France will be marking 50 years since the month-long student uprising that challenged the establishment on so many fronts. But some historians now question whether it was really the birth of sexual liberation.
PARIS — During the May 1968 student uprising in Paris, one of the movement's top leaders Daniel Cohn-Bendit raised the question of the "sexual problems of the youth" in a public confrontation with France's Minister of Sports. Still, the issue was seldom discussed at length during the monthlong confrontation. Only later, did it become association with the epochal events in the French capital 50 years ago.
"Climax without hindrance," "The more I make love, the more I want to start a revolution. The more revolutions I start, the more I want to make love ..." The graffiti adorning the walls of Paris in May 1968 have helped build a myth: That month marked the beginning of the sexual revolution.
French historian Michelle Zancarini-Fournel has deconstructed that myth: "It is necessary to distinguish the images that appeared in the decades following 1968, from the true practices of the time," warns the co-author (with Philippe Artières) of 68, A Collective History: 1962-1981.
True, in 1968, Cohn-Bendit grilled the then minister of sports in his 300-page research paper on France's youth. "There is not a single word about sexual problems faced by the youth," the student leader declared.
"Before 1968, the question of sexuality interested only sociology students in Nanterre (University), but it was hardly ever discussed in general assemblies in universities," says Zancarini-Fournel. "In the social movement, there was little to no mention of it — except in a few women's forums."
Yet it was in the following decades that discourse around the body and sexuality was liberated little by little. Feminists were at the forefront of this movement that challenged long-established unwritten rules of morality, modesty, and propriety.
"They relentlessly insisted that their bodies belong to them," says Zancarini-Fournel. These movements were first and foremost in favor of contraception and abortion. But in feminist circles, the issue of sexuality was also addressed. The movement was also successful in the field of law: In 1974, contraception was allowed without restrictions, including for minors; then a right to abortion in 1975.
But it took much longer for romantic and sexual conventions to change. "They evolve one step at a time," recounts Zancarini-Fournel. "There were, of course, big changes, but to identify them, one must observe the behavior of couples over two or three decades ... It is not a waterfall, it is a stream that flows very slowly."
Was it actually a revolution?
For Michel Bozon, author of Pratique de l'amour, this slow movement has allowed women to increase their "room to maneuver" in the realm of sexuality.
Since the 1970s, feminine passivity has ceased to be the norm, with the repertoire of sexual practices expanding with the emergence of more egalitarian scenarios. This evolution is part of a new landscape, Bozon insists, that of a world where women's level of education has increased, where they contribute more to the labor market, changing the balance of relationships within families.
Surveys have measured the extent of these changes. Since the 1970s, such practices as extended foreplay, mutual masturbation, and oral sex have become increasingly important. In 1970, two-thirds of French people said that their last sexual intercourse occurred following male initiative. In the 2000s, four-fifths said that both the man and women took equal initiative.
"This dramatic rise, between the 1970s and the 2000s, regarding women's satisfaction regarding their sex life is linked to a more active role during sexual intercourse," says Bozon.
Can we really call it a "revolution?" Michel Bozon doubts it. "I am reluctant to describe as a revolution the changes in behavior that have happened since the 1960s," he wrote in the Mouvements magazine in 2002. This routine use of the term "sexual revolution" proceeds from an antiquated vision of sexuality. In the manner of Wilhelm Reich or of Herbert Marcuse, sexual behavior is no longer imagined as hindered by social constraints, allowing a free expression of sexual urges.
Rather than a revolution, Bozon would rather refer to sexuality built by "controls and disciplines external to individuals," to a sexuality built by internal disciplines. Autonomy, he concludes, has prevailed over pure pleasure.
"This is not a liberation, but an internalization and a deepening of social demands," says Bozon. The changes must no doubt be considered less like an emancipation and more like a sort of individualization. With the internalization of controls, the individual must establish his or her own standards and intimate coherence, while continuing to be judged socially."