Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America

Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America

by Nancy L. Cohen


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“Perhaps if the Pill had never been invented, American politics would be very different today,” Nancy L. Cohen writes in her prescient new book, Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America

The 2012 election was supposed to be about the economy, but over the last few months it turned into a debate about sex and women’s rights. In Delirium, Cohen takes us on a gripping journey through the confounding and mysterious episodes of our recent politics to explain how we and why we got to this place. Along the way she explores such topics as why Bill Clinton was impeached over a private sexual affair; how George W. Bush won the presidency by stealth; why Hillary lost to Obama; why John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate; and what the 2012 presidential contest tells us about America today. She exposes the surprising role of right-wing women in undermining women’s rights, as well as explains how liberal men were complicit in letting it happen. Cohen uncovers the hidden history of an orchestrated, well-financed, ideologically powered shadow movement to turn back the clock on matters of gender equality and sexual freedom and how it has played a leading role in fueling America’s political wars. Delirium tells the story of this shadow movement and how we can restore common sense and sanity in our nation’s politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619020689
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 09/11/2012
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Nancy L. Cohen is a historian, author, and contributor to The Huffington Post and Rolling Stone. She is the author of two books, including The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914. She has held positions as a visiting assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and at Binghamton University, State University of New York, and as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two daughters, and four stepchildren.

Read an Excerpt



PERHAPS IF THE Pill had not been invented, American politics would be very different today.

Enovid, the first birth control pill, went on the market in 1960. Unlike any other previously available form of contraception, the Pill was both reliable and controlled by a woman herself, requiring neither the consent nor the knowledge of her sexual partner. "I don't confess that I take the Pill," said one Catholic mother after the Vatican reaffirmed its doctrine against the use of birth control, "because I don't believe it is a sin." Within five years, 6 million American women were on the Pill. With one quick visit to a doctor, a woman immediately gained sole and exclusive power over her fertility, a power that had eluded her sex since ... well, since forever.

The Pill made possible the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The true warriors in that revolution were young, single women, who, with the help of this new contraception, took their sexuality into their own hands. If not for women's self-determined sexual liberation, the sexual revolution might have been another unremarkable episode in the long and varied sexual history of humankind. Instead, with the impetus the sexual revolution gave to a new feminism and a movement for gay liberation, it became one of the major catalysts of America's ongoing political delirium.

MEN CERTAINLY BENEFITED from the new sexual freedom, but for them, it was hardly an innovation. Although religious doctrine and public mores told them chastity and marital fidelity applied equally to men and women, the practical moral code included an important loophole: the double standard. Single men had always been able to avail themselves of sexual relations outside marriage, even at the pinnacle of American sexual puritanism in the waning days of the nineteenth century. For men, the sexual revolution changed things by making sex relatively cost-free. Women were now liberated, and the Pill steeply lowered the risks of accidental fatherhood and unwanted marriage.

For women, likewise, the sexual revolution concerned the rules of engagement, rather than the act of sex itself. Premarital virginity had been going out of fashion for decades before the declaration of sexual liberation. It started in the 1920s, as middle-class Americans converted from Victorianism to Freudianism and began to accept that a desirous woman was perhaps not so depraved after all. Thereafter doctors and psychologists counseled America's women that a happy marriage was sustained by mutual sexual satisfaction. Experts encouraged women to explore their natural desires, but to start the journey in the marital bed. Women accepted the prescription and ignored the fine print. At the high noon of fifties traditionalism, 40 percent of women had sex before they married — compared to just 10 percent who did in the reputedly Roaring Twenties.

Yet sex before marriage, like any act of civil disobedience, entailed risk. Each and every time an unmarried woman had intercourse, she risked pregnancy, and with it a limited number of unsavory life-changing options: an illegal abortion of doubtful safety, a shotgun wedding, forced adoption, or single motherhood of a child whose birth certificate would be stamped for posterity with the word "illegitimate." With rare exceptions, all known human cultures have policed the sexual behavior of girls and women, and America, circa 1959, was no different. Before women obtained the power to control their fertility, they had compelling reasons to comply with whatever arbitrary double standard their society imposed. The Pill permanently changed women's age-old pragmatic calculus. With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.

Still, birth control remained illegal in some states, and the grip of the law also had to be pried loose before women could take full advantage of the new opportunity for sexual liberation. In the late nineteenth century, purity crusaders had succeeded in passing a spate of national and state laws criminalizing the sale, distribution, or even discussion of birth control. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled Connecticut's 1879 anti-contraception statute — originally written by circus impresario P. T. Barnum — to be unconstitutional. In that case, Connecticut had convicted Estelle Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut for providing birth control to a married couple. (They had been fined $100.) In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court ruled that the law, and any other restrictions on access to contraception for married couples, violated the marital right to privacy, and were thus unconstitutional. Seven years later, the Supreme Court effectively extended the right to obtain birth control to unmarried men and women, in Eisenstadt v. Baird. In that case, the state of Massachusetts had charged William Baird with a felony for giving away vaginal foam to an unmarried college student who attended one of his lectures on birth control and overpopulation. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., wrote in his opinion for the court: "If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision to whether to bear or beget a child."

Those who hoped to preserve the pre-Pill cultural norms now had only the power of persuasion at their service. It helped them little. The rapidity of change in women's sexual behavior was dizzying, and it suggests how much the old order had been preserved by cultural coercion rather than willing consent. In the 1950s, six in ten women were virgins at marriage and 87 percent of American women believed that it was wrong for a woman to engage in premarital sex, even with "a man she is going to marry." By the time girls born during the sexual revolution came of age, the double standard — in practice, if not exactly in the minds of teenage boys — had been obliterated. Only two in ten of them would be virgins at marriage. Teenagers, in particular, shed the old ways. In 1960, half of unmarried 19-year-old women had not yet had sex. In the late 1980s, half of all American girls engaged in sexual intercourse by the age of 17, two-thirds by the age of 18, and the difference between teenage male and female sexual experience had narrowed from 50 points to single digits.

As Americans settled into the new normal of open heterosexual sexuality, even more profound changes were afoot. The Pill allowed American women to delay marriage and motherhood, while remaining sexually active. Women took advantage of these added carefree years to improve their position in the labor market. According to the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the surge in women's professional education occurred at the exact moment the Pill became legally available to college-aged women. "A virtually fool-proof, easy-to-use, and female-controlled contraceptive having low health risks, little pain, and few annoyances does appear to have been important in promoting real change in the economic status of women." They concluded, "The Pill lowered the cost of pursuing a career through its direct effect on the cost of having sex and its indirect effect of increasing the age at first marriage generally." The Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade provided women with even greater control of their own fertility, a goal that had eluded them while abortion remained illegal. (In the years after the Pill went on the market and before abortion became legal, about 1 million illegal abortions took place per year.) In 1978, the first test-tube baby was born, marking the beginning of the age of assisted, sex-free reproduction.

Before the revolution, the whims of men determined the reputation, if not the fate, of women; female desire was contained within the closet of marriage; and men retained their traditional sexual privileges and discreetly enjoyed their sexual liberties. After the revolution, women, if they so chose, could dispense with men, or with marriage altogether, without giving up sex or children or a lifetime loving relationship. Of course, most women continued to love men, marry men, and have children with men. The point, however, was that for the first time in human history, women had a choice.

IN A DESPERATE effort to stop cultural change in its tracks, the critics of the new sexual order accused the sexual revolutionaries of destroying the traditional American family. They had their cause and effect reversed. By the time the revolution in sexual mores gained steam, the nuclear family was already in an advanced state of fission from the reactive force of its soul-bending emotional demands and outdated economic arrangements. Deprived of the coercive power of the law and public opinion, the sexual traditionalists took refuge in a myth.

The so-called traditional family of midcentury America was itself an invented tradition, with only a spotty historical pedigree. All proper families, according to this ideal, were made up of a working father, a homemaking child-focused mother, and two to four children, preferably residing in a suburban single-family home. Pets were common, grandparents and extended family less so. In previous eras, only the urban, educated, Protestant upper class could afford to live by this ideal.

Postwar prosperity, however, underwrote nuclear family proliferation for all — or almost all. The twenty years after the end of the Second World War in America were utterly unique in world history. Never before had the masses of ordinary people lived in such material comfort; never before had families in the midst of their child-rearing years had disposable income; never before could they look forward to an old age of plenty and security. A white working man generally earned enough to buy a house, support his wife to stay at home minding the kids and running the appliances, send the boys and even the girls to college, and pay for vacations, all while allowing him to retire while he still had his wits and strength about him. (African American families, because of legal segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North, were left out of the postwar nuclear family compact. The wages of black men remained low, and black wives and mothers typically worked for wages as well. Poor Americans, of which there were millions, were left out as well.) In 1960, 62 percent of Americans owned their own homes. Two-thirds of all white women — not just those with children at home — did not work outside the home. Families were large, larger than they had been since the nineteenth century. Elderly parents retired on their Social Security checks, instead of inside the homes of their adult children. Father Knows Best wasn't quite reality TV, but for white middle-class Americans, it wasn't that far off.

After experiencing fifteen years of economic depression and war, most men and women were more than happy to sign up for the new traditionalism, the suburban lifestyle, and female domesticity. Still, politicians, teachers, medical experts, business leaders, journalists, and intellectuals worked hard to make sure the offer was one few women would refuse. In 1957, nine out of ten Americans thought any person who chose not to marry was either "sick," "neurotic," or "immoral." A national best seller made the case that it was dangerous to allow single women to teach young children and called for a nationwide ban on their employment. More than half of American women were married by the middle of their twentieth year; those that were not married by the age of twenty-five were viewed as damaged goods, to be avoided or pitied. Employers paid women less than men and refused to hire them in jobs considered men's work, in a practice that was perfectly legal because it was presumed to be perfectly natural. Even in cases in which a job was theoretically open to women, American women were grossly ill-prepared for most of those well-paying ones. In 1961, only 8 percent of women were college graduates. Only 2 percent of law degrees, 4 percent of MBAs, and 6 percent of medical degrees were conferred on women. In the year President John F. Kennedy announced the nation would put a man on the moon, most young American women dreamed of marrying by age twenty-one, quitting work, and having four children.

The long-term survival of the nuclear family depended on each sex's willingness to fulfill its prescribed role. Men were to be dutiful to their corporate employers and to financially support their families, but to leave the daily tasks — and the pleasures — of raising children to their wives. Women were to seek fulfillment in their roles as wife, mother, and homemaker. By the late 1950s, some Cassandras were raising the alarm that American life had become a real-life invasion of the body snatchers. Sociologists diagnosed the disease of the company man, while Hugh Hefner offered men relief with Playboy, the nation's first mass circulation porn magazine. Even before the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan's bestselling and wildly influential The Feminine Mystique, the placid mothers of the fifties were telling pollsters they wanted their daughters to graduate from college, go to work, and wait to get married — in other words, to not follow in their own footsteps.

The nuclear family order also depended on the ability of husbands and wives to sustain the arrangement economically. Whatever chance there might have been for it to survive the eruption of the sexual revolution, there was little hope for the model to withstand the whipsaw of the American economy and the rude return of insecurity brought on by the post-1973 economic troubles.

In the late 1940s, only one-third of all American women, single as well as married, worked outside the home, and women constituted only 29 percent of the nation's labor force. By the early 1960s, women had steadily increased their numbers in the workforce. College-educated daughters chose to delay marriage and pursue careers, while their mothers, who were availing themselves of the new birth control technologies, went back to work after their children left home.

What started as a choice, for more spending money or for broader horizons, became for many women a necessity by the late 1970s. When income growth stagnated after the oil shock of 1973, women flooded into the paid labor force in an effort to maintain the family income. As far as the nuclear family was concerned, the change that reverberated most powerfully was the move of married women with children still at home into the workforce. In the mid-1970s, fewer than half of all women with children and teenagers at home worked. By 2000, 79 percent of American mothers with school-age children were working outside the home. A typical middle-class mother was putting in about thirteen weeks more of full-time work in the first decade of the twenty-first century than her counterpart had in 1979. Among two-parent families, a stay-at-home mother was on the scene in only one of every four homes.

The changes in the American economy after 1973 combined with other monumental social changes — the Pill, the sexual revolution, feminism, increased levels of education among women and men — to revolutionize the American family. American men and women began to marry later, have fewer children, and divorce more frequently. In the year the Pill went on the market, most Americans lived in nuclear families, the average married couple had four children, and mothers stayed home. By 2000, the average family had two children, one out of two marriages ended in divorce, and almost a third of American children were being raised by a single parent or an unmarried couple.

The 1950s neotraditional domestic ideal had been a fragile creation, a hothouse flower of Cold War culture, coaxed into bloom by long-deferred dreams of stability, hiring practices that discriminated against women, and the pseudoscience of pop psychology. Its prospects for longevity were always slim. Viewed dispassionately, the 1950s ideal of the nuclear family set itself against almost every demographic trend of the modern world, and Americans were, if anything, modern. From 1900 to World War II, women had been increasing their labor force participation, marrying at a later age, attending college in greater numbers, having premarital sex more commonly, bearing fewer children, and divorcing at higher rates. These trends, briefly, were reversed from the end of World War II until 1961; after the mid-1970s, they reasserted themselves with a vengeance.


Excerpted from "Delirium"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Nancy L. Cohen.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Sex and Revolution 9

2 The Morning after 23

3 The Rise of the Sexual Fundamentalists 46

4 An Accidental Revolution 64

5 Lost 91

6 It's Feminism, Stupid 109

7 Just Say No 132

8 Out of the Shadows 148

9 The Starr Chamber 166

10 Rope-A-Dope 184

11 The Panic Season 213

12 Rorschach Tests 240

13 Rapture 265

14 Delirium 290

15 The Tea Party 314

16 Endgame 328

17 Sex and Religion 349

Epilogue 369

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