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How the Sexual Revolution Became the Relationship Revolution




America’s Slide Towards Loneliness

By J.G. Maggio

The recent passing of Hugh Hefner seems to have opened a floodgate of positive sentiment for the Sexual Revolution – at least in certain quarters. Some commentators even speak about the Sexual Revolution as if it’s a nostalgic occurrence of the past. But it’s not an occurrence of the past. The Sexual Revolution is, unfortunately, still very much with us – as are its disastrous consequences.

According to its advocates, the Sexual Revolution was supposed to make people’s lives more pleasurable, more fulfilling, and happier. But this hasn’t happened. In fact, the opposite has happened. Thanks in great part to the Sexual Revolution, Americans today are more isolated, lonelier, less happy . . . and suffer from higher levels of depression.

So why did millions of Americans buy into a cultural shift that would ultimately be so harmful? Because, to a great extent they were deceived. That deception began with a manipulation of the language.

Language Games

What people think of today as the Sexual Revolution was not, in fact, a revolution primarily about “sex.” The revolution did change sexual attitudes and sexual practices for many, of course – but “Sexual” Revolution is far too narrow of a description. In fact, the founders of the so-called Sexual Revolution had always intended it to be about something much larger: Relationships in general, and committed relationships in particular.

Despite their relationships agenda, the founders of the Revolution opted for the narrow “sexual” label rather than the broader “relationship” moniker.[1] Why? They used “sexual” so that common folks would believe that this cultural movement was all about sex – and that their sex lives were going to become more plentiful, meaningful, and enjoyable (all of which turned out to be debatable propositions). Equally important, the “sexual” label was used to help obscure the more ominous intention of the revolution: The harm it intentionally sought to inflict – and eventually did inflict – upon relationships.

Let’s take a brief look at history, to see how this all unfolded.

The Intellectual Pioneers: Sex and Individual Autonomy Gone Wild

The so-called “Sexual Revolution” gradually began to emerge in the United States during the period of the 1920s through the 1950s, before it finally exploded onto the scene in the 60s and 70s. There were two basic types of pioneers who fomented and advanced the movement: The intellectual pioneers, and the cultural pioneers (Hefner being a prime example of this latter category).

Two early intellectual pioneers – Wilhelm Reich in Europe and Margaret Mead in the U.S. – helped spark the beginning of the Sexual Revolution during 1920s and 30s. Other influential intellectuals – figures such as Alan Guttmacher, Alfred Kinsey, and Herbert Marcuse – subsequently built upon the works of Reich and Mead during the 1940s up though the 60s and beyond. These intellectuals tended to reside in academia and research labs, where they taught and wrote extensively, generally using the “Sexual Revolution” label to advocate their views. From their works emerged a clear set of the Revolution’s core values:

  • Individual autonomy;
  • Liberation;
  • A self-governing character structure;
  • Self-fulfillment; and
  • Pleasure

Their writings – pertaining to sex and sexual relations – were permeated with these values, all of which are fundamentally “self-centered.”[2] According to of these intellectuals, sexual relations and practices should be primarily, if not exclusively, about Self and Me: “My self-fulfillment, My pleasure, and My freedom.” End of story. Sex and sexual relations need not be artificially tied to any larger meanings or objectives.

This thinking presented a stark challenge to the prevailing view of the times, of course. In America and Europe it was historically understood and believed that sexual relations should occur exclusively within the bond of marriage, for purposes of marital bonding and marital procreation, in addition to pleasure.

To the intellectual pioneers, however, such “larger objectives” of sexual conduct too often interfered with individual autonomy, and ultimately, self-fulfillment. Why be limited to one sex partner at a given time? Why be stuck with one sex partner over the course of a lifetime, or any significant period of time? Why let a concern over pregnancy limit your sexual activity and pleasure? Such limits were too often impediments to individual autonomy and self-fulfillment. To these intellectuals, limiting sex to marital bonding and marital procreation were historical “hang-ups” imposed primarily by religion and previous, prudish generations.

To help overcome these “hang-ups,” the intellectual pioneers advocated for the development of “better” scientific and legal measures to help detach sex from the bonding potential of children and family – for instance: 1) legalized abortion; 2) more effective and convenient artificial contraception; and 3) more lenient divorce laws.

The overarching goal of the intellectual pioneers was clear: In matters of sexual conduct, eliminate physical obstacles and attitudes that might interfere with the Gods of Individual Autonomy and Self-Fulfillment. The best sex was quite often “free” sex – meaning free from emotional involvement or commitment. If a partner developed feelings for you, and experienced hurt feelings or misunderstandings? Oh well, that was his or her hang up – not yours. Sex was primarily about Me and Self. Period.

Our Purveyors of Culture: Mainstreaming The Revolution

Unless an individual was reading academic journals, or was exposed to the seedy underbelly of sex shops and sex shows in large U.S. cities – come the early 1960s he or she probably hadn’t heard much, if anything, about the Sexual Revolution.

The cultural pioneers of the revolution aimed to change that.

The cultural pioneers had been heavily influenced by the intellectual pioneers, and were full-throttle on board with the “Individual Autonomy – Self-Fulfillment” school of sex. Unlike the intellectual pioneers, however, the cultural pioneers didn’t tend to hang out in universities and research labs. Quite the contrary, up through the 1950s, they’d been busy taking over much of America’s popular cultural apparatus. By the mid-60s, these pioneers – writers, producers, directors, actors, photographers, artists, musicians – were in a position to use this apparatus to try to bring the Sexual Revolution to the mainstream American public.

This would not be an easy task, however. The cultural pioneers had to overcome some potentially insurmountable obstacles. For one, they had to demonstrate to the corporate entertainment executives of the day that exposure to the Sexual Revolution would not anger and alienate large audiences. Equally important, these pioneers had to convince these executives that they could actually make money peddling the Sexual Revolution to mainstream America. In effect, they had to sell a precarious idea: Sex-focused language, images, and stories would sell not merely to a narrow and seedy sub-culture of the public, but also to the masses, both men and women.

By the early 1960s, a decent amount of evidence had accumulated to bolster their case. Although purchased almost exclusively by men, Hefner’s Playboy Magazine had survived the free market for a decade by then. The emergence of Rock music and culture in the 50s also helped bolster the case. The name itself – Rock and Roll – was a slang term for the sex act, and the popularity of mega-stars like Elvis had skyrocketed, even as some censors dealt with his performances by making sure he was filmed from the waist up only.

There had also been significant acclaim, and demand in the U.S. for a group of sexually charged and frequently banned novels: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (republished in the U.S. in 1961), John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (first published in the U.S. in 1963), and D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Additionally, a group of sexually-themed films originating in Sweden – One Summer of Happiness (1951), The Summer with Monika (1951), and The Silence (1963) – had found acclaim and good-sized audiences in the U.S.

By the mid-to-late 60s, a number of maverick executives were willing to take some risks. In literature, movies, television, music, and comedy that was marketed to mainstream audiences, the new breed of cultural purveyors were increasingly allowed to introduce sexually provocative clothing, sexual innuendo, lust, and explicit sexual activity– much of it occurring outside of marriage and/or committed relationships – all associated with great sexual self-fulfillment.

Although there were scattered calls for boycotts and censorship, almost from the start it was clear that the cultural pioneers had been correct about a large swath of the American public. In the main, there was no public outrage either intense or persistent enough to force these pioneers – or the entertainment corporations that funded them – to back down. Look at the popular culture beginning in the mid-60s through the 70s, and it’s easy to see why the label, “Sexual Revolution,” became emblazed into America’s public consciousness. On the screen and on the page, it seemed to millions to be harmless, great fun.

To the extent that the American public felt this way, however, a large percent had little clue about the harm and negative consequences that were soon about to evolve.

Relationships: The Values That Don’t Bind Us

While the cultural pioneers of the 1960s and 70s focused on sex, sex, sex, from the very beginning of the Revolution, the leading intellectual pioneers had a much more ambitious agenda in mind. They had hoped that the “self-centered” values of the Sexual Revolution would in due course alter attitudes about committed relationships in general, including the very idea of marriage and the nuclear family. Wilhelm Reich, the acknowledged intellectual father of the Sexual Revolution, was unknown to most of the public, but he was forthright about his ultimate objectives: Opposition to, “the ideology of lifelong, monogamous marriage,” and, “rejection of the family institution as such.”

To a great extent, Reich’s anti-marriage and anti-family objectives have gradually, but eventually come to fruition. How? There have been two basic pathways by which committed, permanent relationships have been severely damaged over the past few decades:

(1) First, for those individuals inclined to engage in the new sexual autonomy throughout their entire adulthood, they choose to either avoid marriage altogether, cheat in marriage, or dissolve their marriage(s) in favor of sexual autonomy. For obvious reasons, marriage and family suffered great harm as a result.

(2) The second pathway toward weakening marriage and family has been more nuanced. Most women and men did not, in fact, desire multiple sex partners throughout their entire adulthood. Most wanted to settle down into committed relationships with one sex partner (at least eventually). This did not mean, however, that the “self-centered” values of the Sexual Revolution did not influence them. If nothing else, the “Sexual Revolution” taught and trained people to put themselves first. Self-centeredness is alluring, especially when it begins to grow more accepted throughout the society around you.

Not surprisingly, as the “Sexual Revolution” matured, the national dialogue about committed relationships began to increasingly take on tones of individual autonomy and self-centeredness. So-called “relationship experts” began appearing in the media, preaching about “putting yourself first” and “doing what’s best for you” in relationships. Why should the values of the Sexual Revolution be limited to sexual conduct? Sexual monogamy wasn’t the only “hang-up” that might need to be thrown off to realize self-fulfillment. What about marriage, family, commitment, and sacrifice for others? Fewer people began to think of these as sacred. “Self” was becoming the new sacred in relationships. If your marriage or family don't fulfill you for whatever reasonsexual or otherwise – it’s acceptable to leave your marriage to pursue happiness with another. In fact, it’s encouraged. After all, you need to “take care of your own needs first.”

Individual autonomy and self-fulfillment began to govern not just sex, but all facets of relationships. As a result, the Sexual Revolution began to morph into something much larger: The Relationship Revolution.

Committed relationship bonds steadily began to unravel as a result. By the early 1970s, the rate of newly formed marriages was dropping. Cohabitation rates were rising. Divorce rates climbed. Single-parent household rates rose.

Fast forward to today. The numbers portray the ruins of what is now a decades-old revolution in relationship values:

  • The Marriage Rate has dropped from 5 marriages per year in 1970, to 32.3 marriages today (per every 1,000 single women).[3]
  • The Divorce Rate has doubled from about 20% in 1960, to approximately 45%[4]
  • Married Couple Households have dropped from 6% of households in 1970, to 48.7% today.[5]


  • Married Couple with Children Households have dropped from 3% of households in 1970, to 19.6% today.[6]
  • The rate of Children Living in a Single-Parent Household has risen from 9% in 1960, to 27%[7]
  • One-Person Households have gone from 17% of households in 1970, to 27%[8]


  • The birth rate has dropped from 7 births per every 1,000 people in 1960, to 12.4 births per 1000 people today.[9]

Unintended Consequences: Misery is Having No Company

Lest we think that all this autonomy and liberation (unleased by pioneers like Hugh Hefner) have made people happier and better off, we should consider another set of trends that have emerged these past few decades, concurrent with the Sexual and Relationship Revolutions: Widespread loneliness, and the growing rates of depression that come with it.

Many psychologists today contend that there’s an epidemic of loneliness and disconnectedness in the United States – and that this loneliness is closely correlated with depression.[10] Indeed, experts believe that depression itself has become epidemic. By some estimates, clinical depression is 10 times more likely to torment Americans than it did a century ago.[11] Studies show that 15 percent of all people in the U.S. (and 21 percent of all women) will become clinically depressed at some point during their lifetimes. Additionally, the age at which people experience their first depressive episode has decreased dramatically during the last several decades.[12]

Leading researchers in the field of human happiness and well-being contend that loneliness and isolation are significant factors behind these “depression trends.” Indeed, our increasingly individualistic society leaves many people alone to manage everyday stresses and problems. Compared with previous generations, many feel far less belonging and commitment to families and communities, and are less buffered by social support and strong meaningful connections to others.[13]

None of this should be surprising – given that we live in a post-Relationship Revolution society. “Individual autonomy and liberation” are hardly consistent with lasting, committed relationships or family life. The “core values” of the Sexual and Relationship Revolutions have a surface appeal to them – but in the context of relationships, these values are the opposite of unconditional, sacrificial love. Self-fulfillment, liberation and individual autonomy are nothing but code words for selfishness.

Ultimately, inevitably, selfishness drives people away. It’s no wonder that post-Relationship Revolution, we have fewer married households, more single-parent families, more divorce, and more loneliness.

Researchers note that long-term happiness and well-being are closely tied to positive, lasting relationships, and the support structure that comes with them. One of the driving motivations behind the Sexual and Relationship Revolutions was that – unencumbered by commitment to others – individuals would be freer, more fulfilled, and happier. In the final analysis, however, the self-centered values of these revolutions have led to record levels of loneliness. These revolutions have, alas, not only hurt society and families, they have also managed to do significant harm to the well-being and happiness of individuals.


[1] The term “Sexual Revolution” was coined by Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/08/wilhelm-reich-free-love-orgasmatron).

[2] See e.g. (1) Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: William Morrow, 1928. Print. (2) Reich, Wilhelm. The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Governing Character Structure. Orgone Institute Press, 1945 (1936, original in German). Print. (3) Kinsey, Alfred, et. al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1948. Print, and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1953. Print. (4) Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon, 1967. Print.

These “self-centered” values likewise permeated commentary about the writings of the intellectual pioneers. See (1) “Women Alone? Oh Come Now!” Helen Gurley Brown, found in Gurley Brown, Helen. Sex and the Single Girl, New York: Bernard Gies Associates, 1962. Print. (2) “The Second Sexual Revolution,” Time Magazine, January 24, 1964. (3) “The Erotic Revolution,” Lawrence Lipton, found in Lipton, Lawrence. The Erotic Revolution, Sherbourne Press, 1965. Print. (4) “Open Marriages,” Nena O’Neill and George O’Neill, found in Smith, James R. Beyond Monogamy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974. Print. (5) “Exploring the New Freedom,” Gay Talese, found in Talese, Gay. Thy Neighbor’s Wife. New York: Doubleday, 1980. Print.

[3] Hemez, Paul (2016). Marriage Rate in the U.S.: Geographic Variation, 2015 (FP-16-22), National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University http://www.bgsu.edu/ncfmr/resources/data/family-profiles/hemez-marriage-rate-us-geo-2015-fp-16-22.html

Cruz, Julissa. Marriage: More Than a Century of Change. National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University, 2013


See also “Marriage Rate Declines to Historic Low, Study Finds,” Huffington Post, July 22, 2013 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/22/marriage-rate_n_3625222.html#slide=1881655

[4] American Psychological Association, “Marriage and Divorce.” http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/

U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Analysis of the United States, 2004-2005, Table No. 70: Live Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces: 1950-2002.


Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics Report, vol. 53, No. 21, June 28, 2005, “Births, Marriages, Divorces and Deaths,” Table A “Provisional Vital Statistics for the United States.”

U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Analysis of the United States, 2012, Section 2, Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces, Table 78, Live Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces: 1960-2008. https://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/12statab/vitstat.pdf

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trends 2000-2014. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/marriage_divorce_tables.htm

[5] “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, Population Characteristics,” Jonathan Vespa, Jamie M. Lewis, and Rose M. Kreider, U.S. Census Bureau, Issued August 2013, p. 5. https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-570.pdf; see also “America’s Family and Living Arrangements: 2015”: Adults Table A1. http://www.census.gov/hhes/families/data/cps2015A.html

[6] “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, Population Characteristics,” Jonathan Vespa, Jamie M. Lewis, and Rose M. Kreider, U.S. Census Bureau, Issued August 2013, p. 5. https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-570.pdf.

See also: https://www.cnsnews.com/commentary/terence-p-jeffrey/america-had-more-married-couples-kids-1963-2014

These are the most recent government statistics on this demographic.

[7] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Statistical Briefing Book, Juvenile Population Characteristics, Living Arrangements.


[8] “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, Population Characteristics,” Jonathan Vespa, Jamie M. Lewis, and Rose M. Kreider, U.S. Census Bureau, Issued August 2013, pp. 1, 5. https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-570.pdf; see also http://dupress.com/articles/single-person-households-and-changing-american-family/

[9] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Birth Rates at


[10] “Why Millennials Are Lonely,” Forbes, Caroline Beaton, February 9, 2017.


“Chronic Loneliness is a Modern-Day Epidemic,” Laura Entis, Fortune, June 22, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/06/22/loneliness-is-a-modern-day-epidemic/;

“Epidemic of Loneliness,” John Cacioppo, Ph.D., Psychology Today, May 2, 2009. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/connections/200905/epidemic-loneliness;

[11] Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness. New York: Penguin, 2007. p. 37. Print.

[12] Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness. New York: Penguin, 2007. p. 37. Print.

[13] Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness. New York: Penguin, 2007. p. 37. Print. See also, Seligman, Martin E.P. Flourish. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011. pp. 17, 21-24. Print; See also Endnote 10.


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