When Free Love Died

Why the sexual revolution plays only in reruns

Whatever became of the Frigid Woman? Along with the Infantile Paralytic and the Thalidomide Baby, the female eunuch once haunted the American dreamscape as a walking, joyless rebuke to our unhealthy, uncaring, uninteresting, and morally primitive society.

Unlike the other two medical archetypes, it’s not clear the Frigid Woman, defined by her inability to attain orgasm, ever really existed. Or if so in what numbers, and suffering from which particular malady. It could have been hysteria, penis envy, or some form of psychosomatic vaginosis; or maybe it was just the accumulated guilt and uptightness brought on by tens of thousands of years of the whole hung-up, Apollonian, blue-nosed, Judeo-Christian, puritanical establishment.

The Frigid Woman’s condition was treated with respectful attention in such Age of Aquarius texts as G.S. MacVaugh’s Frigidity: Analysis and Treatment and Albert Ellis’ New Cures for Frigidity. The prospect of healing the Frigid Woman figured centrally in art house classics such as Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour and crossover porn hits like Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat.

Then suddenly, suspiciously close to the time that the sexual revolution peaked, the Frigid Woman just vanished. Along with nymphomania and the virgin/whore complex, her disease no longer existed, another relic from the ungroovy dark ages. Was she cured by the no-strings, gettin’-down, good-vibrating, out-front love fest of the late ’60s and early ’70s? Or did she cure herself by fighting off the open-shirted horn dog males unleashed by the Summer of Love?

Two recent entertainments try to recreate the complexity of that era of self-conscious sexual liberation. The CBS series Swingtown attempts to bring ’70s suburban wife swapping to mainstream television. On a much smaller budget, Anna Biller’s independent film Viva salutes classic soft-core cinema. Neither could be accused of making a big cultural splash. Swingtown, largely unwatched, appears headed for cancellation; Viva, despite its uncannily precise rendition of the look, sound, mood, and arch dialogue of its subject, made just a few film festival and theatrical appearances and earned mixed reviews.

But the relative daring of both pieces raises a question: In a world where amputee and plush-toy porn is as near as your Web browser, why does the cutting edge of fictionalized erotic exploration seem to be found on material that’s more than three decades old?

Maybe it’s simple style envy. Swingtown luxuriates in the Super ’70s vibe to a degree that’s bracing even after years of Me Decade nostalgia. Who (other than Nielsen viewers, apparently) could say no to the milieu of plaited hair, randy airline pilots, swinger parties, and paneled kitchens? Viva aims not for the look of the period but for the look of the period’s movies: the high-key, pseudo-Technicolor lighting and spare, colorful set design that a handful of us have been missing ever since Dragnet went off the air; nudge-nudge, wink-wink dialogue delivered in the flattest possible tones; characters who always have a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

What both capture is a sense of the sexual revolution as a product of middle age, a phenomenon not strictly of the baby boomers but of people just a few years older, still young enough to grok the counterculture but too old to commit to it in earnest. There is something exquisite in that dilemma. Sure, we’ve all been plagued by the sense that somebody somewhere is getting laid in ecstatic new ways while we’re slaving over a hot stove. But suburbanites in the early ’70s had actual reason to believe it.

That is why the Frigid Woman is the key to this mystery, the explanation for why the sexual revolution contained both new vistas of freedom and the seeds of its own undoing. All that loosening up ultimately contained just more male insistence, a sense that the real problem with society was that women just weren’t putting out enough! The journey to sexual liberation was sold as a step forward for women, but it was also a clever way to eliminate the option of saying no. And while “frigidity” was a phenomenon that had been discussed for decades, it reached critical mass just when the promise of balling your way through to the other side began to seem believable. It turned out women weren’t having a problem achieving orgasm at all; they just couldn’t do it with you.

What’s left of that heady experience? You could say the journey has been completed in the Housewives and the City entertainment genre of sexually liberated women. You can find the evidence all over the bestseller lists—novels full of breathless detail about Manolo shoes, Pilates-toned figures, fiery redheads, cussing bitches with hearts of gold, lovely Korean-American gal pals, arrogant but sexy assholes, and giggly revelations over white wines.

I’m pretty sure this is, in fact, the kind of stuff many women like to read or watch, but it’s not as clear that these entertainments, with their pathetic plots about finding Mr. Darcy among the studs and fetishes for accessories that border on paraphilia, represent much of a step forward. In Carrie Karasyov’s 2007 novel The Infidelity Pact, an almost perfectly average example of the genre, the line between naughtiness and practically Islamic notions of sexual purity is erased. The temptation to copulate outside the bonds of marriage is viewed exclusively through a lens of deception and injury, the sexy asshole character is quickly unmasked as the “devil,” and the lazy workings of the plot end with its group of women sexual adventurers fleeing back to their boring marital shells. The lesson is the same one we learned at the beginning of the Reagan era: I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me.

The original sexual revolution may have ended in bad humping with stinky hippies and gold-chained lotharios, but there was romance in the search for a new consciousness, and in the naive notion that you could get there by copulating. How could such a beautiful idea not live on? Maybe what these modern, catty, gossipy chicks really need is a man who can take them to the next level, make them feel the way a woman’s meant to feel. Your place or mine?

Tim Cavanaugh is Web editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial pages.

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  • The Democratic Republican||

    good, thoughtful article, but geezus -- could someone do some copyediting on it so others don't spend time being distracted by all the typos?

  • ||

    Let's just cut to the chase, shall we?
    Can I still find lonely desperate women at closing time or not?

  • SIV||

    deja vu ?

    This has been posted before right?

  • ||

    Sexual Revolution: That brief period of time when people openly acted on the impulses they have indulged in private for all of human history.

  • ||

    The original sexual revolution may have ended in bad humping with stinky hippies and gold-chained lotharios

    Wow, you didn't have to insult NutraSweet like that. Just because that was his MO back in the day doesn't mean he's like that now.

  • Hogan||

    Yeah I'm pretty sure this was already posted like a month ago?

  • ||

    Look, I only keep my shirt unbuttoned to the navel because I can't keep all of my chest hair stuffed in.

  • ||

    Female orgasm? Isn't that just a myth?

  • ||

    Q: How do you know when a woman has an orgasm?

    A: Who cares?

  • Warty||

    Q: How do you know when a woman has an orgasm?

    A: Who cares?


    Does anyone else remember Tommy Vu? This joke is a lot funnier if you imagine him saying it in front of his Lamborghinis and surrounded by babes.

  • ||

    Q: How do you know when a woman has an orgasm?

    A: A blush across the face and chest and staccato contractions in the pelvic floor usually tip me off.

  • ||

    Wow, way to not go down the offensive joke route, NutraSweet. Is there a fist in your ass or something? Tastelessness has its place, you know.

  • libertarian democrat||

    SIV,

    Yup. Not sure when, but I remember it clearly.

  • Guy Montag||

    Can I still find lonely desperate women at closing time or not?

    Yes, but if you wear a flight suit and a wedding ring you can close the deal a lot earlier.

  • ||

    I can go tasteless:

    Q: Why are the vagina and the anus so close together?

    A: So when women are drunk you can carry them like a six-pack.

  • ||

    I couldn't sleep one night, so got up and looked for those "girls gone wild" infotainment spots. I came (I use that work advisedly) across the Oxygen network and some real "girls gone wild" - infotainment commerical for... uh, "dongs" Man, there has been some real technological improvement. You know that those "things" are now remote controlled? (really and truely)...I mean, its not so far away from you that you can't reach it with your hand (no wonder Americans are getting fat)

  • ||

    Gotta go with a classic:

    Q: What do you say to a woman with two black eyes?

    A: Nothing, you already told her twice.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Epi, that is my favorite tasteless joke.

    Actually had the opportunity to work that into a conversation with Mrs TWC the other night. Surprisingly, I didn't end up on the couch. And, she LOL.

  • ||

    A blonde gets a tattoo of a seashell on her inner thigh. He boyfriend asks her, "why there?" She tells him, "if you put your ear to it, you can smell the ocean."

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Sexual Revolution: That brief period of time when people openly acted on the impulses they have indulged in private for all of human history.

    My father was continually amused that the boomers thought they had invented sex.

    Death of Free Love

    Ran across that way too many times in my vagrant yoot. Seemed like Free Love was a slippery term and only applied when the girl actually wanted to do you. Seemed like most of those hotties that were sleeping around were sleeping with other guys, not me.

    OTOH, Free Love is a sexist term in that guys, historically, have always believed in Free Love.

  • ||

    Epi, that is my favorite tasteless joke.

    It's a great one. It's an excellent test to use to see if a girl has a sense of humor. If she laughs at that, that's a win right there.

    So, good for your wife.

  • my old man||

    Free Love, seems like a reasonable price.

  • Mad Max||

    "The journey to sexual liberation was sold as a step forward for women, but it was also a clever way to eliminate the option of saying no."

    Why, Holmes, your powers of deduction never cease to amaze me! Nobody else could possibly have figured out this mystery!

    "Sexual Revolution: That brief period of time when people openly acted on the impulses they have indulged in private for all of human history."

    Yes, and when people found out that so-called "hypocritical repression" might have been a good idea after all.

  • kinnath||

    Congress: 500+ laywers that haven't held a real job in decades, if ever.

    Who really wants these people in control of the economy?

  • kinnath||

    sorry, wrong thread

  • ||

    Too bad Kinnath. You mis-posted to one of the few Reason threads where that comment would not fit

  • Mad Max||

    "Too bad Kinnath. You mis-posted to one of the few Reason threads where that comment would not fit"

    I don't know - those 500 lawyers have had a lot to say about regulating sexual behavior. It seems that when the "outdated, repressive, hypocritical traditional standards" have been trashed, what replaces them is not freedom, but multifarious regulations.

    Consider, if your will, the "sexual harassment" laws, which originated in Congressional legislation, as interpreted by administrators and courts. Once we abandon the "outdated, repressive" rule of men and women respecting each other, then we have litigation up the wazoo over how to negotiate workplace sexual relations.

  • robc||

    I cant believe it hasnt been said:

    TANSTAFL - There aint no such thing as free love.

  • ||

    TANSTAFL - There aint no such thing as free love.

    So true. Everyone who marries money always winds up having to earn it, in the end.

  • Andy||

    If you need money to get a girl you are a chode.

  • Syd Henderson||

    1960s: The golden age of sex, followed in the 1970s by the golden age of herpes.

  • JD||

    Nitpick time: "pseudo-Technicolor lighting"? Technicolor is a film-process, not a lighting one. Maybe he just means "colorful", or "saturated".

  • Junter Klops||

    This article reminds me of the monstrosities I type when I have an assignment that calls for 5 pages, and I only end up with 4 and then have to find creative ways to fill up another page.

    And what is this nonsense about the most innovative take on sex being some TV show? I was quite certain that there hadn't been any innovations in sex aside from birth control and sex toys for thousands of years, and this includes attitudes about sex. Bestiality, harems, homosexuality, necrophilia are all ancient traditions.

    Anyway, the real sexual revolution is when we start making sex robots, realistic cybersex with haptic interfaces, or find a way to simulate orgasm by directly stimulating neurons. There won't be any going back after that point.

  • ||

    Q: How do you know when a woman has an orgasm?

    A pussy being thrust against your tongue as you rapidly flick her clit, with a lot of moaning and thrashing around punctuated by "Oh, [insert name here, hopefully yours unless you LIKE awkward post-orgasmic conversations], please don't stop" is, if not definitive proof, nonetheless a fairly reliable indicator. Though it is hard to tell the exact moment if she is going off like a firecracker over and over again.

    Oh, and that should have been a NSFW warning. My bad. :o)

  • ||

    I was quite certain that there hadn't been any innovations in sex aside from birth control and sex toys for thousands of years

    Uh, dude, sex toys go way, way back.

    As do various more or less effective means of pregnancy prevention.

    So, as is typical of so much of their ouvre, the baby boomer's contribution to sex is grossly overstated.

  • Junter Klops||

    But we have better sex toys now than ever before--like those sex dolls with that special material that's very similar to skin. They are a huge improvement over blow up dolls. And although castration is ancient and certainly just as if not more effective, modern birth control pills are certainly a vast improvement.

    But I can't think of any such improvement, let alone radical innovation, in sexual attitudes. In many ways, we have even regressed, at least in general. I suppose there will always be nudist colonies and pedophiles.

  • Jennifer||

    It's easy to tell when I have an orgasm because, as a patriotic American, I levitate in the direction of Washington, DC and start singing The Star-Spangled Banner. (It takes split-second timing to hit the high notes on "the land of the free," but I manage to pull it off [so to speak] because I'm that damned good. Or maybe because my boyfriend's that damned good. Hard to tell, really.)

  • zoltan||

    OTOH, Free Love is a sexist term in that guys, historically, have always believed in Free Love.

    For themselves, of course, not for their wimmin.

  • ||

    I levitate in the direction of Washington, DC and start singing The Star-Spangled Banner

    "I find her interesting because she's a client and because she sleeps above her covers. Four feet above her covers."

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    For themselves, of course, not for their wimmin.

    That goes without saying. Except, of course, your wimmin'

    I don't live by the double standard, I invented it.

  • LarryA||

    What about the sexual revolution of the 1950s? It was the first time Mom and Dad could actually go into the bedroom, shut the doors and windows, and expect privacy, thanks to the spread of residential air conditioning.

    Think Walton's Mountain. If you can lay in bed and hear everyone say, "Good night," then a few minutes later...

  • Mr Lizard||

    Just remember men never 'Suffer' from pre-mature ejaculation.

  • Syd||

    R C Dean | September 30, 2008, 3:24pm | #
    I was quite certain that there hadn't been any innovations in sex aside from birth control and sex toys for thousands of years

    Uh, dude, sex toys go way, way back.


    Yeah, but they didn't start including batteries until a century or so ago. The steam-powered dildo was a wonder to behold.

  • Catherine||


    Yeah, but they didn't start including batteries until a century or so ago. The steam-powered dildo was a wonder to behold.


    You should have seen the horse-powered one!

  • ||

    "Frigid Woman, defined by her inability to attain orgasm"
    or alternatively, a woman who never met me.

  • ||

    I don't think I've read an article in Reason prior to this one that has ever made me blush.

    And people claim Kerry Howley was the tease around here...Tim is giving her a run for her money.

  • paddycakes||

    What an appalling article - so incredibly trite. Way to pull together a few catchy adjectives some references and the kind of journalese that makes Gawker look like the Atlantic.

    "Then suddenly, suspiciously close to the time that the sexual revolution peaked, the Frigid Woman just vanished"

    Dude, you never established she was around before, except for two books, and you never established she just vanished. You're not god, you can't just say things and make it so.

    I can't believe this guy works for the LA Times, it's like a first-year op-ed.

  • ||

    One out of four women are raped, and most of the rest are harrassed, threatened, and subject to sexist double standards -- and that's just before puberty.

    What's that crap about a "frigid" woman again? Being tired of intercourse with men is the only healthy response under the circumstances.

  • JGR||

    The Sexual Revolution ended when it devolved into germ warfare.

  • ||

    The author must not spend much time on the Internet.

  • SilentShout||

    The frigid women receded because women learned that they can and should take matters into their own hands, so to speak, and started taking responsibility for their own O's.

  • ||

    Today's "sexual freedom" is a pathetic attempt at remedying cognitive dissonance between sexual pleasure and the views of the moral right.

    The 60s can generally be tallied in history as a time of exploration in the power of political and personal freedom and expression. This era will likely be viewed as the period in time where we try to enjoy the taboos without even valuing the freedoms to do so.

  • nfl jerseys||

    mjter

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