Sex: The Revolution

Are cable TV writers cribbing from Foucault? Not exactly. But Scott McLemee is keeping an eye on them anyway.

May 21, 2008

“Sex: The Revolution” is a four-hour miniseries that premiered last week on VH1. Its actual running time is closer to three hours, if you zap through all the commercials. VH1 is not a television network known for its historical documentaries. But clearly it is one that knows what its viewers, and its advertisers, really want.

Pure exploitation, though, it isn’t. “Sex: The Revolution” is educational television, of a sort, since the span of time it covers – roughly 1950 to 1990, one decade per episode – qualifies as ancient history for many of the people who are likely to watch it. I have some misgivings about the program. It suffers from the tendency to address every single topic it raises (abortion, pornography, Stonewall, the Pill) in two minutes or less. But to be fair, its producers have done a creditable job of going through the video archives in search of footage from yesteryear – even occasionally finding revelatory images that, as the saying goes, bring the past alive.

A case in point: The news reports, from 1968, about the case of Linda LeClair, a student at Barnard College who lived off-campus with her boyfriend, in violation of in loco parentis. The administration found out, and she briefly became the center of a media storm. In the footage, LeClair looks all of 20 years old. She answers the questions of a TV reporter with the sweet earnestness of someone who never really planned to fight a culture war, but is prepared to hold her ground once on the battlefield.

LeClair also resurfaces, 40 years older, as one of the talking heads whose memories and reflections serve to narrate “Sex: The Revolution.” Even more than the rapid pace of the documentary, it is the commentary track that embodies the limitations of the series. Some of the people appearing on camera are logical choices as interview subjects. Hugh Hefner, Gloria Steinem, and Erica Jong were not just witnesses to the events being narrated, but among its protagonists.

Likewise, it’s understandable to have invited Cal Thomas, a conservative pundit who regards the whole sexual revolution as a disaster. But each appearance by rock musician David Crosby is sure to invite speculation over just how much of the counterculture he can possibly remember. My impression is that a couple of the commentators are people who just hang around the VH-1 studios in order to make remarks whenever there is some time to fill in a program.

Strikingly absent from the program is the perspective available from those doing scholarly work on the history of sex. The one exception is Linda Williams, a professor of rhetoric and film studies at the University of California at Berkeley who has published interesting work on pornography. (Her latest book, Screening Sex, is forthcoming from Duke University Press this fall.) But Williams appears only for a few soundbites of two or three sentences each. Talk-show host emeritus Phil Donahue gets more camera time.

That does not mean that the series lacks a coherent perspective. On the contrary, it pretty strictly follows a very streamlined version of what Foucault, in the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976), called “the repressive hypothesis.”

Which does not mean that VH-1 executives are reading Foucault, necessarily. It’s just that the repressive hypothesis is so taken for granted as to be the default narrative. (Foucault identified it in order to challenge it.)

In this familiar account of history, sexuality was something held in check by society until it was liberated within recent memory. It should (the authorities believed) be controlled when it could not be forbidden. This clampdown entered an especially intense phase over the past 300 years or so. Previously, there had been a certain degree of frankness about the urges, as you soon discover from reading Boccaccio or Rabelais – or Shakespeare, for that matter. But with the rise of the bookkeeping-minded bourgeoisie, delayed gratification was amply rewarded. And the best way to delay gratification is to make sure nobody thinks about the possibility for it any more than absolutely necessary.

The repressive hypothesis American-style is even simpler and more emphatic than the Euro model sketched by Foucault. We skipped the Renaissance entirely and went straight into The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. There was never much Rabelaisian canoodling here to begin with. The Puritans hated sex, and they left their mark on the cultural DNA, so almost everybody was repressed and miserable until fairly recently.

Taking that backstory as a given, “Sex: The Revolution” starts in the repressed 1950s. The norms begin to change under the combined impact of Alfred Kinsey’s reports on sexual behavior, the pelvic gyrations of Elvis Presley, and improvements in birth control. The next thing you know, anything goes. The hippies get it on in the mud, gay men and lesbians kick down the closet door, The Joy of Sex sells like hotcakes, and suburbanites start having "key parties." There is a constant increase in candor and experimentation – at least until the backlash begins. (Archival footage of Jerry Falwell looking pious; clips of people talking about AIDS as God’s punishment, etc.) But no effort to turn back the clock is likely to get very far. The sexual revolution is a permanent revolution....

It might be pushing things to suggest that TV broadcasters try to incorporate Foucault’s alternative to the repressive hypothesis. He suggests that, far from silencing and hiding the human libido, society has worked tirelessly for at least two centuries to incite and to circulate discussions of sexual activity – creating new ways to describe, catalog, and monitor it, and all the while teaching us to think of something we call “sexuality” as a core element of our identities.

The tale that VH1 wants to tell is about the growth of individual freedom. Foucault’s ideas would make that story a lot more ambiguous, to say the least.

But suppose we stay well below the level of Foucault’s arguments about “biopower,” and just look at some of the findings from research into American history. What if documentary-makers aimed the camera at fewer celebrity has-beens – instead giving scholars a chance to talk?

The result would be a very counterintuitive picture of life before the sexual revolution. We’ll take a look at this other, less familiar perspective in next week’s column.


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