The sex freak-out of the 1970s

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Story highlights

  • Kohn: In the 1970s, the sexual revolution, women's movement and gay liberation movement changed culture
  • It turned out to be more about personal empowerment than changes in law and politics, she says

"The Seventies" focuses on the sexual revolution Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN. Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)To borrow a cliché, the 1970s was all about sex, drugs and rock and roll. But arguably, it was the sex part that had the most enduring and profound effect on American society.

Sally Kohn
The 1970s saw the convergence of several phenomena related to sex, sexuality and gender. There was the women's liberation movement, in which women and girls who had been long told they were the inferior sex finally took to the streets, the courts and the voting booths to assert their equality.
In 1970, the first Women's Liberation Conference took place in England — the same year that Germaine Greer published "The Female Eunuch" and Robin Morgan published "Sisterhood Is Powerful, An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement." The next year, the first women's liberation march took place.
    There also was sexual liberation, which had something to do with women liberating themselves in the bedroom, too, but had as much to do with loosening norms around sex. In 1960, half of 19-year-old women who were unmarried had not yet had sex. By the late 1980s, as Nancy Cohen pointed out, two-thirds of all women had done the deed by age 18.
    Cohen also noted that the invention of the birth control pill in the 1960s helped pave the way. Within five years after the first pill went on the market in 1960, 6 million American women were taking it. These women and others, and their male partners, entered the next decade literally with a radically different experience of sex and freedom. The year 1972 alone saw the publication of such groundbreaking books as "The Joy of Sex" and "Open Marriage."
    The '70s also brought nonheterosexual sex into the spotlight. In 1969, when a gay bar in New York was raided by police, protests erupted and what became known as the Stonewall Riots was the formative moment of the gay rights movement that would continue to grow into the next decades.
    For gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, the 1970s was an era of increasing awakening and visibility, as well as backlash and persecution. In 1970, the first gay pride parade was held to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, and in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association finally saw fit to remove homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders.
    Arguably, one of the quintessential songs of the 1970s captures all perspectives on the sexual revolution. "Aaaaaah, FREAK OUT!" sang the band, Chic, in their 1978 chart topper. While the old guard was certainly freaking out about the quickly and wildly shifting terrain of traditional American values, those doing the shifting were enjoying the ride. The song almost mocks those who are actually freaking out, turning their angst into a dance craze. "Come on along and have a real good time," Chic invites. That moral ground you feel shifting below you? Think of it more as a sensual undulating and get with the groove.
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    It's easy to look back and see the boundaries of the era's aspirations. The Vietnam War, in the 1970s, and AIDS, in the 1980s, killed people and rightfully became preoccupying life-and-death issues. Complete sexual liberation and the brave new peaceful world a generation longed for ran headlong into hard and brutal reality.
    In hindsight, the movements of the 1970s were much more about cultural triumphs than they were about legal and political changes. That the idea of women's equality is more widely accepted today than it was 40 years ago is a victory. Yet the fact that women still earn a fraction of what men earn on average, and women of color even less, that rape and sexual assault remain so prevalent, that access to birth control and abortion and sex education are so actively still contested — these are reminders of how far we have yet to go.
    "In the 1970s the sexual revolution was really mostly about sex," wrote Hanna Rosin. "But now the sexual revolution has deepened into a more permanent kind of power for women." Or, more accurately I think, at least a sense of personal power. But empowerment hasn't necessarily translated into real economic and political leverage.
    Are there more women running major companies, transgender men and women starring in Hollywood productions, parents nurturing their children's healthy sexuality and now the nationwide right to marriage equality? Yes! But all around us — from the Bill Cosby story to campus rape to the killing of Kristina Gomez Reinwald, one of many transgender murder victims — there are almost daily reminders of the reality of subjugation based on gender, race and sexuality.
    Without a doubt, women and gay people, but straight men, too, experienced more individual freedom in the 1970s. But that doesn't mean we are all liberated. Just like one black president or one female president doesn't mean there's no more racism or sexism.
    Thus perhaps the greatest legacy of the 1970s wasn't that it set us on a path to a destination — one we clearly haven't reached yet— but that it defined desire, desire not only for individual, bodily autonomy, self-expression and pleasure but a desire that society fully reflect and respect our freedom. Wherever we are now, with respect to women's rights and LGBT rights and sexual freedom, is a direct result of the 1970s. And the fact that we're not satisfied yet is also the legacy of that era.