Jeffrey Escoffier interviewed by Christopher Mitchell
I recently spoke with activist, author, and editor Jeffrey Escoffier, the author of American Homo: Community and Perversity, which has recently been re-issued by Verso Books in their Radical Thinker series. We reflected on several topics central to his current project on the history of sex as a set of bodily practices. In our conversation, Escoffier explains his research into radical changes in sexual practices in the twentieth century, or what, since the 1920s, popular observers have called “sexual revolution.”
Christopher Mitchell: You think historians don’t take the idea of a sexual revolution seriously. Why?
Jeffrey Escoffier: Historians use the term, but they use it journalistically. I mean, they use it as a label for a period, not for a process. Typically, then, “the sexual revolution” means the 1960s and 1970s. I had many conversations with John Gagnon—the sociologist who, with William Simon, developed the first social constructionist account of sexuality—about whether or not there actually was a “sexual revolution.” He didn’t really think a sexual ‘revolution’ had taken place. He claimed that there’s not that much of a difference in the sexual behavior of the ’60s and ’70s from that of before. Other sociologists agree with him.
But if you look at public discourse, the series of Supreme Court decisions about pornography and obscenity, and the fact that people felt more comfortable speaking openly about sex and using the sexual vernacular, that clearly increased dramatically over the period. So, in fact, whereas maybe behavior hadn’t changed dramatically, certainly the public discourse had.
Mitchell: Then what was the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s? If it’s not exactly behavior, then what changed?
Escoffier: I think it was a cultural revolution, a huge shift in discourse. The most important dimension of the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s was the increased freedom of sexual speech—that it became increasingly more possible and more comfortable for people to talk about sex openly. And that meant more pornography. It meant sexual jokes. You have Lenny Bruce as an example of someone who went up against the obscenity laws and was arrested for using words like “fuck” and “cunt” in comedy acts. Eventually, people could talk the way he talked with no problem at all, although that brought its own challenges—men may have been more comfortable, but that didn’t necessarily always work for women.
Dirty words or whatever you want to call them regularly appeared in books, magazines, and movies. The ’60s and ’70s was a period when sexual speech became increasingly possible and expanded. And that had, of course, in the following decades, an impact on behavior. It gave room to a wider range of behavior and helped to reduce the shame that accrued from unconventional sexualities.
Mitchell: That brings us to your theory of what ‘sexual revolution’ is. What do you see as the characteristics or preconditions of a sexual revolution?
Escoffier: I argue that sexual behavior tends to change when populations and social groups with different norms interact. That often took place in cities where people from different social classes and ethnic groups interact in shared social spaces. It is also important to focus on the history of sexual scripts—the way individuals in a sexual encounter brought together their everyday interactional skills, their fantasy materials, and their society’s cultural norms (about gender identity and roles, social class, geographic, ethnic and other affiliations) to develop “scripts” (like a theatre script, with cues and appropriate dialogue) as a means for organizing their sexual conduct. Different cultures have “menus” or “packages” of different sexual scripts – organized around gender, class, race, sexual orientations or particular acts (for example, fellatio) or other social conditions (for example, urban, rural or suburban). There are “packages” of sexual scripts today organized around Internet dating or “hooking up” at college social gatherings. Being “catfished,” for example, even though no sex may be involved, is one of the scripts relating to Internet dating. Every sexual encounter involves two or more people improvising within those scripts.
Mitchell: How do sexual scripts interact with demographic patterns?
Escoffier: For example, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the courtship scripts of the white middle class changed significantly. The social conditions that had sustained the courtship system of the post-Civil War era were changing. That system, the “calling system,” required a man being invited by a woman’s family, so they had to be in a relatively small community. The man was invited by the family to come and visit the young woman. They had to have a sitting room where the young people could sit and talk while chaperoned. There also had to be enough control over the young woman – she couldn’t leave the house by herself – and there was no reason why the man would take her out of the house.
That system begins to break down toward the very end of the nineteenth century, when more and more native-born Americans and immigrants moved to cities and urban working-class families didn’t have that kind of setup. They often didn’t have a front room for talking like that. Also, upper- and upper middle-class men began to have cars so they could take upper-class girls out on dates – and then the men payed for a meal or entertainment. Each of these modifications to the courtship script created a new set of conditions for the sexual interactions of young people. The courtship system was a key piece of the story, but that also depended on material conditions, such as the existence of movies and the automobile, the residential environment as well as demographic circumstances.
Mitchell: The 1920s were the peak of the Great Migration and of immigration to the United States before the 1924 law that dramatically limited immigration from Africa, Asia, and Eastern and Southern Europe. What kinds of roles do ethnicity, race, and class play in this model of sexual revolution?
Escoffier: Between 1890 and the 1920s immigration and urbanization play an incredibly important role because each of those social groups had/has very different demographic conditions and normative conventions. For example, look at the contrast between Jewish and Italian immigrants in that period. Italian immigrants had a significant pattern of circular migration with men coming here, working here, and then going back to Italy, where they often had families. At some point, women joined their families and communities in the U.S. But those communities had a much more uneven sex ratio, male/female ratio, than, say, the bulk of the Jewish community. Many Jews who were expelled from Eastern Europe came here in extended family units, and so you had a more balanced ratio. Thus, you find more bars in Italian neighborhoods in which men predominate and where sex between men was often negotiated. I think these examples illustrate the process by which demographic patterns influence sexual behavior.
Mitchell: Does that also explain heterosexual patterns?
Escoffier: Yes, certainly. In Jewish communities there was much more freedom for the young women to date and to go out to shared social spaces as part of some form of courtship, whereas in Italian communities there was more rigid control of young women. In addition, those communities also had different norms about virginity, celibacy and other aspects of sexuality. The contrast between Italian and Jewish immigrants illustrates how the interaction between demographic patterns and cultural norms was key. And I think that’s the basis of sexual change, which is going to take place where there’s mixing of different populations. To some degree, there is also a collateral process, which is a concentration. Eventually gay communities emerge when some kind of concentration of stigmatized groups follows the intermixing.
Mitchell: In the early twentieth century, among homosexual men and in homosexual networks, there’s a lot more cross-class and cross-race interaction.
Escoffier: Exactly. Since there are no socially “sanctioned” scripts for gay men, sexual scripts develop around age, class, and other socially significant factors like race. That had a lot to do with how the homosexual scripts evolved. The cross-class dynamic is very important. It’s also not totally distinguishable from prostitution—which is true of heterosexual cross-class sexual relations as well.
Mitchell: Yes, I agree. Another potential script for homosexual men was “romantic friendship,” which includes a degree of intimacy with one another. And, of course, the other script is the short-term sexual connection that you get through cruising. Both of those scripts are still options.
Escoffier: George Chauncey’s book, Gay New York, provides extensive evidence of sexual scripts before 1940—the variety of the roles and the kind of sexual scripts that entailed. Chauncey talks a lot about sex, a lot about cruising, which few gay histories do. And you’re quite right, cruising is important – it is the foundation of gay male social life.
Mitchell: Urbanization and immigration help make sense of the 1910s and ’20s and what we can call the first sexual revolution. This is also a period that witnesses an explosion of mass technology and mass communications. This explosion seems to be the primary medium for the changed scripts that we identify with sexual revolution. It’s the radio, and it’s jazz, and movies, and in the 1960s it’s all of those things plus TV.
Escoffier: I would not say that the changes in mass communications or technology in the 1920s or 1960s necessarily explain changes in sexual behavior. But they set the conditions. You have other things going on in the 60s – the baby boom, a whole cohort of young people under the average age of marriage. The age of marriage shifts for a number of reasons: attending college, serving in Vietnam, availability of jobs, etc. Plus, you had the freeing up of sexual speech because of the Supreme Court’s decisions on obscenity. And there’s a huge population of college students as well as the counter-culture—sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Mitchell: Couldn’t we also talk about “sexual revolutions” during other historical periods? Take for instance, the “sporting life” culture in the 1830s and 1840s.
Escoffier: Yes, certainly. The “sporting life culture,” which emerged in New York, Philadelphia and other American cities in the 1830s and 1840s, was an urban subculture dominated by unattached young men and organized around drinking, boxing and prostitution. Internal migration played an important role. Increasing urbanization was taking place and there was a growing concentration of a very young male population in the larger cities. They had no familial guidance and marriage was being postponed. So, you have all these young men migrating to the city for clerical jobs (Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener was one of these young men) and they are congregating in rooming houses, hanging out in bars drinking, gambling and watching prize fights—and unwilling to postpone sexual intercourse until marriage.
Mitchell: So what are some of the other moments of “sexual revolution” that you notice?
Escoffier: In several periods the shifts in sexual norms and behavior were quite dramatic. For example, the 1830s and 1840s seemed to be a period of dramatic sexual change. And I think that the Civil War probably saw some dramatic shifts in sexuality behavior too. The Civil War is interesting because it provoked an intense reaction, a sort of sexual “counter-revolution”, as well.
This is the period that produces Anthony Comstock and his crusade against obscenity. Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which campaigned against obscene materials from 1873 until 1950! Judith Giesberg’s Sex and the Civil War touches on some of the issues. There’s had been no uniform process for censorship during the Civil War. For one thing, we know there was a lot pornography circulating in the Union army during the Civil War, and that’s one of the things that spurred Comstock to focus on pornography and sexual behavior as a life-long crusade. He exerted an enormously powerful conservative influence on not just pornography or contraception but also any kind of “public speech” around sex. I would also be willing to bet that in every historical period (or society) where there is a war—a major war—sexual norms and behavior will change. Wars disrupt people’s lives, they take people away from their families—which is an institution that helps maintain social and sexual norms.
World War II produced a truly enormous demographic disruption. Young men went into the military and women went into war production—everyone was pulled away from small towns and cities, segregated in same-sex environments, and found themselves in settings with a great many sexual opportunities. After World War II, we see the emergence of the early gay or homophile movement. So perhaps there are really three or four “revolutions” in the 20th century: the 1910s and ’20s; World War II; and the ’60s and ’70s, and maybe with the advent of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath, even the ’80s and ’90s.
Mitchell: The other thing that seems characteristic of all of these revolutions is that they are followed by counter-revolutions. The next revolution is always determined by the previous counter-revolution. For example, in the 1980s, HIV/AIDS provoked a sexual “counter-revolution.”
Escoffier: We just don’t know much about the historical processes underlying changes in sexual behavior, but almost certainly we are talking about cycles of some sort. Certainly, after the Civil War, we seem to have had a period of “repression” associated with Anthony Comstock’s campaigns. But the truth is, we don’t know much about these processes over the long haul. Gayle Rubin is always reminding me to also look at the repressive phase of the historical cycles of sexual change. The HIV/AIDS epidemic definitely had a very negative effect on gay male sexual behavior. Though I don’t see the same kind of dampening effect among heterosexuals as you do among gay men. Demography, after all, is about sex and death—and migration.
Maybe we should abandon the whole idea of a sexual revolution. But what we should take from the idea of sexual revolution is the fact that there are a set of specific historical processes and that to identify these historical processes we must think analytically to try to explain changes, and not just to leave it up to a vague idea of incremental cultural change.
Mitchell: You’ve characterized “sexual revolution” as a process of interaction between demographic groups with different sexual norms, but it seems like demographic composition and norms are changing all the time. I guess we should reframe the question. Instead of trying to think about the process of ‘sexual revolution,’ we should be asking, “What causes sexual change? What drives those kinds of changes?”
Escoffier: Perhaps it’s not a “revolution.” Perhaps it is a constant historical process of demographic/cultural change. But it comes down to whether we’re going to talk about a historical process or not. I can’t show that sexual change has the defining markers of a revolution, but I’m sure it is an historical process. And I think that the process of historical change in sexual behavior and sexuality in general should be an identifiable topic of research and analysis.
Christopher Adam Mitchell earned his PhD in women’s and gender history from Rutgers University and is currently doctoral lecturer in gender/sexuality studies at Hunter College-CUNY. His book, From Gay Ghetto to Free Market: The Transformation of Queer Life in New York City, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in the Politics and Culture in Modern America Series.
Jeffrey Escoffier is the author of American Homo: Community and Perversity—which has recently been re-issued by Verso Books in their Radical Thinker series—and the editor of Sexual Revolution, an anthology of some of the most important writing about sex published during the 1960s and 70s. He is the former editor of Socialist Review, and a founder of the queer cultural/political quarterly OUT/LOOK.
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