Cover image for The century of sex : playboy's history of the sexual revolution, 1900-1999
The century of sex : playboy's history of the sexual revolution, 1900-1999
Petersen, James R.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Grove Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xi, 548 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
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HQ18.U5 P444 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A comprehensive history of sex in the 20th century, from the girl in the red velvet swing to the intern in the blue Gap dress. of color illustrations.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Petersen's credentials for writing this decade-by-decade survey of twentieth-century sexuality consist of his having written and edited Playboy's sex-advice column, "Advisor," for more than 20 years. Sex is a magnetic subject that draws many other spheres into its orbit, from gender roles to popular culture, birth control, and pornography, but the themes that dominate this rapid-fire account are sexual hypocrisy and censorship, the twin offspring of America's puritanism. Petersen chronicles the harassment of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, for instance, and the tragic fate of Ida Craddock, who wrote a forthright marriage manual only to be driven to suicide by the brouhaha it generated. He chronicles the dark deeds of censors, including Andrew Comstock and Joe Breen of the Motion Picture Production Code. At times, Petersen's galloping approach seems rote, then, suddenly, he offers something fresh, like an account of the army's approach to controlling venereal disease, or a description of the first stag film, "Free Ride" (1915). But once he hits the fifties, his narrative starts to feel like a documentary running on fast-forward: flashes of Lenny Bruce give way to Playboy Bunnies, girls screaming at the Beatles, the Kinsey Report, Deep Throat, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, AIDS, phone sex, Annie Sprinkle, Internet sex, abortion clinic bombings, and Clinton's impeachment proceedings. Unlike John Heidenry's more tightly focused What Wild Ecstasy (1997), Petersen rarely touches on the lives of ordinary people, creating, instead, a provocative headline-based collage that charts humankind's perpetual dance of longing and fear: one step toward sexual freedom, two steps back. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

In an accessible survey of 100 years of sexual change in the U.S., Petersen, who wrote and edited the "Playboy Advisor" column for two decades, deftly demonstrates how deeply integral sex and sexuality have been to American society. More importantly, he charts how our endless conflicts over the regulation and representation of sexual activity have been emblematic of broader battles concerning the meaning of freedom and personal autonomy. Although some of Petersen's anecdotes are shopworn (e.g., Charlie Chaplin's lusty demands on his 15-year-old wife and J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of Martin Luther King's sex life), he turns up some surprises, such as the sustained campaign by religious leaders against the circulation of pinups among G.I.s or the odd fact that such antithetical figures as Rev. Billy Graham and Margaret Mead both attacked the Kinsey Report. While Petersen gives some space to homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism, his focus is overwhelmingly heterosexual: for instance, when discussing I Was a Teenage Werewolf in the context of the eroticism of youth-oriented horror movies of the 1950s, he ignores the widely recognized gay male subtext. Lesbianism fares better here but, more often than not, is presented as titillating. By the end of the volume, Petersen's "pro-sex" discussion of the politics of rape, sexual harassment and porn takes on a strident, anti-feminist tone that becomes an unnuanced "defense" of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner's philosophy. 32 pages of photos. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Petersen, "Playboy Advisor" for 22 years, jams his exuberant and carefully researched chronicle with fascinating and colorful details of American sexual life and mores. It's all here, from exotic dancer Little Egypt to the Clinton scandalsÄwith Playboy magazine and Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique emerging as paired heroes challenging the asexual "pod people" of suburbia. He concludes that the sexual revolution has been a war of words, that we have achieved cultural agreement about sex in one thing: nothing is hidden. While Petersen's slant is obviously prosex and anticensorship, he's written a book that encourages readers to really think about the pervasiveness and complexity of sexual issues in American society. And there is much to ponder, whether you agree with Petersen's argument or not. An interesting counterpoint to other histories of sexuality (like John D'Emilio & others' Intimate Matters, Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1997. 2d ed.); for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/99.]ÄMartha Cornog, Philadelphia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One THE CITY ELECTRIC: 1900--1909 Imagine the city electric, some great switch thrown for the first time. At night the lights came on, turning each restaurant and theater into a blaze of bodies. Electricity poured through penny arcades and nickelodeons where, for pocket change, individuals witnessed Little Egypt, Serpentine Dancers, How Girls Go to Bed, How Girls Undress, The Marvelous Lady Contortionist, Three Skirt Dancers , and something called The Kiss .     Outside an arcade, someone tacked a review from the New York Evening World : "For the first time in the history of the world it is possible to see what a kiss looks like. Scientists say kisses are dangerous, but here everything is shown in startling directness. What the camera did not see did not exist. The real kiss is a revelation. The idea has unlimited possibilities."     A skyline once dominated by church steeples had a new deity. Atop the Madison Square Garden tower a copper and bronze statue of Diana the Huntress scanned the horizon. The thirteen-foot nude swung on gimbals, her drawn bow seeking the future.     The streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages and streetcars that rode the electric rail to a seaside wonderland called Coney Island.     Theodore Dreiser captured the mood in a novel that almost didn't get published. Frank Doubleday had deemed Sister Carrie (1900) immoral and tried to renege on his contract to publish the book, then to restrict its circulation. The book never described sex, but the heroine moved through a series of affairs without retribution. In passage after passage Dreiser evoked the swarming city, the lovely company of handsome men and elegantly dressed women, the moving fashion show of silver walking sticks, the perfumed air of scented hair. The city was a parade of equals, each aware of his or her desire. Dreiser spoke of "conscious eyes," of men and women "whose glances were not modified by any rules of propriety." The world was made for flirtation and seduction. "Women were made for men--and there was an end to it," explained one sporting male. "The glance of a coquettish eye was sufficient reason for any deviltry."     The city itself changed sex. Country girls grew up in protected households. Courters would make calls and sit on the front porch in full view of families. There was an accepted etiquette. An advice column in Ladies' Home Journal in 1908 offered this: Q: If a young man should take a gift unawares by kissing her, what should she do? A: She should show her displeasure in a dignified way that leaves him in no doubt of it. She has reason to be displeased--for it is a liberty.     In polite society a man would not dare call unless the woman had indicated interest. Kissing in public was bad form. Expressions of affection were for "private delectation."     There were no fence- and yard-protected front porches in the city. Crowded apartments filled with workingmen and -women or families were not designed to shelter the innocent. The streets beckoned. The young flocked to the vast new temples of public entertainment--dime museums, vaudeville, penny arcades, amusement parks, baseball stadiums, dance halls, peep shows, and listening rooms. Technology created a new kind of voyeurism as Americans stood hunkered over kinetoscopes and projectoscopes, motorgraphs, cinematographs, biographs, rayoscopes, eidoloscopes, viveoscopes, graphoscopes, and animatographs--the instruments of entertainment.     A nickel in the slot and an Edison phonograph played the hit music of the day. Another nickel brought a flickering image of Little Egypt doing the hootchie-coo. The new amusements were intoxicating and, some feared, addicting. Newspapers carried stories about "nickel madness."     The amusements seemed to point, like Diana's arrow, toward a new world built on pleasure. Sex was in the air itself. One observer visiting a Yiddish music hall remarked, "The songs are suggestive of everything but what is proper, the choruses are full of double meanings and the jokes have broad and unmistakable hints of things indecent."     The city was carnal. The raucous, sexually charged world caught the attention of the Committee of Fourteen, a group of wealthy men who gathered to ponder the new energy. They were not puritans, but they viewed themselves as moral custodians of the great metropolis and, indeed, the entire country. The Committee of Fourteen evolved into a group of physicians called the Committee of Fifteen. After studying the new city, the old guard issued a tome called The Social Evil . It described the young man drawn to the city by opportunity, who postponed or abandoned the expectation of marriage. "His interests center almost wholly in himself. He is responsible to no one but himself," they wrote. "The pleasures that he may obtain from day to day become the chief end of his life. A popular philosophy of hedonism furnishes him with a theoretical justification for the inclinations that are developed by the circumstances in which he is placed. It is not unnatural then that the strongest native impulse of man should find expression in the only way open to it--indulgence in vice."     The American family faced a new challenge. A blueprint that had existed since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, one that had been enforced by law, public punishment in the stocks, and the occasional hanging, was being ignored by millions.     In America, it was believed that the family unit was a support system for progress, a small corporation built on willpower, sacrifice, resolve, the work ethic. Lewis Erenberg, a historian of nightlife, described the old order in Steppin' Out . "Passion was one element that could distract men from success," he wrote, "weaken their resolve and ultimately destroy their will. It was thus considered bad for business, and businessmen's wives and daughters were expected to conform to the kind of sexual relationship that made the least trouble."     America believed in the purity of women, whether it was good for them or not. Men had sexual appetites, women did not. "For both men and women, sexuality was separate from romance," writes Erenberg. "Women provided the order in life and the social order to men's identities, and for that reason they had to live in their own private world above the temptations of the town." In a tiny office in the heart of New York City, Anthony Comstock studied the annual report for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. This bull-necked man, dressed in black, was physically stalwart, as grim and serious as the task he'd set for himself. Only muttonchop sideburns--once ginger-colored but now turning white--deviated from the severe. This was a man who, serving as a twenty-year-old in the Civil War, had persuaded three like-minded Christian recruits to take a pledge against swearing, drinking, and chewing tobacco. He'd acted as self-appointed chaplain for his unit. Now he had the higher office, also self-appointed, of national censor.     As usual, the report began with an apology: It is always a difficult matter to write the report for this society. The character of the evils, often found circulating among young people in institutions of learning, is so gross that no adequate idea can be given of it to the members of this society, much less to the public in general.... We can neither reproduce the books and pictures nor describe their true character. We cannot name the child, family or school, nor show into what circles of society we are called to make investigations. The nearest approach to a description of the evils which we war against will be found in the following tabular statement: Book and sheet stock seized and destroyed: 52 pounds. Obscene pictures and photos: 19,260. Negative plates for making obscene photos: 842. Articles for immoral use of rubber, etc.: 1,000. Boxes of pills and powders used by abortionists: 66. Circulars, catalogs, songs, poems, etc.: 7,891. Newspapers containing unlawful advertisements or obscene matter: 22. Obscene pictures framed on walls of saloons: 7. Obscene plays stopped or places of amusement closed: 1.     Anthony Comstock--special agent to the U.S. Post Office and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice--did not read books. He weighed them. Depending on your point of view, he was either a Christian champion or a one-man American Inquisition. The son of a deeply religious farm couple, Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1844. A former dry goods salesman, he applied the puritan work ethic to the rooting out of sin in all its tempting forms.     The report to the society provided career totals for Comstock's work. Prior to 1900, he had arrested 2,385 people. (By the end of his career, that figure would top 3,600--enough, he would say, to fill a passenger train of 61 coaches, 60 coaches containing 60 passengers each and the 61st almost full.) By the beginning of this century, he had destroyed 73,608 pounds of books; 877,412 "obscene" pictures; 8,495 negatives for making "obscene" photos; 98,563 articles for "immoral" use of rubber; 6,436 "indecent" playing cards; and 8,502 boxes of pills and powders used by abortionists.     Comstock looked forward to the new century. The vice report--sent out to schools and the pious with a request for funds--pointed out that in 1902 Comstock would celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his crusade against smut. The society wanted to create a permanent fund of $300,000 so that it would no longer be dependent on annual contributions from the devout.     Comstock was a newspaper darling and, to a certain extent, a newspaper creation. He made for good copy, with boasts that he was hunting down sinners like rats. In March 1872 Comstock, accompanied by a police captain and a New York Tribune reporter, had raided two stationery stores. Comstock bought pictures and books, then declared them obscene. Six employees were arrested, and Comstock got his first headlines.     With the support of the YMCA and some of New York's wealthiest men (among them financier J. P. Morgan, real estate tycoon J. M. Cornell, mining baron William Dodge, and publisher Alfred Barnes), he formed a vigilante group, the Committee for the Suppression of Vice. Cashing in on the notoriety from his raid, Comstock took a suitcase full of the choicest items of pornography to Washington. He persuaded a scandal-ridden Congress to pass a bill intensifying the punishment of those using the mail to send obscene materials. The new law, which came to be called the Comstock Act (1873), also added contraceptives, abortifacients, and "things intended for immoral use" to the list of materials prohibited from the mail. The politicians gave him an official appointment--special agent of the Post Office (without salary, at first)--and a badge, then turned him loose on the country.     The committee incorporated itself as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and provided Comstock with an office and a salary. According to its charter, the SSV would receive half of the fines collected from his activities.     Comstock guarded America from an invisible conspiracy that used the U.S. mail to disseminate evil. In a way, he was attacking the technology of the times, the first instrument of an emerging culture. The Post Office had noticed that after the Civil War the mail was being used to send erotic postcards and suggestive letters. The practice continued to increase during the Gilded Age and became a commercial form of entertainment. One could pick up the National Police Gazette and find ads for "Naked truth and secrets of nature revealed ... engravings from nature" or "The Female form divine, five photos, not tights, 50 cents."     Comstock never described the objects he suppressed, but some pictures survive. Even today these postcards have the power to arouse. A series from San Juan shows a woman in a straw hat barely able to keep a straight face as she aims a stars-and-stripes dildo at a male partner. Another shows a woman reclining on a black velvet mattress. At one end of her body, an athletic young man prepares to enter her. At the other, a second woman plants a kiss so quickly, her hair blurs. In a third postcard a buxom woman giggles as she squeezes her partner's erect penis between her breasts. There is a sense of novelty, discovery, or daredevil abandon before the camera in such pictures.     For Comstock, these images held the danger of infectious disease. His tactics were the epitome of deceit. He posed as a woman and sent letters to abortionists, then arrested them when they mailed back items he deemed offensive. He posed as a collector of racy prose and busted the "nefarious" publishers who solicited titillating fiction. Comstock cleared the shelves of titles such as The Lustful Turk, Peep Behind the Curtains of a Female Seminary, Amorous Sketch Book, Voluptuous Confessions --books that might incline one's thoughts toward the sexual, that might prompt the young to debase themselves through masturbation.     Consider this passage, from a 1904 edition of The Modern Eveline , printed for distribution among private subscribers, with the subtitle "The adventures of a young lady of quality who was never found out": I had retained my white kid gloves to please him. I held his stiff member in my grasp. I shook it gently up and down. "`Your little Eveline would like to suck it, papa." I suited the action to the word. I sucked it for a few minutes. I did not want to finish him off just yet. He threw me back on the sofa. He turned up my beautiful satin ball dress. He exposed my legs. He devoured my fine pink silk stockings in a frenzied gaze impossible to describe. He began to whisper indecencies. I replied with suggestions even more lewd. A demoniacal lust possessed us both. Our faces glared with the hot passion we felt consuming us. I stood before him again, in my stays, my long silk stockings, my gloves--long white evening gloves that fitted perfectly, extending almost to my elbows. I still retained my bracelets. My garters of rose and velvet and old gold set off my glistening hose. To his view I must have appeared a perfect houri, with only my light chemise of finest batiste to veil my skin, over which the delicate flush of health and good nourishment cast a roseate tint provocative of joy and love's delight. "Let us have our revenge now, dear papa. Let us outrage this false society all we can. Let us invert its hypocritical precepts. Let us be as indecent as we can."     The gauntlet, or in this case, the white kid glove, had been thrown down. Such literature was a call to revolution.     By the turn of the century only a quarter of Comstock's actions involved the mail. Many states had passed mini-Comstock laws and spawned similar anti-vice groups. Comstock would stalk the streets of New York, intimidating store owners into removing "offensive" material, demanding that the printing plates to such classics as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones be destroyed. If something offended his eye, it was plucked.     Like other reformers to come, Comstock justified meddling in the affairs of adults by championing youth. He thought he was chosen by God to protect the moral purity of children. He viewed Satan as a foe who set traps for the young.     He found these traps in newspapers, dime novels, and saloon paintings. He despised circulars and advertisements that might lure innocent passersby. But his career as censor stretched beyond images and ideas into the realm of behavior. He was the Christian champion defending his view of the family in a war for the soul of the country.     Comstock's worldview did not go uncontested. In 1878 the National Liberal League and the National Defense Association sent a petition with more than 50,000 signatures, measuring 2,100 feet, to Congress, asking that it repeal the Comstock Act. "Your petitioners ... are convinced that all attempts of civil government, whether state or national, to enforce or to favor particular religious, social, moral or medical opinions, or schools of thought or practice, are not only unconstitutional but also ill advised, contrary to the spirit and progress of our age and almost certain in the end to defeat any beneficial objects intended. That mental, moral and physical health and safety are better secured and preserved by virtue resting upon liberty and knowledge than upon ignorance enforced by governmental supervision."     Congress refused to change the law.     For Comstock, sex was a controlled substance. A modern eye looks at his tabulations and thinks of other government wars. Imagine a headline: FEDS SEIZE TEN TONS OF OBSCENE LITERATURE, STREET VALUE: 6 MILLION DOLLARS, and wonder, how much escaped Comstock's snare? The figures are valuable as a measure of the nation's appetite for sexual information.     Comstock had the government at his disposal; no one would stand up in favor of freedom for fear of being next on his list. D. M. Bennett, the author of a biography critical of Comstock's "career of cruelty and crime," clashed repeatedly with his enemy. Comstock arrested him for circulating obscene literature (tracts on free love). One could suspect a personal vendetta, but at Bennett's trial the assistant district attorney addressed the jury: "Gentlemen, this case is not titled `Anthony Comstock against D. M. Bennett'; this case is not titled `The Society for the Suppression of Vice against D. M. Bennett.'... It is `The United States against D. M. Bennett,' and the United States is one great society for the suppression of vice." (Continues...) 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