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Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution

Eric Schaefer, editor

(Duke University Press; US: Mar 2014)

The depiction of sexuality in television has changed dramatically in recent history, from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz waking up in separate beds in the ‘50s-era I Love Lucy to Samantha Jones performing licentious acts in the century-straddling Sex in the City. Indeed, with the release of Kinsey’s Reports on male and female sexual behavior (1948, 1953) and Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response (1966), sexuality could no longer be quietly tucked away from the public eye. Eric Schaefer’s Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution is a collection of essays that focuses on how media itself propelled the sexual revolution. While previous discussions of the sexual revolution have focused on topics such as changing mores and behaviors, women’s rights, birth control, sexual education, and coed college dorms, Schaefer’s collection examines how the media brought sexuality to the forefront, taking sex out of the bedroom and into print and onto to the public screen (Schaefer “Introduction” 3-4).


The essays, which range from surveys to case studies, encompass the ‘60s through the ‘70s. They discuss film, pornography, electronic media, the press, and publishing. Their overarching themes include the “the public/private divide, issues of identity and politics, individuals rights and civil liberties,…[and the] roles of the consumer and therapeutic cultures in post-World War II America” (19). To explore the many dimensions of the media’s role in the sexual revolution, the book is divided into five parts: “Mainstream Media and the Sexual Revolution”, “Sex as Art”, “Media at the Margins”, “Going All the Way”, and “Contending with the Sex Scene”. Each of these sections takes the reader through a vivid exploration of the way sex in the media provoked Americans to imagine what was once personal, was now “discussed” openly. Schaefer notes that while this volume only focuses on a specific time frame, “it should be clear that the sexual revolution has, in many respects, become the longest revolution” (19).


Part I, “Mainstream Media and the Sexual Revolution”, examines the roles of Hollywood and television. Christie Milliken’s “Rate It X? Hollywood Cinema and the End of the Production Code”(25-52) examines the impact of the rating system that was developed between 1973 to 1974. Against the backdrop of the economic climate and the changes in film production at the time, Milliken focuses on controversial films that were under scrutiny through the MPAA regulatory system as well as those brought to court for obscenities (26). Linda Williams’ “Make Love, Not War: Jane Fonda Comes Home (1968–1978)” (53-80) (see excerpt of this essay, here) argues that three interconnecting factors allowed women to be seen as sexual beings on screen: “the context of resistance to the Vietnam War, emerging discourses of sexology, and the willowy body of one iconic female star” (53).


Here, Williams uses Fonda as a case study to show how women finally expressed themselves sexually. In an iconic moment, Fonda is seen having orgasmic pleasure in the ‘70s anti-war post-Vietnam film Coming Home (69-74). Elana Levine’s “The New Sexual Culture of American Television in the 1970s” (81-102) argues that “television, as embodied primarily in the era’s three national broadcast networks, did more than any other popular cultural form to translate the sexual revolution to mainstream America” (81). She focuses on television producer and executive Doug S. Cramer, who helped to create such made-for-television films as Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway and worked with Aaron Spelling, the creator of Love American Style, Loveboat, and Charlie’s Angels.


In Part II, “Sex as Art”, the authors discuss the artistic aspects of sexually explicit films. Kevin Heffernan’s “Prurient (Dis)Interest: The American Release and Reception of I Am Curious (Yellow)” (105-125) examines the impact of I Am Curious (Yellow) and the way that it “straddle[s] at least three categories of the commercial cinema (the general-release films, the exploitation film, and the art cinema)” (106). Other films, like Last Tango in Paris, also “straddled the categories”, but I Am Curious (Yellow)’s “hybrid of these forms mobilize the experience of the counterculture and the sexual revolution” (122).


Elena Gorfinkel’s “Wet Dreams: Erotic Film Festivals of the Early 1970s and the Utopian Sexual Public Sphere” (126-150) examines the development and emergence of the New York, San Francisco and Amsterdam’s erotic film festivals which came about in the early 1970’s (126). John Hawkins’s “Let the Sweet Juices Flow: WR and Midnight Movie Culture”(151-175) looks at the Yugoslavian film WR: Mysteries of the Organism. This film, directed by Dusan Makavejev, was unsuccessful when it first came to the United States, but when it was screened as a midnight film it became a cult movie that exemplified the intersection between “pornography, the function of art cinema, Wihelm Reich, and sexual politics” (172).


Part III, “Media at the Margins”, focuses on the unlikely media venues that inspired the sexual revolution. Jacob Smith’s “33 1/3 Sexual Revolutions per Minute” (179-206) analyzes the significance of sexually explicit or sexually fantasizing LP records, which helped people embrace their sexuality in the comfort of their homes (202). Schaefer’s “‘I’ll Take Sweden’: The Shifting Discourse of the ‘Sexy Nation’ in Sexploitation Films” (207-234) investigates the way a fascination with Northern Europe inspired Americans to celebrate sexual desire and liberation. “The press was filled with stories of shifting social trends and transformative policies in Denmark and Sweden; moreover, a steady stream of sexploitation movies provided a constant reminder of the seemingly progressive sexual attitudes in Scandinavia” (208). Jeffrey Sconce’s “Altered Sex: Satan, Acid, and the Erotic Threshold” (235-261) inspects the role of Satanism in influencing the sexual revolution in terms of drugs, music, and hippie culture.


Part IV, “Going all the Way”, examines the role of the erotic film industry in the sexual revolution. Eithne Johnson’s “The ‘Sexarama’: Or Sex Education as an Environmental Multimedia Experience”(265- 296)discusses the role of the National Sex Forum, also known officially as the “Sexual Attitude Reassessment”, in creating sexual awareness by couples, although it was mostly geared to heterosexual relationships (266). Joseph Lam Duong’s “San Francisco and the Politics of Hardcore” (297-318) analyzes the political aspects behind hardcore pornography in terms of feminism, the ACLU, and civil rights (297-315). Jeffrey Escoffier’s “Beefcake to Hardcore: Gay Pornography and the Sexual Revolution” (319-347) focuses on the relationship between hardcore pornography and gay sexual depictions, arguing that pornography advanced the sexual rights of those “stigmatized for their sexuality” (342).


Part V, “Contending with the Sex Scene”, analyzes the manner in which sexuality became a visible part of our public culture. Leigh Ann Wheeler’s “Publicizing Sex Through Consumer and Privacy Rights: How the American Civil Liberties Union Liberated media in the 1960s” (351-382) discusses the ACLU’s role in advancing the sexual revolution. The ACLU fought for two basic rights: “the first was a reinterpretation of the First Amendment to protect, not just the rights of speakers — producers of speech — but the rights of consumers of speech as well” (351); and “the right to sexual privacy, beginning with the right to use birth control and later extending to the rights of adults to engage in consensual sexual relations” (351). Through these campaigns, the ACLU brought sexuality into the public eye (370).


Raymond J. Haberski Jr.’s “Critics and the Sex Scenes” (383-406) looks at the ways critics tried to scrutinize sex scenes and “nearly rejoiced that these films reflected popular expectations of a sexually liberated era” (385). The last article of the book, Arthur Knight and Kevin M. Flanagan’s “Porn Goes to College: American Universities, Their Students, and Pornography, 1968–1973”, (407-434) discusses the role of pornography on the college campus, specifically at Notre Dame and William and Mary. At Notre Dame there were riots as a result of the students’ desire to screen “two ‘obscene’ experimental art films.” At William and Mary there was a heated debate over “obscenity and the law,” but in spite of the controversy, the school later held a showing of the “softcore” Vixen (407). The authors use these case studies to show the disparities between the two college campuses.


The essays in Sex Scene are vivid and provocative. One wishes that the book dealt more with race and socio-economic status; although some of the articles allude to the role of African Americans in sexploitation works and pornography, they do not examine whether the expanding role of sex in the media had a different impact on lower-class and non-white Americans. Overall, however, Sex Scene offers a new angle for examining the “longest revolution” (19) and demonstrates the profound ability of the media to influence how we think, and what we think about. The reader who is shy about sexuality may find this collection a bit saucy, but those who are curious—but too afraid to ask— will find it an insightful education on the intersection between the media and the sexual revolution.

Rating:

Allison Schottenstein is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin in American History. She is currently working on her dissertation. Allison has published other articles on American Jewish history, religion, and race.


Related Articles
By Eric Schaefer
13 Mar 2014
Sex Scene suggests that what we have come to understand as the sexual revolution of the late '60s and early '70s was actually a media revolution.
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