By Pickup Culture

Studies into sexual behavior

book cover

In this blog post I thought I’d flesh out in more detail some of the changes taking place in behavior and attitudes towards sexuality in the 1970s, and the social science research seeking to document those changes.  My last post explored the impact of these changes, and in particular the emergence of what I’ve called ‘pickup culture’.  Whilst these changes have their origins in the ‘swinging sixties’, it was only in the later decade that the practice of meeting women (and, to a lesser extent men) for unattached sexual encounters became mainstream.  ‘Sexual liberation’, the loosening of taboos on sexual relations among young people, first manifested itself through pop icons and the developing culture of concert-driven, drug-fuelled utopic music festivals, but in the 1970s pickup found itself in more everyday contexts like travel-guides and movies.

As creative and interesting as those times were, the economic constraints on society were being felt in the oil crises of the early 1970s; and the sudden devaluation of the dollar (as a result of the United States coming off the gold standard in 1971).  The ethos of sexual liberation lived on, despite the temporary end to the prosperity of the previous decade – mainly through radical feminism, and the emergence of ‘sexual cultures’ found in swingers groups, gay bars and straight pickup venues.

I’ll explore how pickup culture manifested itself in popular culture in another post, but here I wanted to look at how cultural changes effected everyday sexual behavior in the 1970s.  The data comes from a book written by Morton M Hunt in 1974 titled Sexual Behavior in the 1970s.  Though liberal in its outlook Sexual Behavior resurveys some of the same terrain that the Kinsey’s studies covered in 1948 and 1953.

The survey was commissioned by the Playboy Foundation, which aimed to use the findings to promote sex education.  Findings were based on surveys of married and unmarried, men and women across the United States, asking questions about their backgrounds, religious influences, occupations, sexual practices and attitudes to relationships.

Sexual Culture in the 1970s

The book’s introduction gives a good rationale for the study, citing examples of some of the cultural changes taking shape during that decade:

The nude female breast, formerly portrayed only in trashy or arty magazines, has become an everyday sight in family, fashion and men’s magazines, and the hairy female pubis, which had always been rigorously hidden even in nudism literature, made its mass-circulation debut in the January 1972 issue of PLAYBOY.  Other magazines have followed suit and gone on to male frontal nudity…

In “soft-core” X-rated films, virtually every sort of sexual act was openly portrayed, through erection, intromission and orgasm were simulated or suggested rather than pictured in actuality; in “hard-core” blue movies, however, full-color close ups of erect penises penetrating every available orifice, and freely spurting semen, were being exhibited publically in erotic movie houses not just in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, but in Des Moines, Kansas City, Nashville, Dallas, Denver and a number of other cities.

Films like Last Tango in Paris (1972) reflected the change in film culture to some extent; an entire plot, for instance, focused on two strangers making out over the course of a week in a sordid Paris hotel.


Last Tango in Paris – lots of sex and nudity, 1970s-style.

Restrictions on printed publications were being lifted too; the word ‘fuck’ being included in the Oxford English dictionary for the first time in 1972.  The Sensuous Man (1971) and The Sensuous Woman (1969) were two classic sex manuals written at that time (by authors simply known as ‘M’ and ‘J’).  The Sensuous Man includes a good deal of information about male sexuality, covering topics like penis size, impotence and premature ejaculation.  Here are a few excellent excerpts from The Sensuous Man, illustrating in very plain English the role of the clitoris and vagina in sexually pleasuring women:

To test for lubrication, insert one or two fingers in the vagina.  If she is wet inside, you may now excite her further by stimulating the in-and-out motion of the penis with your fingers.  Pay particular attention to the upper part of the vagina near the entrance, so you can indirectly stimulate the clitoris as well.

The depictions of sex were very new too, exploring the dynamics of particular positions in fairly explicit detail:

She kneels and bends forward, resting her elbows across a couch or hassock.  You stand behind her.  Have her raise her buttocks as high as possible and then put your penis into her vagina.  Your two hands are free and can now be used to excite her breasts and clitoris as you go – right – you guessed it: in and out of her vagina.  The greatest depth of penetration is effect utilising this position.  There is also an unmatched feeling of power as you hold her hips tightly against your groin, her body helpless to resist your thrusts.

So with these kinds of material circulating within the culture, was it true to say that a revolution was truly under way?  What were regular couples doing – were they all swingers and sex addicts, as some sexual libertarians might like to think?

Premarital Sex

One of the biggest changes in attitudes towards sex, according to the survey, is the shift away from a prudishness mindset when it comes to premarital sex.  Although the Kinsey survey did not include data on such a topic, an omission which is itself reflective of a more conservative time, other surveys between 1937 and 1959 show a general disapproval for both men and women engaging in premarital sex – 22 percent saying it was alright for both sexes; 8 percent saying it was acceptable for men; leaving an almost 80 percent believing it was not OK for either sex.

Figures from the Sexual Behavior in the 1970s data show a huge shift towards a greater acceptance of premarital sex.  Anywhere between 60 and 84 percent of the men surveyed said that it was acceptable for women to engage in sex before marriage.  Overall women were less permissive in their attitudes – between 37 and 73 percent saying it was OK for men, and a slightly lower 20 to 68 percent said it was acceptable for women.

By contrast to the more liberal 1970s, the study cites Kinsey to show just how conservative the 1940s was regarding premarital sex – well over ‘one-quarter of unmarried American males had not yet experienced intercourse by age 25’.  That’s more than a quarter of unmarried men being virgins, at the ripe old age of 25!  By contrast, in the early 70s the report shows that figure to be as low as just 3 percent. ‘The more significant increase in premarital intercourse’ the study proudly claims, has ‘taken place among females.  One-third of females (single and marriage combined) in Kinsey’s sample had had premarital intercourse by the age of 25, as compared with over two-thirds in our sample.’  Women are more liberated, hoorar!

‘Permissiveness with Affection’

The emerging liberal narrative was clear: ‘The double standard [regarding female sexual permissiveness] has been relegated to the scrap heap of history’.  But to show that this was actually the case, the data included some interesting caveats.  The slut shaming tendency of women in previous generations was under attack, led by feminist activists – but it was still women themselves, and not men, who were the ones most resistant to this change.  In social science surveys, women were – and still are – sexually conservative in their stated views about sex.

free love

This is nothing new, of course, but the book presents data in such a way that makes the reader think that slut shaming was a thing of the past.  Attitudes to premarital sex were measured via responses to the following question: “Do you think it is all right for either or both parties to marriage and have had previous sexual intercourse?”  The answer should be clear cut – a yes or no.  But the answer shows a 20 to 68 percent range of women approving of sex before marriage, which is a fairly sizeable gap.  The clause ‘[d]epending on the degree of affection or emotional involvement between the partners’ was added; obviously this makes it more desirable for women to answer yes to that question.  To what degree, of course, varies according to each woman’s understanding of the words ‘emotional involvement’.

‘Emotional involvement’ will mean different things to different women, but the study draws upon sociologist Ira Reiss’s work to explain what it might mean in the context of the sexual liberation movement.  Given the increasing acceptance of sex parties and swingers clubs in the 1970s, women’s more liberal attitudes towards sex could be understood as a form of ‘permissiveness with affection’:

But if young women are much more likely than their mothers were to feel that they have a right to a complete sexual life before marriage, they do not exercise that right in a lighthearted and purely physical way; the inhibitions of the demi-vierge of the 1940s have been replaced not by free-and-easy swinging but by sexual freedom within the confines of emotional involvement, the new norm of being, in sociologist Reiss’s words, “permissiveness with affection”.

Though the data showed an increase in women becoming more approving of uncommitted, premarital sex; it also still indicated a preference for some form of commitment.  This is paradoxical, and seems to align with rationalising, hamster logic.  Women in the 1970s, as the book clearly shows, seemed to be enjoying greater levels of sexual freedom, but that sexual freedom always came with ‘emotional ties’.  Sexual liberation was certainly appealing to some women back then, but ‘in relative terms it remains true that most sexually liberated single girls feel liberated only within the context of affectionate or loving relationships’.

The Female Orgasm

With all of this positive talk of promiscuity, and the belief that it would lead to women having more satisfying lives, the study contains very little data measuring satisfaction – either during sex or in life more generally.  The data does show that 1970s men and women were practicing fellatio and cunninlingus more often, but it doesn’t show how satisfied they are with their husbands or wives, sexually or otherwise.  It’s interesting to note that the average time spent in foreplay among married couples had increased from 1938-49 to 1972 by … hold your breath … (a massive) 3 minutes.  The average in the 1970s was reported 15 an average of minutes, which was lauded as a huge improvement in terms of sexual progress in that decade.

marital coitus

I thought I’d take this opportunity to insert some data porn here, only to illustrate a point these kinds of sexology studies often (‘controversially’) like to make – that couples are having more sex than they did in earlier generations.  The authors of the study are keen to illustrate that the younger (16-25 year old) cohort were getting it on at a rate of over 3 times per week in the 1970s, up from just under 2 and a half times in the 1940s; and the 26-35 year olds were enjoying sex over 2 and a half times in the 1970s, compared with under 2 times over two decades ago.

All that is great, of course, but let’s not forget that the earlier generations were working harder, and had less recreational time to enjoy sex, given that the country was also involved in a war.  It’s amazing that couples had any time for sex in the first place.

It’s no surprise to find that married women in the 1970s were reaching orgasm more often than their mother’s generation, as the following chart shows.  But everything is relative, of course, and the fact that the data also shows almost half of the women in the 1940s reaching orgasm almost 100% of the time with their husbands was not such a bad thing either.

orgasm in marriage

Marriage and Orgasm

Reading through all the data one thing stands out when thinking about the narrative of sexual liberation presented throughout the book – married women have far more orgasms than single women.  This is something that Kinsey also noted:

Whether or not women had had premarital coitus, however, Kinsey found their orgiastic regularity increasing with the duration of the marriage, and continuing to improve even up to the twentieth year of marriage, a phenomenon most experts attributed to such internal processes in the marriage as the growth of intimacy, and trust, growing familiarity of the partners with each other’s physical needs, the slow wearing away of inhibitions, and the growing willingness of the wife to learn from the husband and to make little experiments at his suggestion.

Despite the fact that this view seemed more and more outdated with the emergence of the new feminist narrative, the data showed that there was only a slight increase in rates of female orgasm in marriages from previous generations – about 8 percent overall.

Looking back to the pre-sexual revolution days it’s easy for researchers and feminists to characterise women as victims of very unsatisfying encounters with their oafish husbands.  Many theories were developed around the issue of female orgasm in marriage, with Freudians suggesting that non-orgasmic women maintained a mental resistance to the idea of being dominated sexually by a man.  As Sexual Behavior in the 1970s indeed notes, with both psychological accounts and popular relationship books over the years, the onus has always been placed on the man, for either being too quick or not knowledgeable enough about his wife’s anatomy, to pleasure her properly.

With all the promise of sexual liberation in the 1970s, the radical politics of feminism in the air, the data still showed that women still enjoyed sexual intimacy within – rather than outside of – a committed relationship.  Much of the hamsterisation around the ‘permissiveness with affection’ idea continues today, as it must if feminists are to believe the continuing fallacy that sexual promiscuity is a social – much more than a biological – hurdle, one that gets in the way of their personal fulfilment.

Sexual Behavior in the 1970s, the legacy

The data from Sexual Behavior in the 1970s is interesting, and it certainly does depict how society was changing in its attitudes towards sex.   Permissive forms of sexual activity are welcomed in the report, characterised as a good thing for women and men.

Sexual Behavior in the 1970s also embraced pick up culture as a reflection of these changes and, compared to attitudes today, embraced pick up in a much more egalitarian way.  Men picking up women was seen to be acceptable, just as much as it was when women chose to pick up men – however and where ever they did it.

Today, however, male pick up artists are despised in almost every newspaper and television feature, whilst women gallivanting around the world ‘picking up’ men for travel, expensive meals, and other undisclosed benefits, are celebrated for their pro-sex, feminist lifestyle.  That (some) women have been practicing this kind of sexual permissiveness for forty years now is nothing new, but today’s media loves to remind us of how they’re fighting the good fight against that old patriarchal ‘double standard’.  When we see reports of how brave it is that a new Sex and the City-type starlet challenges the patriarchal norms by sleeping around with whichever alpha she so happens to meet, the hamster comes out for another run.

travelling feminist

Young dating traveler, celebrated for traveling to 7 countries on the back of 30 anonymous ‘dates’.

Reiss’s idea of ‘permissiveness with affection’ was used to explain how women rationalise this kind of sexual permissiveness, but the term has broader implications.  A footnote in the book refers to the idea of ‘liberalism with affection’, referring to how people develop politically progressive attitudes in general.  It’s an interesting term, one that can be used to describe how social science data is often interpreted through particular political lenses.  In some social science reports data is not used to provide an accurate account of social reality, but rather – as is so often the case with academic research into sexuality – to make the reader feel good about who she is, and what she does.

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