To Be Absolutely Frank

Forty Years of Sexual Intercourse

A revolution reaches middle age.

By 1.2.03

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The sexual revolution turns 40 this year -- we have it on no less an authority than Philip Larkin, in the opening lines of "Annus Mirabilis":

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) --
Between the end of the
Chatterly ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Britain actually lifted the ban on Lady Chatterly's Lover in 1960 (a year after the United States), so Larkin is taking poetic license there. But the Beatles' first LP was released on March 22nd, 1963.

I was born on December 16th of that year, so it's quite possible that I was conceived on the very day that Please Please Me hit the shelves. Yet much as I would like to believe that my first sparks of life were raised to the strains of "Love Me Do," I'm virtually certain it didn't happen that way. The album came out on that day in Britain, but the Fab Four didn't invade the States till almost a year later. In any case, my parents have never been rock and roll fans.

Still, the event is personally significant to me, because if Larkin is right, that makes me an exact contemporary of the sexual revolution. I am in no way representative of that revolution, but no one who's had his eyes even occasionally open over the last four decades can have missed the astonishing changes in mores.

According to the pop-historical account of this trend, it started with the first issue of Playboy in 1953 and culminated at Woodstock in 1969. By that time, the story goes, everyone except a few Bible Belt ministers and Midwestern congressmen had surmounted their inhibitions, and even those blue-noses were probably indulging in private.

In fact, the process has been much more drawn out, yet despite the protests of some people and the misgivings of many more, its progress has been inexorable.

Just think. When I was in college in the early '80s, at a famously liberal northeastern university, my friends and I flattered ourselves that we were the height of sophisticated nonchalance. Yet when one of us moved into an off-campus apartment with his girlfriend, the rest of us were startled. Almost a decade after sit-coms had thoroughly dealt with the question, and had decided it in favor of liberty, it still seemed daring to live in sin.

Today I don't know any American families who would make a fuss if their college-age kids cohabited. There are many such families, of course, but the fact that I don't know any of them -- and I know some pretty conservative people -- suggests how widely the conviction has spread that sexual behavior is simply a matter of personal choice.

David Frum writes that Americans today prize sexual liberty the way they did economic liberty at the end of the 19th century and religious liberty at the end of the 18th. For anyone hoping for an imminent pendulum swing in the direction of continence, this is a discouraging analogy. Those other freedoms did not exactly turn out to be passing fads.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.