Last Updated 04 Nov 2022

Changing Sexuality in America

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After World War I, America was at a high point economically, industrially, and socially. The “Roaring 20s” brought forth immense change in nearly every aspect of American life. Many Americans now owned cars, radios, telephones and for the first time the country was connected in a way unlike before. Among these changes was a societal shift regarding sexuality and youthful Americans eagerness to embrace it. Previously, sexuality and sexual acts had been viewed as a necessary evil rather than a meaningful connection between a a man and a woman. The 1920s didn’t magically fix these societal views as the American Plan would harass women with unbacked claims of Venereal Disease until the 1960s and legislative figures would continue to restrict the widespread acceptance and use of contraceptives up until 1938.

However, the 1920s are easily credited with introducing new moral standards, a dialogue for sexuality and differentiating it from an evil, primal urge to a means of liberation. These new values challenged the previous generations views on modesty and actions deemed unbefitting of women. The 1920s ignited a transformation of sexuality in America as it brought forth the establishment of sexual education, the acceptance of contraceptives and empowered women to rise out of Victorian societal standards and initiate the acceptance of female sexuality.

In the early 20th century discussion on sexuality had been shackled down by puritinistically-oriented societal beliefs rooted in American legislation. These notions and fears did not appear out of pure yearning to suppress sexuality and expression but rather appeared out of a nervous attempt to correct sexual acts assumed to cause great suffering to the country. In 1900, six to nine of every 1000 women died in childbirth and this was due in part to the extreme rate of unexpected pregnancies and high rates of Venereal Disease. Birth control was criminalized under the Comstock Act as it defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control or birth control information through the mail or across state lines. Contraceptives were targeted by lawmakers and religious groups alike as they were thought to be lewd, immoral, and promote prostitution that would in turn further the ongoing fight against Venereal Disease.

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Women were viewed as the moral guardians of man, although often times falsely accused of spreading venereal disease and engaging in promiscuous behaviour. For Women, chastity and modesty were among the requirements with utmost importance for social acceptance. Women’s sexuality was viewed to be immoral as puritanistic beliefs directed it back to the original sin of Eve. Marriage was viewed as the only means of attaining sexual pleasure and any sexual relations out of wedlock were regarded as unspeakable. Sexual education was nonexistent and the public had been unaware of the Venereal Disease epidemic plaguing America. The 1920s question these values and introduces a dialogue for sexuality as the younger generations would soon display more open-minded opinions with regards to sexuality.

Sexuality began to lose its once “grotesque” status as the 1920s came around and a culture valuing sexual education came to be. At the front of the charge for moral reform was the social hygiene movement founded in 1905. The social hygiene movement argued the problems of sex such as disease and unwanted childbirth stemmed only from ignorance, and that educating the young was essential. Sex education focused on the physical, social, “aesthetic,” and ethical aspects of sex to improve the attitudes surrounding it. Social hygienists added a heavy medical emphasis to the moral and religious arguments and came to agree with religious ideals that sexual relations within the context of marriage was the best prevention of disease and “immorality” . In 1919, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau released a report suggesting sex education during school could have better protected soldiers from STIs during the Great War.

Campaigns educated soldiers to the dangers of STDs that would leave them unable to defeat the enemy in the lines of battle. Soldiers were praised for being free of venereal disease or potentially court-martialed if found newly infected. As a result of the intensive effort, the venereal disease rate dropped to the lowest rate ever reported. In 1920 the government would establish a nationwide sexual education initiative across almost all schools. Contraceptive methods were still societally viewed as obscenities and abstinence would be taught as the only realistic form of reproductive control to students. Sexual education in the 1920s provided a basic approach to understanding the risks and rewards of sexual actions.

Although not extremely widespread, the acceptance of contraceptives was a major feat of the “Roaring 20s”. Margaret Sanger, a New York native, spearheaded this movement as she witnessed firsthand how unexpected pregnancies and childbirth were afflicting women in her work as a nurse. Often times women would become pregnant and resort to streetside abortions that would leave them mamed and infected with disease. In 1918 the New York Appellate court issued a statement saying they were willing to permit contraception if prescribed by a medical physician. This decision was only applicable within New York and bypassed the strict Comstock Act that prevented the use, ownership or dispersion of Contraceptives. Acceptance of contraceptives allowed for a majoritively middle class American audience to control how and when they planned to start a family and prevent disease.

In areas accessible, it contributed to an overall decrease in children per family and reduced the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Sex was becoming safer, and was beginning to be viewed as a form of recreation that establishes bonds in a married couple rather than just a “sinful” means of procreation. Women in early 20th century America were witnessing only the beginning of the change to societal treatment and views on sexuality. Although many of the Women’s suffrage movements would find their greatest successes during the 40s’ through 60s’ the post World War I female worker was an undeniable image of independence. The 1920s for single, young, middle-class women was an exciting time as they would indulge in the new Flapper culture.

With the political field leveled by the Nineteenth Amendment, women sought to eliminate social double standards and Flapper culture initiated that journey. Flappers were middle-class women that tended to hold jobs such as store-clerks, factory workers and accountants. During the day they would live modest lives usually filled with factory work. However, By night, flappers engaged in a plethora of exciting city nightlife. Whether it be dancing at jazz clubs, attending vaudeville shows or sneaking into speakeasies for some liquor, Flappers knew how to have a good time. Flappers engaged in what were considered “men's activities” such as smoking and drinking and this inevitably led a stronger sense of companionship previously unknown to the genders. The flapper culture was all about discovering the fun that had previously been missing from women's’ lives and led to a reduced hesitance in experimenting sexually with their partners than previous generations.

For the more privileged, contraceptive methods were beginning to see acceptance and allowed women the freedom to explore their sexuality with their partners without unwanted pregnancies. However, that isn’t to say they were completely unhinged from societal values. Flappers constantly feared for their reputation and although open minded to the idea of free sexual expression did not possess the political or societal presence needed to establish any radical changes. The Flappers were merely only a preview of what was to come in the next twenty to forty years as legislation that held down women from embracing their sexuality would slowly seem to fade out of existence.

Although the “roaring 20s” were an amazing initial step towards an America with rational and scientific sexual values there was still a lot to be done. Even after the 1920s, women were being unjustly targeted by legislation under the American Plan. This government sponsored “social hygiene” campaign saw thousands of American women being forced to undergo gynecological exams, mercury treatment, and time in quarantine. This measure to protect the public from venereal disease caused a sense of fear and paranoia as any woman could be accused and automatically deemed infected. The American plan would punish and stigmatize young women’s sexual liberties until the 1960s when America witnessed a dramatic change in sexual culture.

The 1960s not only brought the downfall of The American Plan but also led to the undoing of the Comstock laws as 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut ruled that the private use of contraceptives was a constitutional right. By 1966, the National Organization for Women, who aided in the removal of the Comstock Act were heavily involved in the fight for sex education in schools. They would implement a new comprehensive sex education system that encouraged freedom to act upon sexual desires and provided information regarding contraception and abortions. Sexuality in America had not been transformed by the 1920s, however, the 1920s inspired a deep yearning for further sexual acceptance and reproductive knowledge that would inevitably shape the real “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.

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