few clear patterns emerged.
First, periods of growth and stability seem to correlate more with more progressive ideas about sex, whereas periods of instability invoke a shift back towards traditional and conservative restrictions. In other words larger, global events can affect shifts in cultural attitudes about sex, which can in turn influence your individual sexual experience.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that ideas about sex come from a number of outlets, including religion, literature, educational programs, and the media. How our society thinks about sex is hugely important, because that has the power to influence people’s political rights; personal freedoms; and even their right to life, as shown by the AIDS epidemic.
Sure, we now live in an era with more sexual freedom than ever. But if you’re reading Beyond the Beez, then you likely already realize that there is still much to be done to confront misleading ideas about sex that stem from its convoluted history — and it starts with remembering how far we’ve come.
- Carpenter, Laura. Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. NYU Press, 2005.