We don’t call it sin today—we call it self expression.
—Baroness Stocks, British politician
At the same time that premarital sex was becoming increasingly tolerated, there was a gradual recognition that nice people—even otherwise normal, moral, and successful people—did have affairs and had them without necessarily suffering dire consequences. In 1948, Alfred Kinsey and his associates published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, followed in 1953 by the equivalent book for the human female. The implications were shocking. If the data were accurate, nearly one-half of married men had had extramarital sex at some time in their lives. Worse, of all wives, about 20 percent did so. That represents one in five. Suburban housewives were shocked and surreptitiously viewed each other with suspicion and each night faithfully checked their husband’s coat pockets.
ACTION Magazine..October 1954. (Photo credit: marsmet462)
Albert Ellis and other liberal psychologists of the 1960s began to suggest that under some circumstances, extramarital sex could be beneficial to the individual and even to the marriage. In 1966, John Cuber and Peggy Harroff published Sex and the Significant Americans, which showed that many supposedly successful marriages involved covert liaisons often of long duration. Moreover, even when these affairs were exposed to the light of day, their revelation did not necessarily precipitate a divorce. The flower children of the day were beginning to bloom and to talk openly about such unheard of alternatives as “swinging” (couples having sex with other couples) and “open marriage” (where one or both partners in a marriage permit their partner to have lovers outside the marriage).
The jig was up. Americans began to understand what the French seemed to have known all along. Marriage is one thing, involving a long-term partnership for children and real estate and social status. Sex is something else, and love is something else again.
Sometimes, love and sex and marriage go together; sometimes, only two are found together; and sometimes, they are totally separate. Sometimes, they start out together with love’s young dream and get separated later on. A very few lucky people find sex and love and marriage all at once in one relationship; a few unlucky ones never really find satisfaction in either sex or love or marriage.
The man’s desire is for the woman; but the woman’s desire is rarely other than for the desire of the man.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In Victorian times and, indeed, well into the twentieth century, the dominant view of sexuality in the Western world was the Puritan Christian view. Sex was considered to be evil, albeit a necessary evil. Sex was evil not only in and of itself but also because it caused other evils. It was a sinister force to be denied, sublimated, and suppressed as much as possible. It was an impulse to be controlled through both the law and the moral codes associated with Christian marriage. The drive for sexual expression was believed to be a masculine trait, and the problem in controlling sexuality was viewed mostly as a problem of repressing the lust and lasciviousness of men.
The History of Sexuality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Most men in the Victorian era believed that most women did not have sexual feelings. More amazing than that, most women seem to have believed it as well. Sexual involvement for women was not supposed to be intrinsically enjoyable, at least not for respectable women. Good women were believed to be sexually motivated only by the desire to please their husbands, or at least to appease them, and by the desire for children alongside a sense of Victorian duty. We now laugh at those by-gone days when mothers advised their soon-to-be-deflowered daughters to “lie back and think of England.” Thinking of England wasn’t a ruse to get the virgin to dissociate from what was happening to her; it was a strong reminder of her duty to populate England and, particularly within the aristocracy, to provide “an heir and a spare” so that the land holdings remained in the family and increased its prestige and wealth. Bad women, who were whores or fallen women or women of the demimonde, were motivated by money or other kinds of exchange for their sexual favors.
The tradition of sexual repression began to be modified by major thinkers writing at the turn of the twentieth century. Havelock Ellis had a major impact with his seminal work Studies in the Psychology of Sex. The writings of Sigmund Freud placed the libido at the center of human experience and interpreted a wide range of behavior in terms of sexual impulses. Bertrand Russell expounded a philosophy of sexual expression and challenged Christian tradition with the publication of his controversial Marriage and Morals. By the time the Roaring Twenties started to roar, the secret was out. Men were sexual creatures but so were women. Sex was not all that bad; in fact, sex was a creative force. Rather than acceptance of an ideology of sexual repression, there arose an intensive quest for an ideology of appropriate sexual expression. Rather than being viewed as an evil, sex came to be seen as a positive force valuable not only as an end in itself but also as a means of contributing to personal growth and development.
Sadly, even with all the positive changes, the freedom of sexual expression continues to face strong opposition as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century—as witnessed by the impassioned crusade of Evangelical Christians to ban premarital sex and demonize same-gender relationships