We live in a Fifty Shades of Grey world featuring all-you-can-consume Internet porn, full-frontal cable TV and $100 million studio films like The Wolf of Wall Street, where the biggest cultural complaint is not the overkill of orgies, F-bombs and rampant drug use but rather the way the victims of capitalism-run-amok are ignored in favor of orgies, F-bombs and rampant drug use.
It wasn't always such an anything-goes culture. As recently as the mid-1960s, Americans were still flocking to Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies dubbed by screenwriters “DF,” or “delayed fuck,” stories – lots of flirting and innuendo but no penetration and certainly no consummation. On the small screen, meanwhile, Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke were sleeping in separate beds even though they were young, married and frisky.
Yet by the early '70s, a post-coital Jack Nicholson was accusing a naked Ann-Margret of being a “castrating, ball-busting, son-of-a-cunt bitch” in the popular film Carnal Knowledge. On TV, a shocked Archie Bunker was coming home to find his daughter and son-in-law rolling around in bed. And in best-selling literature, John Updike was singing the virtues of wife-swapping in Couples as Philip Roth extolled the joys of masturbation in Portnoy's Complaint.
How American cultural values morphed so quickly from prudish and puritanical to rude, lewd and profane is the subject of Robert Hofler's fascinating new book, Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange – How a Generation of Pop Culture Rebels Broke All the Taboos. Hofler acknowledges the important role of '50s pioneers, including comedian Lenny Bruce and porn king Hugh Hefner. But he concentrates on the six years between 1968 and 1973, when the cultural walls truly came tumbling down and the sexual revolution in American bedrooms – which historians date from 1960's introduction of the birth control pill – began to find its full expression in film, TV and literature.
Hofler draws the big-picture setup and then gives us the details: While the Stonewall riots raged in Greenwich Village and Roe v. Wade came before the Supreme Court, a group of daring artists challenged the status quo and defined sexual liberation in a way that set the template for America's relationship to sex right up to 2014.
Hofler doesn't shy away from taking sides: In his view, the old, repressed values did great harm to individuals and the country at large, and the unleashing of hedonistic values was largely a good thing that liberated individuals and moved the country toward a more grown-up view of life.
Currently theater critic at TheWrap.com, Hofler has had a unique platform for watching the evolution of American pop culture: He has worked at Penthouse, Life, US and Variety.
He also wrote two important biographies of gay men: Henry Willson: The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, about the predatory film agent who cornered the market on gay beefcake in the 1950s, and Party Animals, whose subject was Allan Carr, the flamboyant producer of Grease and La Cage aux Folles.
For all the advances of the feminist movement, Hofler's research revealed that almost all the key figures who pushed the boundaries during the critical transition years were male. Of those, approximately half were gay, although many were in the closet at the time.
In fact, feminists often were initially critical of the way women were portrayed in groundbreaking plays like Hair and books like Portnoy's Complaint. But by 1973 women were joining the party: Nancy Friday had a best-seller with My Secret Garden, a collection of female sexual fantasies, and Erica Jong soon followed that with her own best-seller, Fear of Flying, with its famous “zipless fuck.”
The real villain in Sexplosion is the mainstream media, which, according to Hofler, was dedicated to protecting the status quo. In particular Hofler singles out Time, Life and especially The New York Times as cultural roadblocks. The Times' top editor, A.M. Rosenthal, was blatantly homophobic and did all he could to suppress the gay-rights movement.
When Rosenthal became metropolitan editor in 1964, former New York Times reporter Charles Kaiser recalls to Hofler, the paper began running stories like a 5,000-word, front-page piece headlined “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern.”
“Everyone below Rosenthal spent all of their time trying to figure out what to do to cater to his prejudices,” Kaiser is quoted as saying. “One of these widely perceived prejudices was Abe's homophobia.”
Hofler offers up another critical insight about the effects of the Sexplosion years: While tearing down the barriers was good for films and books, it wasn't so good for live theater.
Back when the Hays Code kept Hollywood squeaky clean, theater pushed boundaries. But the shocking nudity that packed in audiences for Hair and Oh! Calcutta! soon was overtaken by mainstream films like Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated film to win an Academy Award.
“They used to have to tone down Tennessee Williams plays when they were made into movies, but once films like Midnight Cowboy got made, people no longer went to the theater to be titillated,” he says. “Movies took over that role.”
And Hofler gives credit to the audiences that propelled all the cultural changes of the Sexplosion years.
“Any trend needs an audience,” he says. “And the baby boomers were the perfect audience for all this stuff.”