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Whatever Happened to the Sexual Revolution?
Publisher: Processed World
Year Published: 1986
Resource Type: Article
What would a future anthropologist make of the bizarre and seemingly contradictory assortment of information on sexuality available today?
The sex industry has been held responsible for the proliferation of sexist images and ideas throughout society, for women's victimization and exploitation, for the destruction of families, and for encouraging rape and child-molesting. The growth of pornography and prostitution is held up as one of the nefarious consequences of the sexual revolution, an example of how dangerous loose sexual attitudes really are. So appealing has porn been as a target that it has united feminists like Andrea Dworkin (for whom the Meese Report was "a turning point in women's rights" [Time 7/21/86] with right-wing fundamentalists who want to put women back in the home.
Scapegoating the sex industry distracts the public from deeper social problems. What is really going on in the morality campaigns is an attempt to re-legitimate traditional values. The mission of restoring the nuclear family as a haven of warmth and safety is appealing for many reasons. It offers a hope that we can extract ourselves from the complicated horrors of the world, it allows us to close our eyes to the endemic sources of violence and degradation in our society. Singling out the figure of the sex-crazed child molester, for example, is easier than acknowledging the far more pervasive routine emotional and physical abuse that abounds in the American family. For the media, stories of psychotic sex criminals make good copy, for politicians, sexual fear is a political goldmine. The politicians behind the resurgent interest in sex-busting are at least appearing to do something about the anxieties created by social decay.
By deflecting fears from the real causes, moral panics exacerbate the anxieties they pretend to address. Even the most trivial social interactions become charged with fear: mothers react with panic when a stranger stops to pat their child on the head, childcare workers refrain from affectionate physical contact with the children in their care. Children themselves are taught to associate sex with fear and danger, reinforcing sex-negative attitudes.
Sexual license is a primary target of today's moral panic, and in response we assert our right to sexual freedom--not just on the grounds of free speech or privacy, but in affirmation of the positive side of sexual pleasure. At the same time it is important to go beyond the sexual to understand the anxiety that is being tapped by the sex-busters. We need to focus our fear and anger on underlying economic and social problems and not on false targets.