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How the Sexual Revolution Changed America Forever

With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.

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The idea that the personal is political soon got even more personal. The budding feminists in the student and radical movements of the 1960s were also the advance guard of the sexual revolution. They quickly came to see that they could apply their new consciousness not only to politics and the workplace, not only to family relationships, but also to sex itself. Although there has always existed a strain of sexual radicalism in America—from the Free Love movement of the 1860s to the Greenwich Village Bohemians of the 1910s—it had always been held in check by the failure rate of birth control. (Sex for sex’s sake simply doesn’t mix well with pregnancy and the care of infants.) Feminists doubted that women could ever attain full equality, or the practical ability to realize their individual potential, if they were not free to decide if they wanted to have children.

While the Pill was more effective than other forms of birth control, women remained at the mercy of biology as long as abortion was illegal. These young women activists joined the movement for abortion law reform and reframed the issue. They declared abortion to be an issue of a woman’s right to control her body on her own, with no man, church, or state having the power to tell her what she ought to do in such private matters of conscience. Feminists held public speak-outs in which they recounted their ordeals of illegal abortions in unsafe conditions. Men might have been able to take heart that at least they were needed by the newly sexually liberated women, except that these women had also redefined sex, or at least good sex. In 1970, in an influential essay, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” a founder of New York Radical Feminists claimed men had sold women a bill of goods about their own desires and biology. She declared women’s right to sexual pleasure, told men they had been doing it wrong forever, and pronounced that women actually didn’t need men for sex at all.

An even more radical challenge to sexual norms was emerging in the nascent gay liberation movement. On Friday night, June 27, 1969, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay and lesbian bar in Manhattan. Police raids of gay bars were common, but that night, a lesbian refused to go peacefully, and as crowds gathered in the streets of Greenwich Village, the patrons of Stonewall fought back. That night and throughout the weekend, New York gays and lesbians battled the NYPD in the streets of the West Village. The Stonewall Riot, coming at the height of the antiwar movement, the black power movement, and a radical turn in the women’s movement, immediately sparked a new social movement of gays and lesbians. Within a few weeks the Gay Liberation Front had been founded and spread quickly throughout the nation’s thriving gay urban communities. The GLF quickly transformed the existing gay rights movement, previously focused on mounting legal challenges to discriminatory laws, much as the young feminists had redirected the women’s movement from legal reform to cultural change. The GLF’s manifesto declared, “We are a revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished.” Influenced by all the radical identity movements of the time to take a “revolutionary” stand, the GLF had the greatest kinship with radical feminism. The two groups shared the belief that the proscribed gender roles of American society were oppressive to individuals, and they also shared a visceral suspicion of the nuclear family. “The family is the primary means by which this restricted sexuality is created and enforced, one GLF member wrote. “In a free society everyone will be gay.”