What Happened to the
By Lillian B. Rubin
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 207 pp. $18.95
"WHAT happened to the sexual revolution?" Lillian B. Rubin asks, wondering whether more really means better.
To find out, Rubin, author of Intimate Strangers and a social psychologist at City University of New York, surveyed nearly 1,000 men and women. She interviewed 75 teenagers (ages 13 to 17) and 300 adults (ages 18 to 48). Six hundred others, "mostly college students," returned a 13-page questionnaire she distributed on eight unnamed campuses. Homosexual men and women were excluded. Blacks and Asians account for 5 percent each of her sample, Hispanics, 2 percent. Sixty couples were married. Those poor, wealthy or gray were left out.
Quiet, Louis Harris. Rubin needed a book, not a population model.
Despite the author's show-biz title, no one seemed to think she or he had been in an erotic war. Musical beds, sometimes, but more often uncertainty and stress. Her adult women seemed especially disappointed. Nearly everyone discovered thorns in the rose garden.
Rubin confirms it. Under pressure from the pill and social and personal liberation movements, the old sexual order collapsed in the 1960s. Now we live in a libidinous society serviced by technology, and many in it will unzip their sexual histories at the click of Rubin's tape recorder. Her people pour forth erotic stories in streams of Anglo-Saxon nouns and verbs. Page after page Rubin documents the national romp.
Everyone except the married has nearly total sexual freedom -- early. Masturbation before first intercourse is now almost universal, nearly doubled for women since Alfred Kinsey's report in 1953. While 24 states and the District of Columbia still define oral sex as sodomy and illegal, Rubin found three-fourths of her college students and every adult she interviewed had practiced cunnilingus or fellatio. "Fellatio," she says, "continues to be more frequent."
By way of explaining the disparity, Rubin quotes a 25-year-old Atlanta secretary:
"Just think about it. You're in a car and it's hard to move around. Logistically, he's more accessible, that's all."
Before the 1960s, virginity was a virtue, especially for females in high school and college. Now peer pressure makes it a burden. High school girls fret over when and how to lose it. Two thirds of Rubin's teenagers had had coitus, often at 15 or 16.
Debby, a 15-year-old in Cleveland, began at 13: "I've slept with eighty-five guys since I started two years ago, and I'm going for a hundred before school's out."
But she's an exception. Teenagers expect "to have sex with only one person at a time," says Rubin. "Serial monogamy is the rule" but "a month is a long time" in a high school relationship. Wondrous subtleties prevail here. Half the teenagers classifying themselves as "not sexually active" had cunnilingus or fellatio by graduation. Oral sex preserves virginity.
For Rubin's 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds, sexual freedom advances beyond the routines of oral sex and serial partners to include erotic enhancements like position reversals, anal sex, bondage, pornographic films, group sex, mutual masturbation and open marriage.
BUT SEX takes on emotional freight with age. Rubin's adults begin to invest sex with significance, and they sexually act out their deeper needs. This is where the sexual revolution unravels. Curiously, few seem to worry about AIDS or venereal disease, and fewer protect themselves. But now men seem to want to settle down with "a sexually experienced virgin." Women "understate their sexual experiences" because their boyfriends "wouldn't like it." The older everyone gets the more different the sexual revolution looks. Along with open sexuality, "people now talk also about wanting relationships of love and intimacy, commitment and constancy."
Things have changed sexually, but much is the same socially. Men and women may do anything, but they can't have everything. The gender revolution and the sexual revolution have advanced at different speeds, and Rubin says that "men still hold the power to define the acceptable." Women are left to sort out "wildly mixed" messages:
"Be an equal, but not wholly so . . . Be assertive, but ready to give way. Make money, but not too much. Commit to a career, but be ready to stay home with the children. Be sexually aggressive, but . . . "
Our youth and their "profoundly changed sexual consciousness" have made the sexual revolution secure, Rubin believes. But there's trouble ahead from church and state, and from ourselves as we try to link sexual freedom and emotional meaning.
As science Erotic Wars is soft and loose. The feeling, however, seems exactly right.
Webster Schott is a journalist living in Kansas.