Ah, sex in the 1970s. From the hirsute bodies of The Joy of Sex to the grinding bodies on the dance floor at Studio 54, everyone during what became known as the Me Decade seemed to be getting it on. And so were the era’s many sex manuals, which once filled bookstores in what was arguably a golden age of advice for readers in search of some afternoon delight. But what can those books tell us about sex during the height of the Sexual Revolution? A lot, says Anna E. Ward, who argues that the 1970s was a distinctive sexual decade that’s well worth studying today.
When Ward studied sex and dating advice literature of the era, she discovered themes of feminism, gender politics, and self-fulfillment. Books like The Sensuous Man and The Joy of Sex encouraged men to pay attention to Women’s Lib and become willing to give women orgasms. Sexual issues were directly connected to inequality between men and women, and the “vaginal orgasm” became a kind of sexual scapegoat. For too long, men had ignored the real ways in which women orgasm, manuals argued, and it was time for them to relearn their techniques.
Meanwhile, literature aimed at women encouraged them to get to know themselves. Anatomy lessons were presented alongside text that encouraged women to explore their bodies, and sexuality was constructed as a key part of women’s self-identity. “In advice literature of this era,” writes Ward, “sexual experimentation becomes the cornerstone of discovering one’s truest, most intimate self.”
For Ward, the sex literature of the seventies can be seen as a call to women to put their feminism into practice—and a map of how to do so. But heterosexual, middle-class women weren’t the only audiences of the era’s many sex advice manuals. Books aimed at gay and lesbian people, older people, and people with disabilities were all published during the decade. The perspectives of people of color, however, were largely ignored.
As culture changed, sex manuals boomed. Economic and social anxiety may have fueled some of the sexual zeitgeist, allowing women a chance to control their own bodies in an uncontrollable world. The rise of psychotherapy also seems to have played a role.
So what happened to the erotic manuals that lined seemingly every bookshelf during the seventies? The trend died a decidedly unsexy death, says Ward, as people began to turn to experts and seek medical solutions for sexual problems. As companies invested more and more money in prescription drugs, Americans became convinced that the key to sexual fulfillment could be better found in a bottle than in a book. But modern sexuality—from women’s claim on their own bodies to better sex education throughout life—owes much to the bumping and grinding sex advice of the 1970s.