Sociologist argues sexual revolution may have begun in the 1940s

A recent study published in American Sociological Review suggests that the sexual revolution, typically attributed to the 1960s, may have begun earlier:

“When we refer to the sexual revolution, we typically refer to something that happened suddenly in the 1960s, that took place mainly in the U.S. or Western countries, and that lifted restrictions on all kinds of sexual interactions,” says [David] Frank. “None of these is entirely true.”

In a study published in the December issue of American Sociological Review, Frank and co-authors found that as early as the mid-1940s societal views of the role of sex began changing from a predominantly procreative activity to one focused on individual satisfaction and self-expression. Among the sexual revolution’s most widespread and enduring effects, they found, was the significant change in how sex crimes are classified and regulated around the world.

Using global data collected from 194 nation-states on sex crime laws from 1945 to 2005, they analyzed the effects of reconceptualization on sex crime regulation. They found that as societal models shifted to an individualistic focus, laws regulating sodomy and adultery – acts generally defined as consensual transactions among adults – became more relaxed. Laws regulating rape and child sexual abuse – crimes committed without individual consent – expanded in scope.

If Frank is right (and he is working with some interesting data), then it might change perceptions of the 1950s. This decade is often considered to be a sort of “golden era,” the time of Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, and housewives taking care of the kids and home while the father in a coat and hat traveled to work. And the events of the 1960s seem to fit with this as there was a reaction against this pleasant but restrictive earlier decade.

But Frank suggests that the seeds of the 1960s were sown earlier. This would mean that the 1950s were not as homogeneous as they are commonly portrayed – the legal foundation was already laid for the more contentious 1960s. And it would be interesting to trace out this cultural process as the changes in these laws translated into changed attitudes and behaviors among the general public.

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