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Sex is the one thing that has been constant since the beginning of time. It is being used to help with procreation, it can be used for enjoyment, or in some cases, it can be used as a weapon. This hasn’t always been the case, though. In the past, sexuality was repressed and kept to the privacy of one’s home. However, there was a hum of sexual energy floating in the air throughout the United States and it seemed that people were in the throes of a sexual awakening. But in the sleepy town of Stepford, were its citizens experiencing the same sexual awareness that seemed to be infiltrating the rest of the country? In this paper I will compare the sexual experiences of those in Stepford compared to the rest of the United States during the 1970s.
The United States in the 1970s was awash with energy; sexual energy, to be exact. During this time, there was a sexual revolution happening and it was sweeping everyone along for the ride. The sexual revolution of the late twentieth century produced a profound shift in the way we think about sexuality, how we conceive of sexual repression, and how we regard the effect of social factors (Escoffier 5). This was a resurgence of sexual energy that was similar to what occurred during the 1920s. However, instead of attending a petting party that went no further than hugging or kissing, couples in the 1970s were attending swingers’ parties and going to bathhouses; where couples could potentially have sex with individuals that were not their spouse. There also seemed to be a broadening of horizons during this time. This new era gave rise to such ideals as birth control, pornography, and masturbation. People were gaining and using the information that they were being given about these ideas to amend their lifestyles. It seems that not even the people of Stepford were totally immune to the changes that were happening. When Walter comes home late from a Men’s Association Meeting, he inadvertently wakes Joanna up because he is masturbating. She comforts him by saying “You could have woke me. I wouldn’t have minded” (Levine 15). This eventually leads to them having, what Joanna considered to be, an exceptionally good sexual encounter. Although it is not specified, it can be assumed that Walter is content with the fact that Joanna would not judge him harshly for taking matters into his own hands. He may even be secretly thrilled at the fact that she offered to willingly have sex with him should he feel the need to masturbate again. It would be interesting if there was any information about female masturbation in the novel, but seeing as there isn’t, we are left to wonder.
The 1970s were also becoming a time where sex was being advertised on television and being sold in magazine racks in the local supermarket in the guise of self-help books. The concept of sex was coming further and further from the shadows and was being embraced by a more accepting country. This coming into the light helped make one aspect of sex more prominent: pornography. During this time in history, pornographic representations of sexuality ranged from profound explorations of desire to highly stereotyped permutations of sexual positions. The sexual explicitness of pornography ranged from soft-core images of attractive models posing or running in the woods to gritty depictions of kinky sex acts in an alleyway (Escoffier 3).
After Joanna and Walter have sex, she jokingly asks him “What did they do? Show you dirty movies?” (Levine 16) And while Walter denies that’s what happened, it wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility. Movies such as Deep Throat and Mona the Virgin Nymph were being played in movie theatres and the Men’s Association could have gotten a film reel of it so they could enjoy it whenever they wanted. Besides seeing more adult content in movie theatres, television was also starting to show slightly more sexual representation as well. It was nothing close to the explicitness of what was being shown in theatres, but it was still represented sexual themes and ideas. They managed to address some of the issues at the core of the sexual revolution. Questions of women’s sexual satisfaction, of reproductive rights, of sexual violence were all up for debate (Levine 7). So even if the Men’s Association didn’t have a handy supply of pornography stashed behind the couch, they could have gotten a teasing taste of it from late night movies or a random television show.
The issue of women’s sexual satisfaction has always been a hot topic of debate. There have been questions of whether women experience sex the same way as their male counterparts or even if women enjoy sex at all. There are those that would tell you that the female orgasm is a myth and that the clitoris is a mythical place along the way of Shangri-La and the Garden of Eden. So, with this sexual revolution, women were coming to the realization that they could oversee their own pleasure and provide it without the help of anyone. They were grasping their sexuality and orgasms with both hands and taking a more significant role in their own pleasure. Women were also realizing that, if they did not want to take part in any sexual experiences, they didn’t have to. Joanna and Charmaine are talking about how she and Ed are going to rediscover each other. Charmaine is less then enthused about the fact.
“Look, I just don’t enjoy having a big cock shoved into me, that’s all. Never have and never will. And I’m not a lez either, because I tried it and no big deal. I’m just not interested in sex. I don’t think any woman is, really, not even Pisces women. Are you?” (Levine 51)
So, in this situation, it sounds as though Charmaine has never enjoyed a sexual encounter with her husband and she knows that she never will. She also admits to Joanna to having a lesbian encounter, perhaps when she was a younger woman. In this vein, Charmaine is maintaining a pre-revolution way of thinking: women don’t enjoy sex and are possibly just faking it for their significant others because they feel as though they have too. Given the time and opportunity, one must wonder if Charmaine could eventually change her way of thinking. Would she have such a dower outlook on sex if she were to attend a swinger’s party? Or would that reinforce her already locked-in ideals of what sex is? We can make a thousand assumptions about this, but the only one that could truly answer that would be Charmaine.
The 1970s were truly a time of sexual upheaval and revolution. We still carry the marks of the revolution in the fact of how much sex we are bombarded with on a regular day-to-day basis. And with the advent of portable devices, we can take our sex on the go without any worries. Stepford, however, for all the baby steps that they have taken to embrace some of the revolution as it swept over the country, one cannot be sure that they would have truly embraced all of the changes that took place. Besides, who really needs change when things are better off as they have always been?
- Escoffier, Jeffery. The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980. Thunders Mouth Press, 2003.
- Levine, Elana. Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television. Duke University Press, 2007.
- Levine, Ira. Stepford Wives. Random House, 1972.
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