Symposium 1968: Lillian B. Rubin

Symposium 1968: Lillian B. Rubin

It’s impossible to look back on the sixties without thinking, What a time that was! Politics and culture intermingled in a heady mix, the personal was political and the political personal; every act—whether demonstrating against the Vietnam War, smoking dope, having sex, or listening to rock and roll—had meaning beyond itself. The civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement, and the counterculture were all demanding changes that would alter the social landscape forever. Peace, freedom, equality, justice were the watchwords of the time. Yet, even among the young male revolutionaries of the New Left, equality didn’t mean the women with whom they worked, studied, and slept.

Indeed, men’s contempt for women, their refusal to take their female comrades-in-arms seriously, was legendary. Stokely Carmichael, a leader in the civil rights struggle replied to a question about the position of women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with the single word “prone.” A joke, he explained later. Yeah, right.

White men were no better. In one of the most shameful incidents of the time, men at the national convention of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) jeered women who sought a voice in organizational policy off the stage with catcalls, suggesting that their place was either on their backs or at the coffee machines. It was an event that gave impetus to what was then the infant Women’s Liberation Movement, tagged derisively and dismissively by male commentators as “Women’s Lib.”

Forty years later the parallels between then and now in sexual relations among the young are striking. By 1968, the sexual revolution was in full flower, and sex was everywhere, especially on college campuses. Sexual freedom for women, however, was defined by the male model, and young women were caught between participating in men’s vision of female sexual liberation or risk being seen as retrograde prudes. True, there was the exhilaration of rebellion, of breaking the sexual rules that had bound earlier generations so tightly. But there were also enormous social pressures to “go along to get along,” to comply or be left out. As one woman who lived through those years said to me recently, “The whole ethos was ‘If you’re sexually free, you’ll sleep with me,’ and women bought it.”

Yes, but this is 2008. Surely women now make more autonomous decisions about when, whether, and with whom to have sex. Perhaps older women do. But when I hear the tales about hooking up, the dominant form of socializing in the culture of so many young people now, it seems to me that the pressure to sexual conformity is no less today than it was yesterday. And as in the past, it’s unlikely that there’s much sexual pleasure for girls in the hasty couplings or the blow jobs the boys so eagerly seek. It does get the girls invited to the next party, though, where they get to do more of t...

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