Sex in the University

During the period from 1940 to 1980, America underwent a significant cultural change from the idyllic nuclear family of the 50s to the sex and drug-fuelled party that was the 70s and 80s. In the forefront of this movement stood the traditional dating “scene” that would undergo massive revisions throughout the decades. The advent of television and mass media worked both by capitalizing on these changes, and in turn accelerating them by bringing sex closer to home.  The changing attitude towards sexuality is linked to the collapse of the “traditional family” through the dawning of a generation defined by challenge to authority, the baby boomers.  The integration of both overt and subvert sexual themes into popular culture became known as a revolution, that was ironically both deeply embedded in capitalism (the notion that sex sells), as well as a vessel for change in America with political implications (Make Love, Not War).  Our group chose to zero in on the college campus as a place where the youth sought autonomy in its fight to subvert the system in the 1970s.  Each of these elements help create a vision of modern America in which sexual conduct no longer exists under a veil, but is an openly discussed reality of everyday life.  We recognize that without this movement, our college “hook-up culture” would perhaps not be what it is today.

Examining the changing nature of gender and sex in universities will provide a valuable perspective on broader social themes of this time period. By focusing on the university setting, this unit will isolate a specific social group for which sex and gender relationships are particularly important. In addition, it will highlight the changes that happened throughout a mutually familiar environment, making the impact of this “sexual revolution” both more apparent and more substantial to this unit’s audience. Focusing on the university makes this topic especially relevant to this class because we share a general contemporary perspective on sexuality in our own college sphere. In understanding how college students from the 40s to the 80s viewed sex and dating, we can better understand how today’s sexual norms have come into being.

This unit focuses on the changes and turning points in America’s multi-person relations through the lens of the college campus.  Our digital round table will demonstrate a trajectory through which sexual relationships “loosened up” over the decades, and show how the media and other forms of the dissemination of information both reflected and influenced this process.  We will move from the 1940s to the 1970s, examining the shift from a society driven by faith in traditional gender roles that were reinforced by experts, to a culture defined by challenging those roles and the authority that put them in place.  Many of the driving forces behind these changes over the decades are related to topics and issues discussed in other units of this course.

The following ten minute clip taken from a Vassar discussant panel in 1971 focuses on the changing landscape of a former women’s college (which had recently gone co-ed).  The video serves as an introduction to our unit through its ability to articulate both the inter-generational tensions in terms of the changed college setting, as well as the institution’s attempt to adapt to the changing attitudes of the youth.  The openness and willingness of the youth to challenge traditional roles and authority reflected in this clip was a prerequisite to the so called sexual revolution.  (Watch only until 15:46!  You’ll see more from this video in our 1970s unit)

Members: Lucy Scholz, Eliza Valentine, Annie Cottrell, Allen Chen, Kathryn Clinard, Gretchen Seip, Joshua Bland, Elizabeth Blue

Website: Tracy Aiello