The History of Sex: The 20th Century


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The 20th century was a period during which the perception of sex and sexual practices of Americans significantly changed. In 2014, the History Channel aired a documentary titled The History of Sex: The 20th Century, which explores the various factors that contributed to this transformation. The following are highlights from this documentary up to the 1950s.

At the end of the Victorian era, the industrial age draws women from their homes and into the workforce where they are employed in various jobs such as factory workers, clerks and secretaries. Women gain some financial independence that allows them to be mobile, shop and participate in many social activities.

20th Century Sex Pict 1Women’s dress hemlines become shorter, however the bicycle is perceived as an even more serious threat to women’s virtue. Morality watchdogs believe that women who ride on bicycles could get sexuality aroused through the friction with the seat. Also, they are concerned that these women could sustain internal organ damage by riding bicycles.

The first movies are made, capturing sex and romance on film. One of these movies is The Kiss (1901) by Thomas Edison Films in which a man and a woman exchange a kiss. Since public affection is frowned upon, these movies create controversy.

The motion picture serves as a sex education tool for the audience because none is available. Indeed, any doctor’s manuals, pamphlets or any kind of information deemed obscene is censored by Anthony Comstock of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Comstock even persuades Congress to pass the Comstock Act that outlaws the sending and receiving of obscene material through the US mail. By the early 1900s, Comstock and his supporters arrested 3,600 people and destroyed more than 800, 000 indecent pictures.

However, these strict measures have little impact on prostitution. As big cities attract young men in search of jobs and career advancement, the demand for sex also increases. Marriageable women are sexually unavailable, therefore men turn to destitute prostitutes.

Masturbation is another serious concern because it is perceived as immoral and unhealthy. Sex manuals encourage young men to suppress their desire for self-gratification by reading the Bible’s Sermon on the Mount; think of their mother’s pure love; or sit with their testicles immerse in a bowl of ice water.

20th Century Sex Pict 2Interestingly, some individuals like Margaret Sanger (see picture at the right) have a very different view of sexuality. Sanger is a nurse who is a birth control pioneer for women. She is very concerned by the negative effects of multiple pregnancies on women’s health, and their inability to reach their full potential.

In 1914, Sanger is arrested by Comstock for violation of the Comstock Law. She manages to flee to England only to return two years later to the United States and open the first birth control clinic.

In 1917, the United States enters World War I. The US War Department orders the closure of every brothel within five miles of a navel base. The government is very concerned that soldiers may contract venereal diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis.

The US government relies on young men’s willpower to control their sexual urges. As a result, 7 million “men days” are lost during the war due to venereal diseases. Although negatively impacted by these infections, many of these American soldiers learn about sex from European women and prostitutes.

The soldiers return home to the roaring 20s. Women have now the right to vote, but alcohol is outlawed by social reformers. Prohibition tries to prevent the negative effects of alcohol abuse however, people continue to consume it at house parties, clubs and speakeasies.

The Flapper becomes the ideal American woman. She is independent, strong, adventurous, sexual, and wants the same rights and leisure activities as their male counterparts.

Gays and lesbians are also able to explore their sexuality in speakeasies and underground clubs. Balls are held with thousands of participants dressed in drag. Homosexual men and women connect to a community of individuals who share the same identity.

The backlash against Victorian morality is fueled by more effective contraception. The diaphragm, the spermicide and the Trojan latex condom are now available. Although doctors are not allowed by law to dispense contraceptives, Margaret Sanger is determined to give them by all legal and illegal means.

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On October 24, 1929, the stock market crashes. The Great Depression succeeds where social reformers and Comstock failed. High unemployment rates and the lack of money force Americans to take a conservative approach to sex. The number of births and marriages drop dramatically during the 1930s.

The limited number of job opportunities results in teenagers staying in school and with their families for a longer period of time. Although censorship increases during the 1930s, it is unable to control adolescent libidos.

Despite warnings that syphilis can be transmitted through kissing, pre-marital sex is on the rise. Unable to have sex at home, teenagers use the family car for their sexual escapades. Cars give them mobility and autonomy from parental control.

In 1942, American troops are sent to Europe to fight in World War II. This time, the US government gives soldiers eight condoms per month instead of relying on abstinence. The women left behind are encouraged to participate in the war effort by taking on non-traditional roles. Many women become the breadwinner and work in artillery factories. Some of these women even engage in extra-marital affairs and become pregnant.

During World War II, a new kind of woman is idealized: the Victory Girl. The Victory Girl is an attractive, seductive young woman who strives to lift the spirits of soldiers through sex. However, she is perceived negatively by most people because she could infect troops with venereal diseases.

20th Century Sex Pict 5The male counterpart of the Victory Girl is the Wolf. The Wolf is an opportunist soldier who takes advantage of naïve young women. He is able to get sexual favours under the guise of a brave soldier fighting for his country. Contrary to the Victory Girl, most approve of him.

Penicillin is introduced in 1943, which changes how venereal diseases are treated and perceived. These diseases are less feared because there is an effective cure for them. 80% of American soldiers who are stationed in Europe for at least 2 years become sexually involved with European women and father children.

After the Second World War, there is a baby boom in America. The Cold War starts between the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), therefore the US government is hyper-vigilant about the threat of communism on its soil.

In 1947, the FBI starts to keep records on thousands of government workers, especially homosexuals. Homosexuality is linked to communism and is perceived as a security threat. More people lose their jobs for being a homosexual than for being a communist.

The 1950s is an era of conformity. People get married, move to the suburbs, buy a house and have an average of 2 children. The nuclear family is viewed as an ideal, and most women become housewives.

20th Century Sex Pict 6However in 1948, American biologist Alfred Kinsey (see picture at the right) publishes the bestseller Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. This book reveals American men’s true sexual behaviour, which is very different from the conservative views of the time. For example, Kinsey reports that men masturbate, have pre-marital sex and see prostitutes.

The religious leaders and politicians heavily criticize Kinsey’s book but in 1953, Kinsey still publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. This second book reveals for instance, that a third of women had pre-marital sex and 13% had 6 or more sexual partners. Therefore, American women are not as concerned about their reputation, pregnancy and diseases as previously believed.

The 20th century has been a sexually tumultuous period for Americans. History Channel’s The History of Sex: The 20th Century gives up a fascinating overview of this era. During this period, Americans witnessed the first sex scenes on film; the opening of the birth control clinic; and the availability of Trojan latex condoms.

International events such as the two World Wars have also greatly contributed in changing Americans’ perception of sex. For example, troops sent to Europe gained new knowledge of sexuality through European women, and some American women left behind engage in extra-marital affairs.

Based on the unprecedented discoveries and events that occurred during the 20th century, one can only imagine what the 21st century holds in store for Americans’ sexual practices.

Literary Truths

Here are other interesting facts about sex in the 20th century in America:

  • Hugh Hefner was inspired by the Kinsey reports to create the Playboy magazine in 1953.
  • In 1960, Margaret Sanger collaborated with Gregory Pincus, a medical expert in human reproduction, to create the pill. The name of the first FDA approved oral contraceptive is Enovid.
  • The controversial report Human Sexual Response (1966) by Masters & Johnson acknowledged that the clitoris is the primary source of female orgasm.
  • President Ronald Reagan declared war on HIV/AIDS only after Rock Hudson, a well-known American actor, dies of AIDS in 1985.
  • In 1998, presidential candidate Bob Dole was a spokesperson for Viagra.

Truth in Motion


The History of Sex: The 20th Century (2014)

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