Sex & Relationships

How the Boomers Transformed Sex

Richard Croker, author of the "Boomer Century," discusses the impact of 1960s and '70s sexual rebellion.
Documentary filmmaker, journalist, and author Richard Croker was born in 1946. As a "leading edge" baby boomer, he witnessed pivotal events of the 1960s, including President Kennedy's inauguration and Dr. King's funeral procession.

Some forty years later, Croker reexamines this history in The Boomer Century, a companion to the PBS documentary produced by Joel Westbrook and Neil Steinberg, and hosted by Dr. Ken Dychtwald. The book explores how this generation of seventy-eight million people helped shape society and how it will impact the future.

What was so revolutionary about the "Sexual Revolution"? In writing this book, did you learn something new about it?

In actuality there was no sexual "revolution." There may have been a sexual "rebellion" but no revolution. A revolution is a rebellion that succeeds -- a rebellion is a revolution that fails. Nonetheless, why not rebel about sex? We were, according to popular memory, rebelling against everything else.

The producers of the documentary, for which my book is the companion, interviewed Erica Jong and Eve Ensler about this very topic. Go figure. While Ms. Jong's book, Fear of Flying, may have encouraged sexual experimentation by introducing us to "the zipless fuck" to women who not only enjoyed sex (contrary to popular belief), but reveled in it -- Ms. Ensler lived it, or as she says today, lived through it. She tells us that she feels lucky to have survived. She most certainly would not recommend her lifestyle of the '60s to her granddaughter, but she has no regrets.

In her interview, she told us, "Would I go back and erase those (years)? Not for a second. You know, I'm so happy not only that lived through it, but I survived, because there was a period right after where people didn't survive that kind of lifestyle. So for me, I grew up at that point where everybody just took off their clothes and took off masks and took off taboos and experimented and discovered and that absolutely shaped who I am."

Both ladies agree that if there even was a sexual revolution, it was very short lived. For centuries women had to deal with the triple-edged sword of fear of incurable STDs, fear of pregnancy, and fear of the dreaded "bad girl" reputation, and suddenly in the '60 all of those negative repercussions of unmarried sex were suddenly and absolutely gone. Syphilis and gonorrhea were cured -- the birth control pill was easily available -- and who the hell cared what other people thought anyway? Having sex became like playing tennis. No big deal. That was fun. See you later. But then along came more dreadful STDs and a feminist movement that taught women to respect themselves, and the rebellion was over as quickly as it began.

Unfortunately, there are places where America's children continue the rebellion. I agree with George Will on virtually nothing but respect his journalistic integrity. He recently said on the ABC program This Week, that in the African-American and immigrant communities, seven out of ten children born today are born to single mothers. Seven out of every ten. The prospects for those children are dim. Their mothers were probably born into the same condition and so will be their children. A college education is absolutely out of the question for these kids, and even a high school diploma is highly unlikely. The sexual rebellion in our "at risk" communities must be put down.

How did the mass media -- television, radio -- impact this generation's view of sex?

By the time we leading edge boomers got to college, we had already figured out that the mass media was run by a bunch of big fat liars. I mean we loved the Cleavers, the Andersons, and the Recardos, but we didn't know anyone who lived like that. Our parents surely didn't sleep in separate twin beds. They told us that the Beatles and the Stones were evil. They told us that marijuana would make us want to rape and kill; that marijuana led to hashish and hashish led to LSD and LSD led to heroin and heroin was suicide. Therefore: marijuana leads to suicide. If any part of the media impacted my own personal view of sex, certainly it was Playboy. I may still have a copy or two lying around here someplace. Those girls were my childhood friends.

What do you remember of the women's rights movement? Why do you think young women today, generally, are less interested in feminism?

Bra burnings! I thought that was the greatest thing ever! It might be true that the first bra I ever saw was on fire. But Betty Freidan had every bit as much an impact on American society as did Dr. King. In the '60s in many places, women were not even permitted to sit on juries! The word "peers" was defined as twelve white men. Her book, The Feminine Mystique, had a gigantic effect on our country. Girls no longer attended college questing for the coveted "M R S degree". For the first time, women in huge numbers began to seek advanced degrees with the intent of becoming professionals, of entering the business world -- and staying.

It is interesting that just this week, a report was issued by the American Association of University Women stating that women (particularly young women) are still being paid at a significantly lower rate than men and that the reason for that is the assumption that women in the workplace will eventually become pregnant and leave.

Today's young women are less interested in feminism for the same reason young African Americans are less interested in civil rights. The movements achieved all that they could achieve by changing the laws. Racial and gender discrimination are now against the law in America -- praise the Lord! Now it's hearts and minds that remain to be changed, and hearts and minds are changed one-at-a-time. Every young woman in the workplace today is a one-person feminist movement, whether she knows it or not. Every young African American in the workplace today is a one-person civil rights movement, whether he knows it or not. These people can either revive the old stereotypes or pull the plug and let them die, but these days that is done one-person-at-a-time.

So much has been written about President Kennedy's sexual escapades. Did young people, then, have any notion that these things were going on? What's changed that makes people today so obsessed with our politicians' sex lives?

No. No one had a clue (except J. Edgar Hoover). But remember, we were only two presidents removed from FDR, and some people didn't have a clue that he couldn't walk!

The ugliness of politics, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the Internet rumor mill have all combined to make sexual conduct fair game. Ask yourself this question: "What did a tryst with an intern have to do with the Whitewater investigation?" Why was that question even asked? Two bumper stickers come to mind. The first reads, "When Clinton Lied, Nobody Died", and the second says, "Quick, somebody give W a BJ so we can impeach him!"

Did the fact that a young, handsome president was leading the nation influence the way young men and boys idealized masculinity or manliness? Growing up what impact did Kennedy's media image have on you?

I never thought of it in terms of masculinity, but I was and remain a victim of the Kennedy mystique. I worked stuffing envelops during the campaign and attended his inaugural at the age of fifteen. I was there when he challenged us to "explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce." I wept when John John saluted his father goodbye. I look at Barack Obama and feel Robert Kennedy. But I don't think it was about "manliness". It was about idealism. It was about an incredibly positive view of what we could do as individuals and as a nation. It was about "America the Good" and I want that America back.

The boomers are the first group to divorce in large numbers. With so many single people in their fifties and sixties looking for love, how have the lifestyles of pre-seniors and seniors changed from that of previous generations?

Most of our mothers had vowed before God that they would "love, honor and obey" their new husbands. Beginning in the '70s at least half of us began to question and challenge yet another sacred icon of our fathers. "Obey? Who made up that rule? I didn't read that in The Feminine Mystique!" Then came, "Fix your own dinner," and the vision of June Cleaver as the perfect American wife and mother was as archaic as hoop skirts and parasols.

In the essay that eventually dubbed us "the me generation" (The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening), Tom Wolfe made note of our proclivity to divorce and of the historical fact that "the right to shuck overripe wives and take on fresh ones was once seen as the prerogative of kings only, and even then it was scandalous."

Before the boomers, there was a social stigma attached to divorce -- and particularly to a divorced woman. Our parents even had a derogatory word, reserved specifically for her. A divorcee. She was de-flowered and di-vorced. Used merchandise. "Available". It was the woman who was generally considered responsible for a "failed marriage", even if she had endured nightly beatings. Ah! Another great American institution altered forever by boomers! Thank God!

Now -- picture this. You're a boomer man today. You married at twenty-one, divorced at thirty-five, remarried at forty to a lady fifteen years your younger, and fathered a child at fifty. Now you are sixty and want to move into a nice, quiet, gated "adult community" with an elegantly groomed, private golf course. But it's "age restricted" and you have a forty-five-year-old wife and a ten-year-old daughter! "No adult golfing community for you!" You have picked the wrong man, however, to ask about anecdotes of divorce. It's often forgotten that while fifty percent of our marriages "fail", the other fifty percent "succeed". I married at the ripe young age of twenty-one (as was perfectly acceptable in those days) and remain married to my college sweetheart. She still makes me laugh. Now, how much does that golf community home cost again?

How has the sexual "rebellion" affected the dating habits of divorced baby boomers?

This generation has evolved from cannabis to Cialis. We're ready to pack up our leisure suits and move to South Beach baby! Speedos and all! Drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll all over again! Woodstock or bust! Not.

In what ways can the time between fifty-five and seventy-five years old be the most exciting and fun years of life?

This is the time of life Dr. Ken Dychtwald calls "middlescence." Very much like adolescence, it is a time of unlimited opportunities for boomers. Adolescence was a time when we invented ourselves -- middlescence will be a time for reinvention. Our fathers looked forward to five good years of retirement. Move to Florida at sixty-five and to the Great Beyond at seventy. Today the Great Beyond has another ten years to wait, and by the time we get there it might well be five more years. Can you afford a twenty-year vacation? Do you really want a twenty-year vacation? That's a hell of a long game of canasta! Are we going to move instantaneously from success to irrelevance, or are we going to return to the idealism of our youth? Are we going to vanish into insignificance or are we going to continue to try to make a difference in the world? We put our idealism on hold while we earned our livings and raised our children. In our middlescence we can get it back -- we can turn that hobby into a business or we can volunteer, or we can start our own nonprofit organization. Heck -- we can join the Peace Corps! We've changed everything else we've ever touched, generally for the better, and we're going to change retirement as well.

In developed countries, there is a baby slump. Why do you think men and women are having fewer children?

We boomers had fewer children than did our parents. They had fewer children than did their parents, and our children seem to be having fewer children that we did. I must point out, though, that the jury is still out. Gen X is waiting longer to marry and even longer to start families. You are asking me to stereotype an entire generation. Don't worry. Since I wrote The Boomer Century I am getting that a lot. It seems that people want to take seventy-eight million boomers and lump them all together as a single, monolithic lump when, in fact, according to historian Joshua Zeitz, only about two percent of us were "activists" in the old days, and another two percent volunteered to go to Vietnam. The rest of us were stuck in the middle, divided in half by the social and political issues of the times, and remain divided in half to this day. So let it be with the Xers. A very few may be having fewer children because they are the real "me generation", putting us to shame in the "it's all about me" category and think children will distract them from their personal quest. Others may be earth conscious, making a deliberate effort to contribute to "zero population growth" by adopting. This is a complex a question that I don't think can be answered in a book -- much less a paragraph.
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