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Novelty Acts

The Sexual Revolutions Before the Sexual Revolution, by Ariel Levy

In the past century—as feminists discovered the clitoris, gay liberationists discovered homosexuality, and flower children discovered free love—the illusion of erotic novelty entered mass culture. Dr. Alex Comfort, the author of the international best-seller “The Joy of Sex,” first published in 1972, was convinced that his young contemporaries invented “playfulness,” asserting that it was “a part of love which could well be the major contribution of the Aquarian revolution to human happiness.” To this day, there are baby boomers who half believe that “sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three,” as Philip Larkin had it, “between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.”

As in previous eras, the dream of erotic emancipation was paired with that of political emancipation. Christopher Turner writes in “Adventures in the Orgasmatron” that Wilhelm Reich coined the term “sexual revolution” in the nineteen-thirties to express the conviction, informed by his Marxism, that “a true political revolution would only be possible once sexual repression was overthrown, the one obstacle Reich felt had scuppered the efforts of the Bolsheviks.”

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