Public and Private Sexual Affairs
With the rapid evolution of technology and social media throughout the the past decade, most millennials may never know what it’s like to experience relationships and dating without being intertwined in their own digital worlds. Dating applications such as Tinder, Bumble, Grinder, and so on have expedited the process of personal communication which often voids the initial intimacy from a first time personal interaction. We have entered an incredibly self-absorbed, emotionally strenuous period of time where middle schoolers are entering online relationships via Instagram and grown men are using Snapchat to exploit their sex drives. But before the Tweets, Snaps, DMs, or any internet hullabaloo, relationships were built solely off of human interaction. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century when romantic friendships started to play a more prominent role in the United States. The fine lines of gender roles and sexuality that exist today and are continuously developing weren’t around 100 or even 50 years ago, in fact, the term gender role wasn’t even used until 1954 where it was developed through a study of intersex individuals. America’s attitude towards relationships has drastically changed since the turn of the last century through an abundance of variables such as the media, political junctures, and foreign affairs, just to name a few.
Entering the 20th century, the average American’s attitude towards sexuality was very one-sided and straightforward; men were interested in women and vice versa. There was no if, ands, buts, or in betweens and the government only allowed marriages arranged between people of the opposite sex. American author Margot Canaday elaborates on the background of federal regulation of homosexuality in her book The Straight State which is the largest body of research on the topic ever written. She explains in her book that early 20th century America was still considerably small compared to the majority of European states and as the United States rapidly grew, so did homophobia. Not only was this a pressing issue amongst US citizens, the government played a significant role in the prevention of sexual equality throughout the 20th century. “Federal awareness of sex perversion among immigrants preceded by several decades a reliable legal instrument to exclude or deport “sodomites” or “pederasts” (Canaday, 21). There was an indefinite lack of attention towards gender and sexuality, not to mention race amongst countless other variables, in our country’s earlier states of bureaucracy leading to ignorant, unethical stances on the issue and numerous laws that prevented certain individuals from acquiring the “American Dream”.
America’s attitude towards romantic partnership during the turn of the 20th century and throughout was without a doubt less impacted by the Catholic mentality held by the majority of European countries. On top of the fascination towards “sin”, German medical establishments played a more pressing role in Europe prior to reaching the US. Consequently, Europe was ahead of the curve in regards to gender and sexuality with research dating back to the 1860s conducted by sexologists Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Richard von Krafft-Ebing who first presented the typical invert as “psychical hermaphroditism” or a “masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom.” The research conducted by these European sexologists were later popularized in the states by the turn of the century and influenced many individuals to contribute to the research overseas. It wasn’t until 1919 when German physician Magnus Hirschfeld opened the “Institute for Sexual Science”, the first establishment of its kind which additionally set the precedent for sexuality and gender roles in the United States as they offered sexual education, therapy, and an abundance of new systems to support those who identify with any gender or sexual orientation.
Initially labeled “Jewish” and “offensive for public morals” the institute quickly became a renowned organization around the world until it was shut down by Nazis in 1933 prior to WW2. Nevertheless, the overall impact of the institute on society was crucial for the development of attitudes towards gender, sexuality, and romantic friendships across the globe and lead to the redefinement of gender norms following the second world war. Amongst the chaos and mass destruction that took place during WW2, the importance of sexuality and gender began to emerge more than ever. Young American men who were fighting overseas experimented with their sexuality like never before and were sexually freed amongst the chaos. The freedom of pleasure was discovered as relationships were formed and sex was inevitable for many. “Ty Carpenter, an actor with the US Special Services, recalled just how free and easy loving could be in his memoir Stars without Garters! He and his partner enjoyed an open relationship seizing the opportunities the war brought with it. On troop trains and ships, in dorms and at dances, on and off base, soldiers in and out of uniform away from wives and girlfriends were receptive to sexual advances by other men” (Smaal). Fighting in other countries thousands upon thousands of miles away from their homes, these young men discovered their sexuality in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if they were still living in the US.
The sexual liberation following the second world war marked a turning point in American History. Not only were more citizens than ever aware of their sexual potential, many were experimenting and creating groups to come together with fellow open minded individuals. But along with the adaptation of sexuality and gender in the United States came resentment. “Postwar critics complained of the gay influence on trends and tastes in arts and letters–what one called “a gradual corruption of all aspects of American culture.” But here, too, the protests scarcely made a dent. As Michael Sherry writes, “the success of gay figures was stunning. . . . [G]ay artists helped create the sights, sounds, and words of modern American culture.” (Meyerowitz) This was a beautiful byproduct derived from the abundance of inequalities within our society that wasn’t widely appreciated until the late 20th century, especially in the 1990s where homosexuality and the LGBTQ community started to play a more dominant role on television and in the media. “Mainstream films not only depict lesbian characters, but also finally use terms like “lesbian” to clearly acknowledge the sexuality of these characters. Although American audiences in the 1990s can see healthy lesbian characters, and hear them defined as “lesbians,” only an independent film has managed to completely validate lesbianism by portraying a successful relationship between two women” (Grounds). Movies such as The Wedding Banquet, Beautiful Thing, and In & Out all helped alleviate the negative stereotype associated with being a homosexual as more and more individuals began to publicly accept and embrace their sexuality simply by seeing other people doing so.
As the borderline between public and private sexual affairs became increasingly indistinguishable throughout the the turn of the 20th century and beyond, so did the media’s coverage regarding the topic. For the majority of history, most people couldn’t disassociate the idea of sexual pleasure with that of reproduction until we reached the 20th century. Casual sex is a form of perfectly healthy, intimate pleasure that has fully integrated itself into our society whether we like it or not no matter what gender or sexual orientation we associate with. Despite what we may individually be aroused by, we are all equally entitled to this form of pleasure that is part of our anatomy, in fact, without it we wouldn’t be human beings. In conclusion, the United States’ attitude towards relationships has drastically changed since the turn of the last century through an abundance of variables such as the media, political junctures, and foreign affairs, and so on.