The Sexual Revolution and History

Well, I'll be damned!  It's nigh time to write a new blog post.  And all I can think of at the moment for a post is to advance a history of the sexual revolution that  is so improbable, so wild, so remarkably inane that only my long term readers will absolutely expect it of me.   Worse, I aim to write about the sexual revolution only as a way of introducing a shocking series of questions at the end of this post.  And this -- all this! -- is my way of repaying those three people who kindly emailed me last week with their warm encouragement for me to start blogging again.  It might seem to you arguable that the world "shameless" doesn't even begin to describe me.

So, please allow me then to now set the stage for my revelations about the sexual revolution: I went through both middle-school and high-school while the revolution was gradually insinuating its way into my life and the life of my classmates.  So it seems to me quite possible that my take on it was heavily colored by the natural changes in behavior and expectations that nearly everyone goes through during those years.  Basically, I and my classmates began those years with a very reserved attitude towards sex  and ended them with a much more open attitude.   And I think we would have done that to some large extent even without the sexual revolution seeping into our consciousness, and doing much to shape our behavior and expectations.

Now at this point, I could list all the various ways in which the sexual revolution was made felt in my hometown.  But the thought occurs to me that all of those ways have been dealt with at length by competent sociologists and historians.  Because, even though the revolution came a bit later to my hometown than it did to the East and West coasts of America, it had much the same effects.  Or so far as I can see, it did.  So, what I am going to do instead is propose the most ridiculous, the most ludicrous, the most implausible way in which the sexual revolution ever arrived anywhere.  That's to say, it arrived in my hometown as a hotly contested debate over whether middle-school girls could decide for themselves whether to wear pants to school.

It might seem strange today that there was ever an age in which girls were prohibited from wearing pants to school, but that's the world I grew up in.  One day, though, a girl named Debbie decided to show up for classes in pants.  They were slacks, rather than jeans, but soon afterwards -- within a week or two -- a handful of my female classmates were also wearing slacks.  Perhaps five or six girls.  And that started a lively debate that took place over a period of a few days.  The principal first allowed them.   Then he changed his mind and disallowed them.  Then he changed his mind one more time and made slacks -- but not jeans -- allowable girl's wear.

Before we dismiss the significance of this incident for what it must certainly appear to be -- that is, for the typically wild speculations of an admittedly lunatic blogger -- consider the messages that the prohibition against girl's wearing pants might have been meant to send.  In the first place, the prohibition seems to have been intended to impose gender differences on the sexes.  Boys wear pants, girls wear dresses.

But it is also at least arguable that it had the effect -- and perhaps was even intended to have the effect -- of sending the message that how a girl expressed herself through her clothing was subject to societal approval.  Put negatively, she had no absolute right to express herself in other than socially approved ways, even if those ways harmed no one but herself.

Now, perhaps oddly enough, that latter issue -- whether a girl had a right to behave as she saw fit when her behavior harmed no one but herself -- was core to the still yet-to-come issue of sexual liberation.  In other words, the subject of the debate would change from pants to sex, but that one issue would be core to both.

There were a couple more battles over girl's dress.   First, a few months after the battle over girl's slacks came the battle over girl's jeans.  The girls won that one.  Then, a year or two later came the battle over mini-skirts.  In the end, a minimum permitted length was established on the grounds that anything shorter than that distracted the boys from their schoolwork.  So, you could say the girls only half-won that battle.  But if you read between the lines, they actually won a complete victory, for they had succeeded in establishing that they had a right to wear pretty much whatever they wanted to wear so long as it caused no harm to anyone else.   And that, at least in my hometown, was how sexual liberation was argued for:  If it causes no one else any harm, what right has anyone to say Jane and Joe can't mess around with each other?

To be clear, that right was an ideal before the pants war.  So far as I know, Americans have always held to the notion that you are free to do as you please so long as it harms no one else.  At least, we've held to that notion in some situations.  And perhaps a good chunk of American history is the expansion of that notion to more and more situations.  But the principle's application to the girl's dress code at that place and time was perhaps locally significant for this reason: It taught myself and at least some of my classmates the lesson that the principle came first, and that it negated any rule in conflict with it.  So, while even I am not crazy enough to say the sexual revolution everywhere came about because of a challenge to girl's dress codes, I would quite cheerfully, and quite annoyingly, argue that in one particular place and time, the way to the sexual revolution was most likely paved by a change in school dress codes.

But would the sexual revolution have come anyway?  I'm sure it would have.  It was just made easier because of the challenges.

But imagine if all of that is actually true!  Imagine that the sexual revolution in one small Midwestern community was aided and abetted by a challenge to girl's dress codes.  What a nightmare that could be for sociologists and social historians. Indeed, a nightmare easily the equal to reading one of my blog posts.

Consider the implications.  It seems to me that our best model of history follows this pattern: Some movement, technology, idea, cultural development, or social change starts at a certain time and place, say point w, and then spreads outward from that point to points x, y, and z.  But, as a refinement, the thing alters as it spreads.  That is, it arrives at point x, for instance, somewhat different than it began at point w.  And, perhaps, it is even adopted at point x for reasons that are in some respects crucially different from the reasons for which it was adopted at its point of origin.  I am under the impression that good histories take all of the above into account -- and more.  But, if so, what might that imply?

For instance, is the whole truth of such things as social movements, technological spreads, idea propagation, and so forth even possible?  Would not the whole truth be so extensive, so detailed, so various as to be incomprehensible?  And if so, what is the duty of an historian or social scientist towards giving an account of such things?  Are they obliged to tell as much of the truth as they can, even if amounts to detailing every last mushroom in the forest?  Or are they only obliged to tell what they deem is of greatest significance or relevance?  But if so, significant to what?  Relevant to what?

Although I have never heard this said before, I am sure someone has said this before me: Promises to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth are in many cases impossible to realize idealism.  Here, then, is a modest proposal:  The most useful histories are not those which merely reveal truths, but those histories which reveal the truths that may be most useful in predicting the future.  Thus, a history that points to the Pill as a major cause of the sexual revolution would most likely be far more useful than a history that pointed to a challenge to the girl's dress code as having once aided and abetted a local coming of the sexual revolution, albeit both histories might be equally accurate.

But what do you think?  In what ways must a history be truthful to be useful?  In what ways, if any, can a history be false and yet still useful in predicting the future?  Last, is its usefulness in predicting the future the most important value of a history?


  1. History must be truthful to prevent dishonesty, but falsifying history can be useful though offensive to some. Publicly falsifying history can be offensive AND criminal in Germany.

  2. Question for clarification, Paul: What is 'truth' and what is 'truthful' with regards to history? Obviously a history explaining the sexual revolution by depicting a scenario in which earthling females are all simultaneously replaced by sexually voracious look-alike aliens (though perhaps entertaining) would not be truthful, I argue that any history (other than a mere time-line, and not even all of those) holds some un-truths in the form of conscious or un-conscious bias. I argue that there is no such thing as 'truthful' history, and so (as of yet) cannot answer your questions. Nice essay, though. Interesting thoughts, Paul.


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