Changes in Sexual Attitudes Since the Consciousness Revolution

Erik Garrison, 11/25/1999




In society we are bound together to meet a common end: reproduction. All life strives to continue itself, to give rise to other life. We are no different. Sex drives our lives. From birth until death, our most basic social purpose is to reproduce.

Our complex cultures have differing attitudes about sex. This paper relates the changes in sexual attitudes over the past 40 years. There appears to be a cyclic trend in America, stretching from the conservative ideals of the wholesome 1950s, to the sexual liberation of the 1960s' and 1970s' consciousness revolution, and then waxing conservative again from the mid-1980s onward.

Culture in the Past Four Decades

Forty years ago, America had just finished a period of rapid post-war expansion. A sharp social shift occurred after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November, 1963: the consciousness revolution began. To young baby boomers, protest and violence became an acceptable form of expression. Vietnam war and civil rights movement protests fueled the fire of rebellion, creating an air of newness and excitement while America's youth protested in a safe, job-rich environment (Strauss; Howe, pp 171-175).

It was into the expressive freedom of the consciousness revolution that the first oral contraceptive was introduced. The sexual freedom that the pill granted women virtually led to the sexual revolution ("Sex in the Sixties," pp 2-3). By taking the pill, a woman finally had the power to prevent pregnancy. For the first time, sex no longer meant babies or marriage.

The changes in attitude were obvious: In Georgia in 1969, there were 36 recorded abortions per 1000 live births. A year later, there were 96. Feminist activism, oral contraceptives, and the 1973 Roe vs. Wade abortion case had created a world strikingly different from the conservative, family-oriented America of the 1950s, when women with unwanted pregnancies often attempted self-abortions using common implements like coat hangers ("Sex in the Sixties," pp4).

The euphoria of the consciousness revolution lasted until after Nixon's resignation in 1973, when recession and stagnation hit the US economy. Reality set in for the Boom generation, and by the mid 1980s, the consciousness revolution was over, and the sexual revolution was dying.

The past two decades have shown a reversal in the direction of the sexual revolution. In the 1980s, televangelist television programs commanded an impressive following, and, in religion, Americans found solace from a world of high unemployment and recession. Republican presidents Reagan and Bush ran on platforms promoting "family values" and declared war on drugs while the conservative right denounced liberal views on sex and abortion.(1)

In the 1990s, the trend continues. Christian organizations like the American Family Association, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Christian Coalition, and the Promise Keepers have promoted Christian values to the mainstream, denouncing premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and divorce. Contemporary Christian literature produced by these groups has successfully promoted abstinence to many teenagers (Cole, pp 17-20).(3)

Recent surveys have also illustrated a conservative trend in sexual attitudes: a 1999 survey of college freshmen showed a 14% decline in support for abortion since 1990 (from 64.9% to 50.9%), another survey showed a mere 42% of those questioned believed "the right of a woman to have an abortion is acceptable in today's society." A record low 39.6% (down from 51.9% in 1987) of those surveyed believed "If two people really like each other, it's all right for them to have sex even if they've known each other for a very short time," (Leo, pp 1).

A survey of young urban males shows that while the number of religious teens has changed little, those teens have developed more conservative values.(4) (Leo, pp 1). The percentage of males aged 17 to 19 who had ever had sex fell from 75% to 68%. The percentage of males who would support carrying an accidental pregnancy to term has risen from 19% in 1979 to 59% in 1995.

A survey I conducted at Frankfort High School of 77 tenth through twelfth graders produced similar results (Garrison, pp 1-2). Notably, the attitudes toward abortion were much more favorable than suggested by the previously mentioned surveys. The number of students who believed "a woman should have the right to an abortion," was 68.8% while 81.8% believed a woman should be allowed to have an abortion if she was raped. The number who answered yes when asked "Are you religious" was 53.2%, while 72.7% believed sex to be acceptable outside of marriage.

The End of the Sexual Revolution

An obvious shift has occurred in attitudes toward sex. Why? What factors have ended the sexual revolution?

In 1983, the AIDS virus was identified (Giri, pp 12). In the ensuing years, sexually transmitted diseases have once again inhibited "free love" in the same ways that possible pregnancy did before the advent of effective, widespread contraceptives. Maybe Americans have waxed conservative partially out of necessity.

Religion is becoming more important in society. A survey of women by Faye Wattleton of the Center for Gender Equality showed a 6% rise in the number of women who said religion is important in their lives, from 69% in 1997 to 75% today (Leo, pp 1). This abrupt rise may allude to a greater need for structure in the turbulent nineties, or it may be a reaction to the liberal consciousness revolution. Many echo-boomers(5) believe their parents were too extreme, too sexed, and too drugged. An increasingly conservative viewpoint makes sense (Garrison, interview).

In general, there has been a reversal in ideals. For example, feminists, who were considered prudish by the hippie culture, have spearheaded a nineties-era sex-positive movement (alt.culture, Sex-Positive Feminists). It could seem that all cultural changes are simply reactions to previous, extreme attitudes.

The changes of the sexual revolution are permanent. While sex will always be acceptable outside of marriage, and there is no doubt that the sexual act and reproductive sex have forever been separated. This is the main accomplishment of the sexual revolution, the greatest change in sexuality in human history.

Final Thoughts

I'm fascinated by cultural history, and the cycles of history. The changes in sexual attitudes in the past four decades cover both these areas, and made for a very interesting topic Researching the sexual revolution was one of the most interesting things I've ever done. I learned more than I could possibly describe in this paper.

In researching for this paper, I utilized the Electric Library, and online resource of thousands of magazines, newspapers, books, and images. I could have never possibly collected as much information as I did without it. However, with research being so simple, I would sometimes become sidetracked. Research would have been much easier if I had drawn an outline of my paper before the majority of my research.

There were many interesting responses in the survey I conducted, but didn't think they would fit in any part of my paper. My topic was very broad; I essentially tried to cover 40 years of cultural history to show the rise and fall of the sexual revolution. If there had been time to write a second draft, I'm positive my work would be more structured. I hope this paper was informative and intriguing.


The author expressly forbids the copy of this document without his consent. In other words, e-mail me before you copy this thing.



1. This period has been characterized by excessive polarity between the major political parties, the two parties have contrasting opinions on almost every major issue. The ensuing political fights, which include the impeachment of president Bill Clinton and the 1996 government shutdown, have been described as "culture wars,"(2)

2. "Culture Wars" was coined by James Hunter in his 1991 book of the same name.

3. In one noticeable instance in 1994, the National Mall in Washington, D.C. was inundated by some 211,163 "True Love Waits" pledge cards, each signed by a teenager pledging to save sex until marriage. The event was sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention.

4. This illustrates the polarity in ideals developed during the culture wars.

5. Children of Baby Boomers, youth born after 1980.


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