The Decade of Decadence #1: The Sexual Revolution

"A new, sexualized popular culture pervaded American life in the 1970s, and it seemed that everyone wanted to be part of it. Watching a porn film at the local theater, flipping through a sex advice manual in line at the grocery store, dancing the hustle at a glittery discotheque—all were markers of sexual sophistication." [source]
As a die hard enthusiast of the 1970's (I've lived through it, I've been obsessed with it for the past twenty years, and now I write about it nearly every day), the one thing that stands out more than any other is the sexual revolution.  It's not that I have a one-track mind focused on sex- the fact that this blog is rated PG demonstrates that I don't focus on heavy sexual material.... but if you're being an honest historian, you've got to spend a good deal of time on the defining trend of the decade. The stark contrast from the decade prior and the decade after is unbelievable.  Digging through old magazines and newspapers as I do almost every day, it becomes abundantly clear that if you had to use one word to describe the decade it could only be S-E-X.

This quote sums the whole thing up nicely:

"The so-called sexual revolution was considered by many to be the most shocking social trend in the 1970s. The sexual revolution, an outgrowth of the counterculture, cast aside traditional sexual restraints and began a decade of alternative eroticism, experimentation, and promiscuity. In part facilitated by the development of the birth-control pill and other contraceptives, Americans in the 1970s broke many sexual taboos. Interracial dating, open homosexuality, communal living, casual nudity, and dirty language all seemed to indicate a profound change in sexual behavior. Sexual activity among the young especially increased. Surveys during the 1970s reported that by age nineteen, four-fifths of all males and two-thirds of all females had had sex. Fashion designers promoted a new sensuality, producing miniskirts, hot pants, halter tops, and formfitting clothes designed to accentuate women's sexuality." [source]

April 1969

Given that the 1970s is the primary decade addressed at Retrospace, it's a wonder that there's not graphic sexual content in every post.  I think people underestimate the impact of the sexual revolution - the impact from the birth control pill alone was a titanic cultural shift. Add to the mix legalized abortion and millions of Baby Boomers reaching their sexual prime, and you have a freaking sexual tidal wave on your hands!

When Did It Occur?

But what about the 1960's, wasn't that decade all about free love? Yes and no. It's always dangerous to assign characteristics and trends to a particular decade - as if the world abruptly changed on January 1st, 1970.  Life is not affected by our arbitrary determination of years and decades. Indeed, 1969 looked very much like 1970 and 1980 looked very much like 1979, if you catch my meaning.  When talking about history, it is convenient to package things in nice neat decades - but life is much more messy, with trends spilling over into adjacent decades.

The sexual revolution certainly began prior to 1970: the pill actually hit the scene in the 1960's, Hugh Hefner's playboy lifestyle before that, and the infamous Kinsey Report before that.... you could even go further back to Sigmund Freud and Margaret Sanger in the early 1900's. In fact, you could probably keep tracing it back and back and back - every trend had an origin somewhere, and that origin had it's origin somewhere else, and so on. However, I submit to you this fitting analogy:

If previous decades were foreplay, then the 1970's was penetration. 

There, I said it.


  1. Um, continue?

    I hate to say this, because this is suppose to be a fun look at past popular culture, but you are a good writer who seems to do his research. I am finding myself, more and more, reading your copy and forgetting about the pictures (except THIS topic of course).

    So post your next chapter on the sexual revolution in the '70s. You have our interest.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Wendel. I'd considered making this a series, actually.... but my ADD set in, and I got distracted. Maybe I can continue it before too long, though. Have a happy new years!

  3. Excellent point about decades not really coming into their own, until a couple of years into them!

    The '80s really didn't start happening fashion wise and sonically until '82.

    What is interesting is that '79 is pretty different from '77-'78 - even more came into play, etc. - '79-'81 in many eras is its own separate "bridge" era!

    Anyway, your blog is one of the best I've seen - I really appreciate it AND the podcast, which I listen to at the gym,

  4. AnonymousJuly 04, 2012

    Yeah, dude, I agree that 1979 did look a lot like 1980. But that is not always the case when referencing years or decades. Look at 1981, when the Reagan regime insinuated its "conservative" agenda replete with emphasis on family values (teens now had to tell parents about an abortion) and the dismantling of the incipient gay and bi class (AIDS surfaced that year) while sneakily going about destroying natural remedies (the healing properties of copper, culled from the penny) while attacking major players (Steve Rubell & Studio 54, etc) in the exciting people-driven revolution happening nationwide. And I place "conservative" in quotes above simply because puritanism was merely the patina on the politics of the new decade; what Reagan and his cabinet were/are after was/is power and wealth and above all control of the masses... Anyway, 1981 looked much different than 1980 and I just wanted to make that point.