The first sexual revolution

In the 1931 German film M, Peter Lorre portrayed a former mental patient who stalked innocent school girls, lured them with candy and balloons, and then, offscreen, murdered them in order to satiate his abnormal erotic desires. Two years later, when the film opened in the United States, the New York Times criticized director Fritz Lang for wasting his talents on a crime “too hideous to contemplate.” Despite the reviewer’s distaste for the public discussion of sexual crimes, the American media soon began to cater to a growing popular interest in stories of violent, sexual murders committed by men like “M.” In 1937 the New York Times itself created a new index category, “Sex Crimes,” to encompass the 143 articles it published on the subject that year. Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles newspapers also ran stories about sexual criminals, while national magazines published articles by legal and psychiatric authorities who debated whether a “sex-crime wave” had hit America. …

A close look at the sex crime panics that began in the mid-1930s, declined during World War II, and revived in the postwar decade reveals that those episodes were not necessarily related to any increase in the actual incidence of violent, sexually related crime. … [T]he media, law enforcement agencies, and private citizens’ groups took the lead in demanding state action to prevent sex crimes. In the process, they not only augmented the authority of psychiatrists, but also provoked a redefinition of normal sexual behavior. …

The new image of aggressive male sexual deviance that emerged from the psychiatric and political response to sex crimes provided a focus for a complex redefinition of sexual boundaries in modern America. … [B]y stigmatizing extreme acts of violence, the discourse on the psychopath ultimately helped legitimize nonviolent, but nonprocreative, sexual acts, within marriage or outside it. At the same time, psychiatric and political attention to the psychopath heightened public awareness of sexuality in general, and of sexual abnormality in particular,between 1935 and 1960. …

By the 1920s the Victorian ideal of innate female purity had disintegrated. Stimulated by Freudian ideas, a critique of “civilized morality” infiltrated American culture. Meanwhile, working-class youth, blacks, immigrants, and white bohemians had created visible urban alternatives to the old sexual order. They engaged in a sexually explicit night life, used birth control, or accepted sexuality outside marriage. Even for the middle classes, a recognition of female sexual desire and of the legitimacy of its satisfactionpreferably in marriage but not necessarily for procreationcame to dominate sexual advice literature by the 1920s. As birth control, compassionate marriage, and female sexual desire became more acceptable, female purity lost its symbolic power to regulate sexual behavior. Not surprisingly, by the 1930s calls to wipe out prostitution could no longer mobilize a social movement. Reformers now had to base their arguments more on “social hygiene”the prevention of venereal diseaserather than on the defense of female virtue.

If the Victorian ideal divided women into the pure and the impure, modern ideas about sexuality blurred boundaries in ways that made all women more vulnerable to the risks once experienced primarily by prostitutes. “If woman in fact should be a sexual creature,” Victorian scholar Carol Christ has asked, “what kind of beast should man himself become?” One response to her query was heralded in England during the 1880s by the crimes of Jack the Ripper, whose sexual murders of prostitutes, Judith R. Walkowitz has argued, created a powerful cultural myth associating sex with “violence, male dominance and female passivity.” …

Ultimately, the response to the sexual psychopath helped legitimize less violent, but previously taboo, sexual acts while it stigmatized unmanly, rather than unwomanly, behavior as the most serious threat to sexual order.


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