We’ve been taking a romp through history looking at views of sex in different periods.
Today we’re jumping forward to the 1970s. On the podcast this week we’ll be taking a little bit of a broader look, throwing in the 1950s and 1960s as well. But I want to set the stage here. Both World Wars saw the world opening up for women, as they did so many of the “men’s” jobs while the men were out at war. Society was changing.
And technology was changing! In the 1950s, the famous Kinsey report was published–the first mainstream scientific study of human sexuality. It got a lot messed up (and used very dubious methods), but it made sex, and sexual response, a much more common topic.
In the 1960s when social upheaval took place and authority was thrown aside, the sexual revolution came with it. The best way to reject society’s values was often in the sexual arena.
(The 1960s had plenty of GOOD things about it too–including a push for justice and equality. I’m just looking at the social ramifications for sex here).
For my in-law’s 50th anniversary party, we found this amazing book from the 1970s on sex, which we put front and centre on display. I stole it after that (if you’re looking for it, Mom and Dad, we’ve still got it!), and I gave it to Connor to mine through to see how sex was being talked about in the 1970s–right before Christian books about sex began to be written. Let’s take a look!
Looking at a 1970s sex manual
When I was in university, the sentence, “I’m going to review a 1970s sex manual in detail for my mother-in-law one day” never crossed my mind. But here we are!
So let’s take a look!
THE GOOD in the 1970s sex manual
For this series on sex through the ages, I have mostly been pointing out beliefs and practices that were either bad, goofy, or some combination of both. But as we get into How to Get More Out of Sex by David Reuben, M.D., I want to discuss a number of ideas contained within this book that have actually aged fairly well.
1. The idea that sex teachings are largely responsible for the orgasm gap isn’t new
This is something that Reuben actually spends a fair amount of time discussing. He asserts that sexually repressive cultural messages have made women feel like their sexuality is unthinkable, unmentionable, and untouchable, and that the result is difficulty reaching climax or enjoying sex at all. Instead, if we allow women to talk about, think about, and embrace their God-given sexuality, sex can be just as much for them as for men.
I was quite surprised to see how much of his writing on the subject of female sexual education mirrors what we found in our study, and this book was written almost 50 years ago. If people were discussing this 50 years ago, why have evangelical marriage speakers/writers still been teaching that sex is for men, and women can’t understand it? I have some thoughts, and I’ll be going into more detail this week on the podcast.
2. Sex needs to be physical, emotional, and spiritual
Reuben discusses the physical components of getting sex to feel good for women, but also emphasizes the importance of emotionality and spirituality. He deals with the emotional barriers that can impede pleasure and orgasm for women, including guilt over past messaging about sex, frustration with a selfish husband, etc. He also states that it is crucial not just for a man’s penis to touch the vagina the right way, but for his spirit to touch hers.
3. A man is responsible for helping his wife figure out how to make sex good for her.
The journey to overcoming orgasmic impairment is not the woman’s alone. Reuben acknowledges that men need to take an active role in promoting her pleasure as well. It is not enough to say “Well sex feels good for me, so figure it out on your own.” As Reuben states, if all that was required of a man was to get hard, get inside her, and stay there for long enough to satisfy her, then “a good hard rubber dildo would be the ideal sexual partner” (p. 56). Instead, a man is required to work with her to figure out her pleasure, and to bring love, kindness, and understanding. Sex shouldn’t be about his physical release, but rather an expression of their devotion to each other that is unique to their relationship.
4. His language is usually neither overly clinical, nor is it condescending
In most of the book, he gives fairly detailed descriptions of specific anatomy and how they may come into play in sexual situations. His descriptions are neither overly bland, scientific and sterile, nor do they rely on pet names and euphemisms such as calling a penis Mr. Happy, or a vagina a “tender little friend” (as Kevin Leman did in Sheet Music, and as we’ve talked about on the podcast). It is straightforward and matter-of-fact. Sure, some people may find it more graphic than they feel comfortable with, but I found surprisingly little to cringe at while reading these chapters.
Now I say usually because, as we will see in “The Bad” section, there were some places in the book I violently cringed.
5. He takes pragmatic but nuanced approach to teenage sexuality
Rather than take a firm stance on whether teenagers should be having sex, he discusses many of the dynamics at play, including hormones, peer pressure, culture, curiosity, shame, parental influences, and the parents’ parental influences. And then rather than say teenagers should never have sex, or they should be free to have sex all the time, he argues that what teenagers need is for parents to understand that teenagers are capable of sex, many of them will want to have sex very badly, and many are currently having sex.
Parents need to accept that reality in order for them to effectively communicate with their children and teenagers, and to educate and guide them. To never address sex is harmful. To vilify sex is harmful. To just forbid and punish sex is harmful. Instead, support, communication, and education is the best way to address teenage sexuality and promote safe, healthy decisions.
(Obviously many Christians would want to take a firmer stance on sex being wrong in the teenage years, but the emphasis on open communication and the need to guide them is actually pretty true).
THE BAD in the 1970s sex manual
Now we come to the bad. There are a lot of things Reuben put in this book that aged about as well as… well… a 50 year old book on sex.
And Trigger Warning: some of these describe sexual assaults.
6. Wait, that’s….sexual assault!
When Reuben talks about fetishes and perversions, he makes a distinction between sexual proclivities that are simply unusual, and those that cross the line into harmful and pathological. Which is a fair point. Just because something isn’t standard, especially in a time where oral sex could be punished with 20 years in prison in some states, doesn’t mean it is automatically harmful.
But then when he gives examples from letters written to him, the last example of an “unusual taste” (p. 117) before talking about what’s bad was problematic for me. It comes from a man who described what he liked to do in lieu of masturbation. He would go to a crowded hotdog stand lineup every weekend in summer, pick out an attractively lady, and position himself behind her so that the packed crowd would grind his erection against her butt until he climaxed! He goes on to note that in four years of doing this every weekend he never had any complaints, so he must gotten lucky with women who were as into it as he was. No! That’s sexual assault! This happens to many women on crowded trains and subways during their daily commute, and they rarely speak up because they are terrified because there is a predator behind them PREYING on them, and it’s horrifying!
And using one’s power to get sex is sexual assault, too! (are these really the example you want to use?)
Many of the examples he gives from letters addressed to him and clinical interactions with his clients are problematic in ways that he does not address because they aren’t relevant to the point he is making. As someone who was not personally alive during the sexual revolution, it feels to me like many people saw the sexual revolution as a call to liberate everything related to sex, and to cast aside all judgements regarding what people do with their bodies in their personal lives. That’ “everything goes” mentality seems like a pendulum swing to me, because plenty of what he casually brings up is particularly out of touch by modern progressive standards. Here’s an example of what I am talking about.
When addressing how erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation are issues we need to deal with on a psychological level, he cites a “success” story from one of his clients who was able to overcome his condition with Reuben’s help. He thanks Reuben, explaining “You know, I’m a film producer and I can have almost any girl I want–all I have to do is promise her a contract. But in all those thousands of bedroom casting sessions, I never got to see how my own organ operated…” (p. 156)
Does this remind you of someone whose name rhymes with Barvey Meinstein? Me too.
And being subject to an erect penis should not have to be part of someone’s job. Not okay.
This is actually a direct quote from Reuben! When explaining how a woman can use a sensual massage to help a man get it up, he says,
“One word of warning: the amateur masseuse is exposed to the same occupational hazards as the professional lady massager. They include lustful thoughts, wandering male hands, and the risk of being suddenly invaded by a throbbing penis. But then, that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?” (p. 168).
Maybe if you ask the late Ravi Zacharias. But much like many American and Asian massage therapists, I never asked for Ravi’s input.
7. It’s still sexual assault even if it’s with “exotic” girls
In another story about a man he helped overcome ED, he recounts suggesting a vibrator to this man he then says, “the only thing I can compare it with was an experience I had in Burma during the Second World War with a couple of sixteen-year-old temple dancers…” (p. 162).
Now I know 16 is old enough to consent in Myanmar, but an American vet reminiscing fondly about sleeping with two 16-year-old Burmese temple dancers 40 years ago after masturbating his limp penis with a suction cup vibrator is gross for me to read, and a detail I would have left out were I writing a book on how to get more out of sex. Especially considering I live in a place where 16 is two years too young, much like Reuben’s home state of California (where the age of consent had been 18 since over a decade before Reuben was born).
The lack of attention to the reality of sexual abuse is really quite astounding and sad.
8. Ummmm….Abortion isn’t birth control
In literally the first sentence of the chapter about contraceptives, Reuben claims that abortion is the perfect form of birth control. He argues that it doesn’t interfere with foreplay, has the highest birth prevention rate, is safe, doesn’t get your clothes messy, and can be the cheapest method when averaged out across all of one’s ‘copulations.’ And while advocating that abortions are the optimal method of dealing with undesired pregnancy, he openly argues that abortions necessarily involve killing a child. I know abortion is a complex and heated topic, and I believe one of if not the largest topic for single-issue voters, but even most people who themselves get abortions report having used contraceptives during the month of conception. All of the pro-choice organizations I am aware of advocate for more access to contraceptives to reduce unwanted pregnancy before abortion even enters the picture, and they certainly aren’t calling abortion murder while they advocate for freedom and access.
For me, the issue here is that he calls abortions ‘killing,’ and then says that is preferable to using a condom or birth control pills for the sake of convenience and pleasure. He admits it’s a killing, but doesn’t seem upset by this. It’s easy to forget how people used to think about abortion.
9. There’s a bizarre bit about the penis-breast relationship?
Reuben regularly refers to this pseudo-scientific idea that a man with ED is subconsciously playing out a role-reversal revenge fantasy for times when he had been denied the breast as an infant, whether from it being taken away, not producing milk, or it leaking all it’s milk before he got to suck on it. His penis becomes the substitute for a breast, his semen for milk, and the vagina for a mouth. Reuben’s advice, therefore, is to say to yourself when you first see your partner for that night: “I am not going to snatch away the penis-breast just as my ‘baby’ is getting ready to drink” (p. 172). Or in the case of someone with delayed ejaculation: “I will eagerly feed milk to my hungry ‘baby'” (p. 177). Highly un-scientific, and so ridiculous that I almost want to put this in the Funny section. But it’s also gross enough that I feel fine leaving it here.
10. There is no recognition of the harm of certain cultures’ practices towards girls
In the 1970s, it was in vogue to treat other cultures as the same as ours and not to criticize other cultures.
But sometimes we need to! For example, he brings up female circumcision, not as a human right’s violation, but as an operation that is considered important in some cultures, and describes how it ties into their famous hospitality. He also describes certain tribal practices of incorporating stinging ants into the sexual education of peri-pubescent girls by having the ants sting the girls genitals to promote swelling and rubbing. His stance on this practice is that it is “rational, sensible, and eminently practical” (p.14). He also explains how to use crack vaginally, and how to apply cocaine to the tip of the penis.
11. He argues recreational A-P repair surgery is an essential operation denied to millions of deserving women
Rueben recommends women get A-P repair surgery on their vagina, not out of medical necessity, but so they can sexually resemble an 18-year-old again. Now remember when I said there was some stuff in this book that made me cringe? Here we go: He says women should get this surgery after childbirth because when the baby’s head pushes through the birth canal, “the penis’s little grotto of pleasure is instantly converted into Carlsbad Caverns” (p. 17). That seems like a pretty reductive and male-centered view of a woman’s body at the very moment of her going through the emotionally and physically intense experience of bringing a life into the world.
THE FUNNY in a 1970s sex manual
I just had to include this one because it was so funny to me, and I think is an excellent way to end on a lighter note.
12. Test your male pheromones
Reuben suggests men rub a clean handkerchief on the underside of their testicles in the morning before they shower, and then wear that tainted (pardon the pun) hanky in their breast pocket as they go about their day. He suggests some men who do this find themselves drowning in women.
Sheila says: Thanks, Connor, for reading through this so I didn’t have to!
It’s interesting how you can see from these tidbits how much the 1970s was trying not to lay judgment on anyone–but sometimes judgment needs to be laid! And even though they thought they were so progressive, they almost completely ignored issues of coercion and sexual assault (pretty similar to many of our Christian books, actually).
Tomorrow I’ll be looking at the Christian books that were written into this culture, to help us better understand what these books were trying to address. And then in the podcast this week we’ll go into more detail about this cultural transformation, and how so many different things were pulling us in all different directions, at the same time. It makes it easier to understand why the early Christian sex manuals took some of the stances they did, but also helps us clarify what we should be saying now.
What stood out to you from all of that? Anything surprise you? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sex Throughout the Ages Series
- 8 Weird Facts about Sex in Roman Times (April 6)
- The Significance of 1 Corinthians 6-7 in light of Roman culture (April 7)
- A Romp Through Medieval Times and Sex (April 13)
- 10 Weird Pieces of Victorian Sex Advice (April 14)
- The Contagion Theory of Sexuality--and How to Change It (April 19)
- 12 Pieces of Advice from a 1970s Sex Manual (April 20)
- 12 Ways the Christian 1970s Culture Tried to Be Sex Positive--While Also Fighting Back against the Sexual Revolution (April 21)
- A Look at Christianity's Response to the Sexual Revolution: Kinsey, the 1970s, and the Early Christian Sex Books (our April 22 Podcast)
- How Youth Group Changed After Generation X (and what it was like before purity culture) (April 26)
- Is Porn the New Purity Culture? (April 27)
- A Liturgy of Lament for the Teaching We Received about Sex and a Prayer for Healing (April 30)