The ‘first’ sexual revolution

Some initial thoughts for a talk I’m doing on Sunday

I dislike the term ‘sexual revolution’ but nonetheless it can be a useful one in that it fallibly delineates observable epochal shifts in human intimate life which, nonetheless, are only aspects of wider and messier processes. In this sense I want to see the notion of ‘sexual revolution’ as a theory of certain aspects of socio-cultural change – moving beyond the empirical data, although not abandoning it, in the interests of unpacking the dynamics of change and, from this, elaborating an account of the consequences, both within the permeable domain of ‘intimate life’ (which is constantly being withdrawn) and beyond it.

The first sexual revolution involved a range of elements:

– the recognition of sexual difference vis a vis object choice
– the emergence of sexual difference as an organising principle in the context of the emergence of the new social movements
– the emergence of an identity qua heterosexual
– a demoralisation of sex: an uneven and contested movement of sexual discourse out of a moral register and into a therapeutic register
– an increased visibility and publicity of sex but equally a discursive vacuum: technical sexological discourse, mediated by popular sex advice in media, starts to colonise lay discourses of intimate life
– the emergence of the newly public sexuality as a terrain for consumer capitalism

The first sexual revolution, which outstripped the intentions or awareness of self defined sexual revolutionaries was undoubtedly a positive thing. But it had some negative effects – sexual agency as affirmed and entrenched but the cultural resources necessary to effectively exercise that agency were eviscerated. Sexual experience became something that was either ‘normal’ or pathology, with the latter needing to be ‘fixed’ by experts (sometimes entirely self appointed and unqualified). Choice was extended but the internal parameters of that choice narrowed: it began to be ok to have sex with whoever you chose but the nature of that sex became increasingly subject to pathologising explanation – fuck men or women, your choice, but make sure you do it ‘normally’.

In brief my argument is that the ‘second’ sexual revolution involves the emergence of groups organised not around sexual difference vis-a-vis object choice but rather common experience vis-a-vis the normative conceptual architecture that was the legacy of the first sexual revolution – the asexual community, the poly community and the trans community all represent individuals who cannot make sense of their intimate experience (or the collective aspirations which flow from it) in terms of the cultural resources contemporary society affords to make sense of intimate life. Therefore there is a struggle towards articulating new ways of thinking, talking and being in relation to one another.

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