All Talk, No Action

If those who forget history are destined to repeat it, David Allyn's Make Love, Not War proves that those who overanalyze history are destined to remain ambivalent about it.

According to Allyn, the sexual revolution of the 1960s was "a time of popular inquiry into important philosophical questions" during which "a significant segment of the population had publicly explored the possibility of a rational approach to personal behavior and social organization."

Excuse me? I thought the point was that people could finally enjoy getting laid without the certainty of insanity, hellfire and brimstone.

For more than 300 pages, Allyn attempts to validate a counterculture phenomena in terms of white middle-class America. Unfortunately, each chapter begs the question: Did the sexual revolution really change the world or even lubricate the zippers of Middle America? And Allyn is never able to provide an answer because he is never willing to visit the trenches. For him, the sexual revolution was most dramatically enacted on university campuses and in the printed word, retrospective interviews, and obscenity trials.

What is missing from Make Love, Not War is a report from the nonacademic world—places like Santa Ana, Westminster, my next door neighbor Dave's apartment. There, the revolt proved much less liberating than advertised on the recruitment posters.

The change in sexual behavior and attitudes that Allyn documents is undeniably dramatic. He points out that in 1959, 50 percent of seniors (and a good portion of the faculty) at a Philadelphia medical school believed masturbation led to insanity. That until 1969, even the Boy Scout Handbook warned against the dangers of self-gratification. That well into the 1960s, homosexuality was considered "a pernicious disease," treatable with electroshock therapy. That despite an epidemic of coat-hanger abortions, contraception remained illegal in many states—including New York and Massachusetts—even after the Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that Connecticut's attempt to legislate morality "was illogical and backward."

Allyn suggests that the changes in the succeeding decades have progressed us beyond backwardness. But Allyn's history of civil sexuality—desiccated through scientific research, mired in documented studies and castrated by rhetorical diplomacy—underplays some perverse points of the here and now. Such as the proliferation of "adult" entertainment, high-tech-DSL pseudo sex, abortion-clinic bombings and babies left in dumpsters. Such as unabashed intolerance of people like Matthew Shepard (the kid strung to a fence and beaten to death) and the subsequent signs attending his funeral insisting "God Hates Fags" and mockumentary peepshows of suffering like Boys Don't Cry. Such as the hysterical reaction to El Modena High School's Gay Straight Alliance (complete with out-of-state moral defendants hurling their homophobic "anti-species" labels), Proposition 22's successful "Defense of Marriage" campaign, and a myriad of sexual-harassment and hate-crime statutes. In Make Love, Not War, these are little more than real-life postscripts to Allyn's "unfettered history" of the sexual revolution.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s did create new perceptions of masturbation and beyond for the mainstream. Locally, an unhealthy preoccupation with other people's indiscretions may be increasingly relegated to unenlightened pockets of Orange County. Most people are open-minded about divorce, birth control, abortion, premarital and extramarital sex, women's liberation, and gay rights. Well, aren't they?

Allyn finds that by the early '80s, "Americans had become resigned to their own moral contradictions and intellectual inconsistencies," and he "suspects" that people born in the late '60s and early '70s are ambivalent about the sexual revolution because they fail to appreciate the social and cultural changes of the era. In many ways, the sexual revolution tended to resolve issues of sexuality and morality the way affirmative action fostered racial tolerance, the way the women's movement bridged gender conflict—that is, it created a new level of discourse for people who like to talk about it, write about it, read about it. From the extensive bibliography, it would seem that Allyn—a historian born in 1969 who spent a considerable amount of his sexual prime obtaining a Ph.D. from Harvard and teaching at Princeton University—sure as fuck immersed himself in research of a topic he is ambivalent about.

Or maybe Allyn's professed ambivalence is a backup story to justify his claimed sense of mortification at the idea that his daughter might someday flip through this book. Or maybe his ambivalence covers his understated belief in Michel Foucault's pessimistic appraisal that the more people try to "free themselves from sexual repression, the more entangled in prescriptive norms" they become.

For whatever reason, Allyn isn't interested in asking whether the fragile collective male ego was prepared for the fallout from the idea of independent feminine drives, desires and needs (not to mention orgasms). Allyn couldn't care less if the women were ready to move into a frontline position in taking that sexual hill.

Allyn's rambling analysis fails to reach outside textbook philosophical considerations to understand how my neighbor Dave contended with per formative comparisons or the concept that his dick might not be the center of the universe. Screw Dave. In Make Love, Not War, the revolution was fought in courtrooms over publishing.

Thus, Allyn exhaustively chronicles how the threat of sexual revolution prompted a 1967 act of Congress to establish the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. He copiously reports how, after two years of scientific research, the majority of the commission recommended that "all laws regulating the sale of erotic material to adults be repealed." He notes how then-President Richard Nixon's lone appointee, Charles H. Keating Jr., filed suit to block the report's publication. (Keating, you may remember, was the same anti-smut crusader who worked so fervently to protect Orange County from the notorious Mitchell Brothers and their X-rated theater.) He dutifully discloses that the report was ultimately published, that the repression of sexually explicit material took a heavy artillery hit—and the commercialization of eroticism flowered. (In that detailed vein, it's also worth noting once again that Keating, the moral arbiter and former chairman of Citizens for Decent Literature, became the center of the Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal and ended up in prison for 17 counts of state securities fraud.)

The lesson here is that the interpretation of morality can be very complex. Unfortunately, Allyn's scholarly pursuit of the sexual revolution is not. Anyway, who needs the past example of Chuck Jr. when we have wasted carbon like Dr. Laura on the radio today spewing moral invectives and promoting the display of "bottled babies" in Planned Parenthood waiting rooms?

Just as important, Make Love, Not Waralso fails to explore the idea that some of the fun, the challenge of "will he, she, or it" has gone out of the sex game. Allyn doesn't ask if the tingle of something special, something dirty, something dangerous has become a casualty of the war against repressive morality. Instead he buries the relevance of these issues in the endnotes to the epilogue. He suggests that people who entertain this sort of thinking might find that "the sexual revolution was ultimately counterproductive," and he makes belated concessions to a 1999 remark by Village Voice executive editor Richard Goldstein: "Perhaps, in the end, shining the light of liberation into every dark corner of daily life has made it more difficult to indulge in some sexual pleasures spontaneously and unselfconsciously."

Make Love, Not War is nostalgic at best, obnoxiously clinical at worst. As long as Allyn sticks to his constructs and discourse, the book is precise and believable. But as soon as he tries to make sense of his theories, the result is reminiscent of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's 1964 flaccid attempt to intelligently define the term hardcore pornography. "I'll know it when I see it," Stewart said. Like Allyn's book, that goes a long way to explain nothing.

Make Love, Not War: The sexual revolution, an unfettered history by david allyn; little brown & co. 432 pages. $26.95 hardcover.


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