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.

Quick Review: Pleasantville

I’ve seen parts of this 1998 film before but I watched it again recently to see if I want to use it in a class on suburbs. Two modern-day teenagers end up back as part of a family in a 1950s suburban world and they start bringing color to this less-than-idyllic community. Some quick thoughts about the film:

1.The film is a critique of suburban life, particularly that of 1950s television shows like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver. The critiques are typical: suburban residents are repressed (more on this in a moment), women are in a subservient role, and the people are conformists who just like things to stay the way they are.

2. Sexual repression is the major theme throughout. The teenage female protagonist quickly charms another high school boy and sets off big changes at Lovers Lane. The mother of the family explores her feelings, the manager of the diner does as well, and the whole town generally goes crazy. While there are other themes, like conformity, patriarchy, and being closed off from the outside world, they are not explored as much.

3. The whole black and white vs. color scheme is a clever tool. The two teenagers who end up back in the 1950s find a black & white world but as this world opens up, things turn to colors. It is visually interesting to watch this contrast throughout the film.

4. The sexual repression theme is somewhat heavy-handed by the end though there is a twist: the teenage female protagonist who first introduces sex to the community finds out that there is a value in books and ideas. While the rest of the teenagers want to go nuts, she pulls back and decides there are more important things for her to explore.

5. In the ending scenes, the characters ask what they are supposed to be doing in life and the response is “we don’t know.” While on one hand this is a refutation of the 1950s world where “we just do things because that is how they are done,” this is not very satisfying: the better alternative is left unexplained.

An interesting film with some surprises. I wish it could have explored some other suburban issues beyond sex and conformity…but perhaps that is a lot to ask.

(This film was generally well-received by critics: it is 85% fresh, 70 fresh out of 82 reviews, at