By Beth Bailey

Harvard. 265 pp. $27

University presses have long been the venue for academics who must "publish or perish," and in recent years those presses have often tried to market these scholarly efforts as "readable" to an unsuspecting public. All too often these volumes are reworked doctoral dissertations, of interest only to the wretches who are writing them as tickets to tenure. You can smell the despair coming off their pages: "Help! I'm drowning in an academic swamp! My career's hanging in the balance!"

But "Sex in the Heartland" is a very happy exception to this rule. Beth Bailey, who teaches American studies at the University of New Mexico, has found a perfect topic and put it in a perfect frame. Anyone who's ever dealt with putting together dissertations (or any other scholarly work) knows that narrowing the topic is a crucial first step. And Bailey defines her "American Heartland" as Lawrence, Kan., a community small enough to get a bead on and a place that had an astonishingly interesting history in the second half of this century.

The author traces the American sexual revolution as it occurred--just in this town. She nails down questions of time just as carefully. For her the revolution had its real beginnings in the early 1940s with World War II and had pretty well completed itself by 1972. Her applied research here is interesting, imaginative and compassionate, and the final treat is that Bailey is a very good writer. "Sex in the Heartland" is simply a fascinating read. I'm sorry I can't call her up and congratulate her on this book in person.

Bailey's thesis is that our "sexual revolution" didn't derive merely from the 1967 Summer of Love or the incident at Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn in 1969; it wasn't primarily the work of radicals or hippies or gay liberationists on either coast. She is at pains to suggest that the revolution was nationwide, almost embarrassingly mainstream and largely "inadvertent"--that is, the revolution was a byproduct, a side effect, of other aspects of 20th-century American history. As a scholar, Bailey is stuck with using the word "inadvertent" many times; as a writer and stylist she gracefully acknowledges the sometimes tendentious quality of her argument by finally writing it "(yes, inadvertent)."

Before World War II, Lawrence was a pleasant, rural town that boasted the University of Kansas, a separate junior college primarily for Native Americans, a beautiful residential section with a small flock of mansions and a poorer neighborhood with a solid sprinkling of African Americans. It was liberal in comparison with many other Kansas towns, but not all that liberal. The war brought in a factory, which meant defense workers--mostly blue-collar, single men--and this, according to Bailey, was the beginning of the beginning. Pillars of the community worried to one another in public meetings and private letters that the "wholesomeness" of Lawrence would be breached, and gradually it was.

The war would mean "an emerging national culture" that undermined local elites. It meant a more vigorous market economy and a stronger national highway system. All these phenomena, like a series of minor-seeming earthquakes, shook the foundations of "respectable" society so that the sexual revolution that hit with the impact of a sociological "big one" was able to happen so rapidly and with so much power.

Like any good writer, Bailey knows that the universal is grounded in the specific; she brings to life a series of incredibly touching characters: the philanthropic matron who laments to her friends that she can't seem to get a handle on town life anymore, the man who remembers that his classmates had sex with one kind of girl and married another, a poor hapless student with "special" glasses and a hearing aid who found himself--totally disoriented--trapped in a night of homosexual debauchery, too mind-blown to realize what had happened to him.

It's all written down in the various records of the university and the town--and Bailey has found these records.

The '50s come out to do a star turn here. The rules for sexual behavior then at the University of Kansas were unrealistic, to put it mildly. The men had relative freedom, but the women were restricted by countless "parietals": elaborate rules governing their curfews, dress, demeanor. Many people broke the rules, of course, but only in a private way. To be caught by campus authorities was to be expelled. (But the rules were stretched in untenable ways: If a boy got caught with a girl in a motel room, they were both expelled. If a boy got caught with a boy, they were both sent to counseling, because to be gay was to be "sick," not immoral, and they could stay in school.)

Each chapter here is a surprise and a pleasure. Bailey casts her narrative about the coming of the birth control pill as a fight between two headstrong factions in Lawrence that both want to give the pill to women but differ drastically in methodology. One man is brought down by the power of his own bad personality, and two women step in (another "inadvertent" happening that opens up more professional life in the community for females).

People jump out at you from this book! Sara Paretsky, the successful mystery writer, appears in a neat little cameo as an undergraduate protesting female curfews; Chancellor Franklin Murphy deals a blow to segregated movie theaters in town by threatening to show first-run movies on the university campus free. (Why that's UCLA's own Chancellor Murphy!)

It's a small world, America, and Lawrence is at its center here, a "silk road" for drug transportation in the '60s, and home to a brutish brand of biker-hippies who harvest the marijuana that grows wild in Kansas ditches and who churlishly refuse to go to love-ins. It's a town hit hard by the whole cultural revolution, beleaguered in 1970 by riots and arson, policed by the National Guard, a place where real people died, where revolution wasn't just a word.

This book is so much more, a terrific history of gay liberation (within Lawrence boundaries), a discussion of what the changing of sexual customs actually meant, finally, both to women and to men. I'm sorry that Bailey ended her study in 1972, but I have no other complaint. The revolution may have been "inadvertent" but nothing about "Sex in the Heartland" is.

It's beautifully shaped, carefully thought out, a treasury of useful information.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays