The End of Puritanism: American Perception of Sexuality from 1950s up to today



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AMS 201a
Group Project
Elena Samardjieva
Luc Lagniau
Victoria Lyubykh
Fall 2013

The End of Puritanism: American Perception of Sexuality from 1950s up to today

In this project proposal our team would like to perceive a goal of conducting a research on the change of perception of sexuality in the post-war America all the way up until nowadays. We have decided to research the main factors that played drastic role in the changing process of that perception. It was proposed to divide the project into time periods for the sake of better understanding of progression of the events and references of the sexuality appeal.
First, we would like to begin with a definition of sexuality itself. Sexuality is a term somewhat related to a gender but at the same time closely connected to it. According to American Psychological Association, the term gender refers to "the attitudes, feelings, and behavior that a given culture associates with a person's biological sex" (APA 2011). Yet sexuality is defined by "whom one has sex with, in what ways, why, under what circumstances, and with what outcomes" (qtd in Gupta 2000). Throughout this paper we are going to refer to the sexuality as a mix of these ideas. A big number of different human values and activities have been associated with this term such as children procreation, liberation, morality, eroticism, intimacy, and spirituality. As the time was passing by many economic, social, and cultural forces happened to change the overall shape of the concept. However, it was not only those factors that had an impact on the perception - another concern of this paper is the sexual regulation, so to speak how the society itself challenges the idea in order to fit the understanding of the term into the framework of the current social institutions.
American Sexuality in 1950s: The Beginning of the End of the Puritanism Era
During the first half of the 20th century, marriage manuals were portraying sex within marriage as potentially enjoyable for both husband and wife (qtd in Weinberg, Swensson, Hammersmith, 1983). The influence of the nineteenth century was still present in the beginning of the twentieth century up until 1950s. To begin with, it was assumed that women had no interest in the sexual intercourses. Second, it was the man who supposed to be more experienced and keen on exploring his sexuality. Third, women were supposed to start getting involved into their sexual life only after they get married and, of course, have those sexual intercourses only with the husband through their whole lifetime. Women were expected to comply with generally adopted roles of home keeper\mother\faithful wife. Our team proposed to look at the research conducted in 1983 by Martin S. Weinberg, Rochelle Ganz Swenssonand and Sue Kiefer Hammersmith from Indiana University who studied the models of female sexuality in the United States Manuals from 1950 to 1980. By reading all manuals published in America throughout this time the researchers have concluded that the manuals published during the first half of the fifteenth century were still emphasizing the differences of female sexuality from the males' one and they [manuals] talk about "the allegedly greater dormancy and emotionality of female sexuality - serve to sustain traditional notions of male leadership and dominance and, in some manuals, also serve to justify a double standard (qtd in Weinberg, Swensson, Hammersmith, 1983).
The change over the conventional belief of female sexuality takes place at the end of the so-called Puritanism Era, in which sex was an intensely private matter with an extremely rare visit into the public view. We suppose that Alfred Kinsey was the initiator of that change to happen which afterwards resulted in the sex revolution. By publishing the Sexual Behavior in Human Male back in 1948 followed by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, which later became known as Kinsey Reports, Kinsey objected conventional beliefs about sexuality by revealing survey results and materials which at that time were considered to be taboo. It was no surprise the publication of that kind of results caused general public shock and outrage in the marriage-oriented society as the data published showed that "Americans were engaging in sexual behaviors more frequently and with more variety that conventional morality suggested" (PBS 2005). Kinsey Reports were a launch pad for numerous publications such as Hugh Hefner's first issue of Playboy published in December 1953 which had nothing in common with the periodicals of that time. Playboy with its openness of ladies' intimate parts and curves in seducing lingerie "makes old issues of Esquire, in its most uninhibited days, look like trade bulletins from the W.C.T.U" [Woman's Christian Temperance Union]"(qtd in D'Emilio and Freedman 1988). Playboy allowed men to enjoy the "spicy" parts of the female body without getting involved in any sort of financial or emotional obligations, it represented a "comprehensive and authoritative guidebook to this foreboding new world to which he now has access" (Cox 1961). Hugh Hefner claimed that the nude bunnies were "a symbol of disobedience, a triumph of sexuality, and end of Puritanism" (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988). The popularity of the magazine grew undoubtedly fast, passing the million mark before the end of 1950s and reaching six million copies sold at the early 1970 (D'Emilio and Freedman, 1988, page 303). However, the editorial stuff faced a challenge of lack of women willing to take part in the shooting as by conventional belief women were associating sex with a prelude to marriage. It was Helen Gurley Brown who turned out to be the ally of Hugh Hefner and his thirty bunnies in the forty-eight-room mansion on Chicago's Gold Coast: together with her bestselling Sex and the Single Girl magazine for working women offering not to involve in marriage and claiming that men are "cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen" (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988). Brown here advocated not getting married but getting involved into affairs with married men. Thus, Hefner and Brown together popularized the idea of perceiving women by who they actually are: what do they do and how they do it rather than measuring them by the husbands they belong to.
Gentlemen prefer Blondes movie directed by Howard Hawks was released in 1953 with starring incredible Marylin Monroe as Lorelei Lee, fabulous but "dumb" gold-digger. As her biography written by Margot A. Henriksen suggests, Monroe is mostly known for the role in this film, where the mix of her sexuality and sensuousness combined with vulnerability is remarkably depicted by the director. The movie contains a scene where Marylin sings the very song "Diamond Are a Girl's Best Friends" ipso facto "mocking the sexual greed of diamonds and offering a commentary on postwar male American expectations in her line "I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it" (Henriksen 2000).
As D'Emilio and Freedman, the authors of the book Intimate Matters suggest the change of values of the singles culture was linked to the Progressive Era America was going through the period of 1960s. A single woman in the workforce was a generally acknowledged term since it was crucial for the survival in the given conditions of the economic situation. The expanding Pink-Collar Economy, which stands for the service industry jobs that are regarded as women's jobs only, made all the women, both married and single, join the workforce, therefore, spending less time being preoccupied with the mundane routine a woman is expected to be busy with. The American women were not only awaiting the change to happen but they also ready to put up resistance.
Created in 1921 the Miss America beauty pageant, D'Emilio and Freedman claim, had the initial goal of improving the Atlantic City tourism but turned out to trigger female liberation movement. Young and attractive ladies were defiling in modest swimwear demonstrating their bodies and having millions of men "enjoying the parade". Any of the corporations of that time were eager to sponsor the event which by the mid-1960s evolved into Miss USA, Miss Universe, and Miss Teen International and others. It was 1968 when hundreds of outraged female demonstrators protested in the convention hall of Atlantic City against the idea of Miss America portraying women as "degrading mindless-boob girlie symbol". The demonstrators blamed the concept of the beauty pageant for undermining American Woman identity by finishing their protest by embellishing the sheep with colorful ribbons and crowning it queen and walking it up and down the street declaring "There she is, Miss America!" (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988).
In the late 1960s the movement of female liberation was challenging the "liberal consensus on sex" which caused great repercussions in the American society. In 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded by young feminists who emerged from the civil rights movements. Exhausted of gender inequality and lack of dignity in relation to American women the movement's goal was to reach social justice. However, the NOW turned out to change its mission completely. By repaying the society, American women turned out to be exploited by men with the help of the most powerful tool: sex. As Valerie Solanis, a representative of a movement of radical feminists, argued in her SCUM [ Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto published in 1967:
...[T]he male is... obsessed with screwing; he'll swim a river of knot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there'll be a friendly pussy awaiting him. ...What will liberate women, therefore, from male control is the total elimination of the money-work system, not the attainment of economic equality with men with it... No genuine social revolution can be accomplished by the mail, as the male on top wants the status quo, and all the male on the bottom wants to be male on the top... (Solanis 1967)
Women willing to attain that social justice inside their families were visiting consciousness-raising groups that were called Feminism Therapy which appeared in 1960s and "engendered awareness of women as an oppressed group in US culture" (Evans, Kincade, Marbley and Seem 2005). The therapy services included Family Therapy, Career Counseling, Assessment and Counselor Education Training.
As the book Intimate Matters suggests, feminism in its all stages had a huge impact on the society's perception on sexuality. Feminist’s movement was mostly not anti-sexual; it might have been exaggerated by many leaders and publishers of that time simply because it seemed impossible to be listened to and eventually heard. The feminists were and are still trying to reach the unreachable: to stop the sexual objectification of women. As a result feminist movement succeeded in reshaping the national understanding of the female sexuality. In the beginning of the 1970 the majority of the states changed their statuses on rape. Before that, only a virgin could claim the rape, Intimate Matters says. Such term as "sexual harassment" was coined followed by many women filling suits and winning the cases. Martha Rampton argues in her article: "where feminism will go from here is unclear, but the point it that feminism, by whatever name, is alive and well both in academia and outside of it (Rampton 2008).
Sexuality in the Seventies

The 1970 are the years of the sexual liberation for women. Indeed, the wave of feminism that originated in the late 1960 was evolving with the help of women trying to reaffirm their liberty of sexuality by fighting against the traditional and puritan views of the motherhood and the lack of sexual tolerance. This wave of feminism is brought by a major change in the society: the women contraception, and, particularly, the pill. Before that, the women sexual life was always under the treat of the pregnancy, which is a grand limit for the sexual liberty. The pill has allowed the sexuality for the pleasure, with as many men as you want and without any danger.


What were the reasons of using the pill instead of using different means of contraception as, for example, the diaphragm?

The main effects brought by the pill affected not only physical state of female bodies but it also altered the psychology of women. The possession of a diaphragm brought for women a psychological feeling of unconscious guilt because it meant a planned sexuality. Women had to go through the stage of acceptance of their sexuality in order to start using the diaphragm which can be compared to teenagers’ embarrassment when trying to get a box of condoms in the pharmacy. In order to acquire and use a diaphragm a woman must accept herself as a sexual, heterosexual being, to admit that she plans to continue sexual activities indefinitely (Gordon 1976). However, the situation is completely different with the pill: the everyday taking of a pill doesn’t differ from taking the vitamins every morning. According to the Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right book for women “it is easier to deal with guilt about sex by viewing one’s adventures as one-time-only slips, promptly repented-over and over” (Gordon 1976). This new way of viewing the sexuality allows the women to think about reaching pleasure during sexual intercourses and get rid of male control and influence and, eventually, reaffirm their ownership of their own physical rights. Nevertheless, women can only spend time elaborating on the ways to do it. Practically, the contraception including the birth control doesn’t define self-determination which our team defines as a female right to take decision on planning and having the children. Unfortunately, the reproductive patterns everywhere are determined by sexual morality, by the overall status of women, by class formations, and by the nature of the struggles for social change (Gordon 1976). Indeed, in the 1970s, it was easy for the women to “fall” into motherhood because of their social condition: in those times, it was almost impossible for women to find an suitable job, due to the discrimination in the access to education, thus women were economically dependent on their husbands. The only way to escape from alienation was to get preoccupied with raising children. The same for the notion is applicable for the couples: based on economic and social reasons a single woman was weaker compared to a married woman. Furthermore, a child was a way for the social classes to perpetuate themselves: a father would not only endow his child with his social rank to but also with his expectations and his willingness to fulfill everything the father himself didn’t have a chance to accomplish. The social hierarchy of that time was based on reproduction and heritage, thus, bringing the structural primary form of society, the family, to put an unconscious and ubiquitous strong pressure on women to have children. Being trapped between motherhood and weakness and by the lack of alternatives women had nothing else to do but to give up their moral principles and make children as a result of a lack of a better occupation. Thus, the freedom to choose one’s own sexuality was limited. That is why the pill itself didn’t save the women from alienation: they had to fight, and at first to fight against themselves, to change the state of mind.
The feminists managed to change the minds of people concerning the statement that having sex for pleasure wasn’t only the field of men but also shared with women. As the nation started to accept the newly introduced perception of the sexuality, which implied living a single life without giving birth to children, the ideas of becoming gay\lesbian were becoming popularized. The feminism didn’t introduce people to more open lesbianism but it was now possible to identify oneself as a lesbian and then enjoy one’s sexuality.

Colleta Reid, an early recruit to women’s liberation in Washington D.C. suggests:



Everything I was reading at the time led me toward lesbianism. If “ The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” was true, then intercourse was not necessary or even relevant to my sexual satisfaction…If sex roles were an invention of society , then women – not just men – were possible to love, in the fullest sense of the word. If I could hug and kiss the woman I loved, why couldn’t I touch all of her body? (qtd in D’Emilio and Freedman 1988).

It is worth nothing this tendency wasn’t only reserved for female but also male for homosexuality but we will talk about it later in this paper. By changing their attitudes toward sexuality, women brought the revolution to the whole understanding of sexuality: in a survey made by the Playboy Foundation, we learn that in married couples there is “a 20% increase in the frequency of oral-genital contact reported by men and women, an increase in reported frequency of masturbation by married persons, and an increased occurrence of orgasm among women” (Delamater 1981) in comparison with a researches made by Kinsey in 1948 and 1953. The results demonstrated the nation’s alterations in perception of the evolved sexuality of that time. As a result we can see the favorable outcomes following the change of that conception. The sexual revolution of 1960s involved debates on the introduction of the pill and abortion, as, for example, during the case of Norma McCorvey and her lawyer Sarah Weddington which took place in Texas. Published in 1973 the Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 Act from the Supreme Court of America stated the abortion to become a constitutional right. Yet not fully accomplished, s another change in the women’s way of perception of the sexuality appeared. Starting from now on women were able to fight against a non-wanted pregnancy, reaffirm their total right on their bodies, what brought a new wave of independence in the first place. Indeed, the pregnancy used to be a trap that locked women in their life and often pushed them to get married. But with the abortion right being adopted, women were able to reaffirm their right of independence and the right to choose their own lifestyle.

During the seventies, the conception of sexuality didn’t change only for women: the origination of gay liberation took place approximately at the same time. The agenda of the movement had similar objectives such as representing the identity and achieveing social justice in the society. As lesbian liberation was coming out from the shadows the gay population initiated the process protecting their rights by being more present in the culture, by saying so we mean that “the histories of musical and homosexual identity in twentieth-century American culture mirror and overlap one another significantly” (Hubbs 2004). The field of fight of the gay population was based on a right application of the American tradition and based on the Constitution. As Simon Hall stated, “the critical and continuing importance of patriotic dissent to gay rights activists and reveals that appeals to the

Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and American ideals of liberty and equality occupied a central place in the movement’s tactical approach (Hall, year unknown). We also can observe this presence of the spirit of the United States and it traditionalism in a speech of the gay politician Harvey Milk where he asked his “gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight…for their freedom, for their country” (Simon


2010). Hence, while even being socially revolutionary those ideas are still full of nationalism and loyalty within the country.

American Sexuality in the 1980s

As HIV [Human Immunodeficiency Virus] and AIDS appears in the 1980s, it started to spread among homosexuals, who didn’t use contraception during sexual intercourses, and ended up brought a big wave of controversial homophobic thought which changed the vision that most of the society had of gays. However, emerging from a lack of knowledge homophobia started to spread. The most representative of the general thought is the fact that the study showed that “nurses, physicians, and other health care professionals [were] homophobic and [held] negative attitudes toward persons with HIV disease” (Carney 1994). This hate changed radically the climate of sexual tolerance to a homophobic thought. Furthermore, the Churches, priests and religious people claimed that it was a punishment coming from God in order to punish the homosexuality, bringing a new conservative climate in the United States. For example the Bishop Hugh Montefiore claimed: “[T]hose who indulge in immoral sex are breaking God's law and are therefore at much greater risk of contracting the disease. Being unchaste was contrary to the natural law and it is not therefore surprising that human bodies are often ill-adapted to it, as evidence by the spread of the AIDS virus shows" (Mertz and Schüklenk).


Thus, AIDS didn’t affect the sexuality perception only for homosexuals but for the whole society. Indeed, the only way to protect oneself against AIDS is contraception: the pill is no longer efficient against AIDS and the condoms are now vital for self-protection against both STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Consequently, not only the process and means of contraception evolved but also revealed the new issue of men being no safer during the sexual act. It was the first time that men were endangered by sex, which made the contraception no longer a problem as it was as useful for both men women: this fact was the one that rooted permanently and efficiently the use of contraception in the American society.
The Change in Sexuality in the 90’s
In the 1990s our group will continue to show the change in sexuality and what global events made that impact. Style, trends, and media differ from decade to decade and these are the factors that have the most effect on the human mind. With every decade comes a change in style, attitude, and most importantly the whole perception of sexuality. The 90’s period is no exception to that rule; it became an era to new ideas. For once there was much more accessible information for people to use. The internet became popular during this time and more accessible to people at home. Other media devices such as television, magazines, and other commercial sources started to shape the interests of people. The nation was more open to a change: By the end of the 90’s almost 50% of people had internet access in their homes (Zickuhr 2012). The access people had not resulted to be a useful tool as it provided the possibility to follow the fast-evolving stream of media. There was an increased availability of large-scale national studies that included sexuality data (Christopher and Sprecher 2000). Americans became keener on “spicy” topics which led to the overall expansion of openness of sex spread in both U.S. and the world. This information includes topics like health facts, more knowledge and easy access of protection, and erotic based resources. Along with this knowledge came health risks, and now that people were more educated about them they started to be more careful. Thus, prevention and safety methods became more popular with time. Extramarital sex became more acceptable and gained popularity. Before this time women especially would “save” themselves until marriage because most people either believed that having sex will inevitably lead to having kids or they just came from conservative families. This revolution affected the concept of relationships and the importance of them, thus leading to poorer relationships and disloyalty of partners. Now that being sexually active was separated from being in a relationship whatsoever, the concept of loyalty decreased and trust between people was challenged. As a result, permanent damage to the stability of relationships for future generations has been created.

Along with the growing expression of sexuality comes the image, so to say, the generally accepted way people were defining sexuality. Throughout the history men are usually desired because of their masculinity which hasn’t undergone any changes. However the image of sexy, desirable women during the nineties has been altered. Thinner young women are portrayed as powerful and in control, while larger women are depicted as sexually passive and irresponsible (Younger 2003). Giving this opinion to society’ mind, the image of the beautiful woman has changed. Now all women want is to be as thin as possible thinking that it’s what men want. This opens up a whole new page of health risks and depression. Let’s face it: not everybody could be that skinny but that doesn’t mean that they are less beautiful. Well the nineties certainly didn’t make that clear enough. Women were starting to look for all kinds of ways to look slimmer and to lose weight faster. This is where the terrifying image of the anorexic super models comes in by taking the idea of thin is beautiful to the extreme.

One of the most iconic women recognized as sex symbols in the 1990’s would probably be Sharon Stone or Cindy Crawford. With this they brought on the idea that sexy came along with feminism, being strong and confident about your body. These women were not afraid to show more than acceptable by the society. Along with that came the fashion statement that showing your body would get the interest in men. Fashion wise women wore shorter skirts, shorter tops demonstrating their sexuality by showing more skin. Men on the other hand play just as important role in the perception of sexuality. The nineties for men was the age of the hipster. Baggy clothes of bright colors and a lot of gel were the main must-have of that period. For men the nineties finally gave a more dramatic change and an emphasis on the style of the dominant sex. Men started to worry about their looks maybe as much as women. The masculinity of a man was very important, muscles had a great impact on whether a guy is seen as sexy or not. At that time the male figures that were most well known for their sexuality were Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Millennium perception of sexuality (2000’s)

The 2000’s are ages which we’ve all lived through and can talk about through personal experiences. Sexuality reached the highest level of expression: people are much freer to express their sexuality or any aspect of themselves. The United States has become very tolerant towards same sex marriage, conservative families, or any other kinds of ways people live their lives.

Sexuality is understood to be composed of sexual identity and orientation, gender identity, sexual desire, and sexual practices, which together constitute an individual's sexual "subjectivity" in society (Fried 2004). Not all of this definition was accepted earlier but recently people have become more open minded. There is now more understanding to why people behave differently and the US is putting an emphasis on tolerance towards every citizen. At this age people feel more comfortable to express themselves. In the 2000’s we believe that there is more diversity between what people perceive in sexuality. As people feel comfortable expressing themselves and doing so through mass media, it affects any viewers who share their opinion and values, therefore, not willing to change into whatever status quo is being put on by society.

The diversity observed is the most important alteration of the 2000’s and it’s influencing mostly the younger generations through their peers. Being independent and unique nowadays is considered respectable and desirable. The sexuality used to be expressed through one particular image which was widely popular and as for now it’s expressed through individuality.

The modern trend for female sexuality follows the rule: the skinnier the woman is the sexier and appealing she is for men. As for the men the rule is quite simple too: in order to become a Casanova a man has to turn to a pile of muscles. There is a big emphasis on being physically fit not being anorexic: not only women with some curves but also men are perceived as sexy and “hot”. Strong is the new skinny and fit is the new thin for women, according to a growing trend on social media (English 2013). Social media is what dictates trends these days or basically everything else that has to do with personal lives. Recently, media seems to be packed with more and more posts are about staying fit and healthy. So muscles aren’t only for guys anymore but for women as well. This is something that is affecting the lives of people in a good way because instead of the media telling young girls to lose weight or making them feel bad about the way they look, the media now is inspiring them to stay healthy. Nowadays, women have an incentive and motivation to work hard in order to improve the parameters of their body. Most of all, the recent decade introduced the I-am-happy-about-myself trend. However, some people become obsessive and forget that not every one’s body develops the same way. The images that pop culture brings on us can sometimes be misleading and virtually impossible for everybody so what every person needs to do is just embrace their body type.

Sex Symbols of the 2000’s include Angelina Jolie and Scarlet Johansson whom have both been more than once named sexiest women of the year in multiple magazines. The male figures who serve as sex symbols of the decade include Taylor Lautner and Ian Somerhalder. It’s harder finding one or two people who fit the criteria recently because as people started expressing their different opinions it becomes harder and harder to pinpoint one specific person to fulfill the idea of being the most sexually attractive.

As a general trend throughout all the ages, change in sexuality is always consistent. We observe people little by little breaking free from this uniformity of having one perception of beauty. Freedom of expression is the ultimate goal and we are becoming closer to achieving it. From the feminist movement, to the gay/lesbian movement, to just about being different, we are trying to build tolerance. The United States through it’s changing in perception of sexuality is giving the freedom it stands for to the people to feel good and confident about who they are.

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