How the Sexual Revolution Changed Us

Two new projects—one a TV series, one a film—offer unexpected insights into midcentury women’s lives

by Alison Bailes
The ’50s researchers Masters and Johnson (Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, left) take risqué risks in the Showtime series Masters of Sex.
Photograph: Showtime 2012

In 1998 a quartet of saucy, ambitious friends—Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte—slipped on their Manolos, stomped through Manhattan and revolutionized the way TV portrayed women’s sexuality. But the amorous adventures of Sex and the City could never have taken place if it hadn’t been for the actual sexual revolution, the midcentury movement that liberated a nation of women while brutally exploiting some of them along the way.

Masters of Sex, a new Showtime series debuting September 29, details how the female orgasm went from a taboo subject to Samantha’s favorite topic of conversation.

In 1957, just a few years before the first oral contraceptive was approved by the FDA, William Masters, MD, a fertility expert, and his assistant, Virginia Johnson, began to research what until then had been undiscussable: the psychology and physiology of sexual response. Michael Sheen stars as the complicated doctor who risks his career, reputation and marriage to lead the charge; Lizzy Caplan plays Johnson, a forward-thinking single mother. Together they shattered the beliefs and preconceptions of their time. Masters of Sex is a period drama that bears comparison to Mad Men, but with more excuses for sex scenes.

Amanda Seyfried (Big Love) is all grown up and often nude in the new feature film Lovelace, the story of Linda Susan Boreman, who gained infamy as Linda Lovelace, star of the X-rated Deep Throat. That 1972 movie was a cultural sensation; one of the first pornographic crossover hits, it garnered a review in the New York Times and set off a national conversation about adult films. But Lovelace doesn’t shy away from the seedier side of the story: how Boreman was used and abused by the industry as well as by her manipulative, violent husband, Chuck Traynor, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Shortly after Deep Throat, Lovelace left Traynor and the business, joined the anti-pornography movement and denounced her own career.

It’s fitting that Masters of Sex, set at the beginning of the sexual revolution, focuses on a man who teaches women about their own sexual needs while Lovelace, which unfolds near the end of that movement, is centered on a woman who takes charge of her own erotic future. Despite their differences, both projects confidently evoke their eras while offering unsettling perspectives on sexual ways that were.

Next: Evolution of the Single Woman—and Sex—on TV

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First published in the September 2013 issue of More.

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