By L.S. Klepp
Updated December 03, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The Century of Sex

  • Book

The sexual revolution was a miserable failure, if you take it in the utopian terms mandated in the ’60s: We didn’t make love, not war, happily ever after. We did get The Jerry Springer Show and The Starr Report, plus plagues, problems, and public embarrassments. But drop the notion that the revolution was conjured out of thin air in about 1967, and a different picture emerges. Take a longer view, and the sexual revolution was both inevitable and successful, maybe the only successful revolution of the century. It was a slow but drastic transformation of culture and society that began no later than 1912 and was closely connected to two other developments, the urbanization of life and the emancipation of women.

This is the picture you get from The Century of Sex, journalist James R. Petersen’s Hugh Hefner-commissioned account of the sexual transformation of American life and the frantic efforts to conceal, thwart, and deny it. It’s a lively, casual mosaic of anecdotes, statistics, historical road markers, and preserved-in-amber slices of sex life, with no room left to discuss psychological or historical complexities. But within its basic framework—the liberation of the libido—everything falls into place.

And everything is here, from Evelyn Nesbit, the 16-year-old beauty riding naked on a velvet swing in Stanford White’s love nest, to Monica giving Lewinskys in the Oval Office; from Anthony Comstock, the self-appointed turn-of-the-century censor and sex scourge, to his contemporary dour feminist incarnation, Catharine Mackinnon; from the ”white slave” panic of 1910 to the ”satanic ritual abuse” panic of the 1980s.

By the time Petersen reaches the climax of the revolution in the 1970s, he resembles a waiter in an overcrowded restaurant, darting between orgies at Studio 54 and Plato’s Retreat, The Joy of Sex, gays and lesbians, sex shops, and Marilyn Chambers, an Ivory Snow model, in the porn classic Behind the Green Door.

There are many ”firsts”—the first movie smooch (in The Kiss, in nickelodeons circa 1896), the first movie sex symbol (Theda Bara), the first porn film (A Free Ride, 1915). Also one of the first explicit sex manuals for women (The Wedding Night, circa 1900, by Ida Craddock, who was hounded to suicide by Comstock), and the first vibrators (expensive electrical gadgets operated by doctors in their offices circa 1910 to induce therapeutic ”hysterical paroxysms” in women suffering from ”hysteria”).

Petersen suggests that the younger generation of the ’20s was the first ”to embrace sex as the central adventure in life”; one writer summed it up as a shift of the sexual center of gravity ”from procreation to recreation.” The best measure of the shift, which fills most of the book, is the increasing tolerance, despite fierce resistance, of publicly available sexual images and publications. So we move from the censorship of the mere mention of extramarital sex or prostitution in Theodore Dreiser’s novels to the courtroom triumphs of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; from stag films in smoky lodges to adult videos at the mall; from pulp magazines and pinups to Playboy.

And yes, Hefner, Playboy‘s founder and philosopher, who contributes a foreword to the book, is also one of its heroes, arriving with fanfare in the chapter on the 1950s. You almost expect, along with the book’s engaging illustrations, a centerfold of Miss 20th Century to pop out. Hefner’s brand of merchandised fantasy does come in for criticism from some quoted feminists here, but he gets the last word, because if this book proves something, it’s that the real sexual revolution and women’s liberation are two sides of the same American coin, a very civilized multiplication of individual choices and freedoms. A-

The Century of Sex

  • Book
  • James R. Petersen