Ask most people whether America experienced a Sexual Revolution in the second half of the twentieth century and they will say, “Yes, of course.” Yet some wonder what’s really changed. What kind of revolution took place when its primary function may have been opening up new markets for sexual merchandise? Consumers now have easy access to products ranging from pharmaceuticals with potentially dangerous side effects to a wide variety of explicitly sexual videos. Meanwhile internet hook-up sites, including those specializing in casual sex and married people looking for secret affairs, make it easier than ever for people to have more sex with fewer responsibilities than ever before.
The Radical Right has loudly voiced their displeasure about the fallout of the Sexual Revolution and urges a return to traditional values. From their point of view, the best outcome would be to keep patriarchal standards in place. My take is that the Sexual Revolution has gone awry but its downfall stems from a lack of moral, ethical, and ecological grounding, and also from not going far enough to alter our way of life.
In past 50 years we’ve experienced some significant shifts in how we act, think, and talk about sex and gender. Marriage is no longer obligatory. Couples who live together out of wedlock hardly merit a raised eyebrow. Divorce is “no fault”—easier and more frequent than ever. The majority of married women hold jobs outside the home. Serial monogamy is the new norm. Birth control is widely available, even for teenagers. Abortion has been legalized (although the right to abortion remains more controversial than oil drilling even in the face of repeated environmental disasters). Taboos on both pre-marital and extra-marital sex are rapidly losing ground and there is less discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals. BDSM and Tantric Sex are “in.” Censorship is virtually non-existent, massage has gone mainstream, and many people under thirty have never had sex without a condom.
It’s obvious that there’s more openness about sexuality in our culture, and less of the double standard that confronts women with severe consequences for sexual behaviors men take for granted. Nevertheless, when we look back a hundred years from now—if humanity survives that long—it’s very possible that the mid 20th Century Sexual Revolution will appear no more significant than the Sexual Revolution of the early 20th Century, one that is now largely forgotten even though it won women the right to vote.
The facts are that the confluence of the feminist and gay rights movements along with a groundswell of personal, political, and legal actions directed against sexual repression combined to create a tidal wave of change in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In the 1980’s the Sexual Revolution was widely reported to be over. But in the 1990’s another smaller wave rolled in with the intent of reuniting sex and love, reintegrating sex and spirit, and reclaiming the sacredness of sex and pleasure. Polyamory, Tantric sex, BDSM, Native American and Taoist sexual arts have surfaced in mainstream print and broadcast media and dozens of books and videos on these topics appeared.
Yoga, which many authorities consider to derive from ancient Tantric teachings, has become wildly popular, and all manner of therapies for enhancing sexual pleasure and performance have mushroomed along with widely reported sex scandals involving nationally prominent figures.
The question is: Are these changes truly revolutionary or are they relatively superficial? Do they signify genuine change or are they merely window dressing? Are entrenched attitudes about sex and gender taking on new and more insidious expressions or are we witnessing a true transformation? Has the Sacred Sexuality movement of the 1990’s shot its wad or is it still unfolding? Will we ever wake up to the connection between eros and ecology?
Wilheim Reich, whose 1945 book, The Sexual Revolution, is widely regarded as the clarion call for what eventually manifested as the swinging sixties, sought to resurrect the Body—including, but not limited to, the full potency of sexuality in both men and women—as a means of healing our patriarchal culture’s dysfunctions. Reich brilliantly traced the genesis of the authoritarian personality along with many ills of modern society, such as violence, sexism, social injustice, and economic inequities, to sexual repression. His intention in liberating sexuality went far beyond concerns about health and well being. While the forces Reich helped set in motion succeeded in large part in reclaiming sexuality for humanity, and the subsequent Feminist Movement challenged some of the most glaring inequities between the genders, these are baby steps toward the real revolution which must take place if humanity is to thrive—or perhaps even survive—in years to come.
One would expect a revolution in something as fundamental as sex to rock the foundations of our whole culture. This has been the fear of fundamentalists and conservatives who have struggled to maintain the status quo. But has the sexual revolution really altered the structure of our society or has it shored up the cracks in a foundation which was about to give way to enormous stresses?
The architects of the Sexual Revolution intended to unleash the evolutionary energies of sex and love in service of human liberation. Instead, attempts at sexual r/evolution have been repeatedly sidetracked, hijacked, and eventually derailed by a combination of greed, lust, and immaturity. Sex and love are potent forces which can easily spiral out of control. While change always stirs fear in those who cling to the security of the familiar, the absence of a strong spiritual foundation at the heart of the sexual revolution aroused legitimate concerns for many. Ultimately, the lack of integrity in the movement for sexual freedom has prevented the unfolding of its full potential for transforming society. Furthermore, its failure to focus on the ecological consequences of colonizing our planet in the same way we have colonized our own bodies and genitals, has drastically curtailed its relevance. Meanwhile, the environmental movement continues to keep its distance from sexual issues, fearful of losing credibility as a serious political endeavor and scaring away potential supporters.
Numerous writers and philosophers have eloquently described the parallels between our desecration of women’s bodies and our destruction of Mother Earth. However, the links between the abuse, repression and denigration of our sexuality, our maltreatment of the natural world, and our deadly addiction to over-consumption have yet to be widely understood. A sexual revolution that’s not grounded in ecological awareness lacks the larger vision needed to transcend the narrowly personal. A green revolution that’s not grounded in sexual liberation lacks the power and passion to avoid becoming a new source of commodities. The inevitable result is a proliferation of expensive and unnecessary “natural” products and sexual enhancers while the underlying issues of exploitation, gluttony and continually taking without giving back are ignored.
Is it possible to harness the power of eros to help create a better world? And if it’s possible, why hasn’t it happened? How and when will the next wave of the Sexual Revolution arrive and what shape will it take? How can we, as a society, integrate sexuality with the rest of our lives? And most importantly, what will it take to wake us up to the essential unity of Eros, our life force, and the life of our home planet? What will it take for us to realize that the pervasive lack of respect for the sacredness of Nature is strongly linked to our lack of respect for love?
Just as the “anti-war” movement evolved into the “peace movement,” the sexual revolution needs to grow beyond adolescent rebellion and self-centeredness to a more mature and sophisticated understanding of the deeper significance of love and sexuality in our lives. The tendency to blame the radical right for the demise of the sexual revolution merely shifts the responsibility and encourages an adversarial position. Likewise, many people believe that AIDS put an end to the sexual revolution, but this perception sidesteps an acknowledgement of the underlying factors which had already undermined the a real revolution in sexual values and overshadows more pervasive threats to our sexual health.