Two new books shake the foundations of the sexual revolution.

The sexual revolution promised to usher in utopia. With a new set of sexual mores would come liberation from centuries of repressed sexual feelings. Violence, sometimes linked to unrequited sex, would subside. In short, sex without inhibitions would set society free.

The revolution made a powerful impact, and some of the changes it produced will be permanent. But there is a growing realization in the secular world that free sex, without love and commitment, does not deliver what it promises. Now, two new books are striking at the very foundation of the sexual revolution. One of them is Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (Harvard University Press); the other is George Leonard’s The End of Sex (J. P. Tarcher, Inc.). Freeman, an Australian anthropologist, attacks both the scholarly and moral integrity behind Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, much of the sociological ground in the thirties for the sexual revolution in the sixties and seventies.

Leonard used his position as senior editor of Look magazine to propel the revolution. In a special issue of Look early in 1970, Leonard argued for a new sexuality. “A society that considers most good feelings immoral and bad feelings moral perpetuates the ultimate human heresy: an insult, if you will, to God and His works.” But in The End of Sex, Leonard now writes: “What I have learned is that there are no games without rules.”

In The End of Sex Leonard observes that the sexual revolution has failed to enhance the value of sex. Instead, it has cheapened the value of love. He cites a sex survey in Cosmopolitan magazine in which 106,000 women confirmed that a revolution in sexual attitudes and behavior had taken place. The survey showed that a majority of the women were disappointed, even disillusioned, with “the emotional fruit the sex revolution has borne.”

According to the report, “so many readers wrote negatively about the sexual revolution, expressing longings for vanished intimacy, and the now elusive joys of romance and commitment, that we began to sense that there might be a sexual counterrevolution under way in America.”

Leonard writes that sex has become trivialized and depersonalized because it has been disconnected from social and ethical considerations, from creation, and especially from love: “Today there are men and women who can talk about their most intimate sexual behavior as if they are describing a stroll in the park, then become flustered and embarrassed at the mention of love.”

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As part of his research, Leonard took a sex course at San Francisco’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. The course featured a multimedia show with up to 17 simultaneous moving pictures, all featuring human beings and animals engaged in “every conceivable sex act.” The purpose of the show was to desensitize the audience to sex. By the time it was over, Leonard writes, “I could honestly testify that nothing about sex was shocking.” However, he adds, “But nothing was sacred either.”

Leonard in no way advocates a return to the Victorian age. He lauds the benefits of the revolution. But he writes that recreational sex, without love and commitment, has led to a “frantic aimless search” and to the “deadening of sensation, to sexual escalation and stress, to a desecration of courtship and romance.” He suspects all of this has produced as much sexual dysfunction as it has cured.

As evidenced by the Cosmopolitan survey, Leonard is not alone in thinking that society’s mores were raped during the sexual revolution. These feelings have prompted in some circles a reexamination of the revolution’s roots. Freeman’s book, which examines some of those roots, has been surrounded by controversy, partly because he waited until it was too late for Mead to refute it. (She died in 1978.)

Mead arrived in Samoa in 1925 as a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate student. She spent 10 weeks learning the language, then proceeded to study the lifestyle and behavior of Samoan adolescent females. She studied 68 girls, but drew most of her information from 25 who made regular trips to her makeshift office, located in an American infirmary.

Mead observed that terrible teen years were not a problem in Samoa; she credited sexual permissiveness among adolescents for the virtual absence of adolescent stress and delinquency. She concluded that sexual repression is not healthy, implying that free love among Samoans was responsible for their relaxed, nonviolent lifestyles.

While Mead was in Samoa, scholars back home were wracked in debate about whether heredity or environment dominates human development. The plausibility of eugenics, or selective mating, was also being discussed. The message Mead sent back was just what many scientists wanted to hear.

Her book was hailed as a classic; it was used in virtually every sociology classroom in the nation. Mead’s research was cited frequently by powerful scholars like Bertrand Russell and Havelock Ellis, both of whom found Mead’s ideas on sex, marriage, and child rearing refreshing. Coming of Age is still the best-selling anthropology book ever.

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Enter the 66-year-old Freeman with the claim that Mead seriously misrepresented Samoan culture. He charges, among other things, that sex out of wedlock was illegal at the time of Mead’s research, that Samoan society has always been intensely competitive, and that psychological disturbances like hysteria and compulsive behavior are common there. He cites high rates of assault, homicide, and rape to support his conclusions. Some anthropologists have suggested Samoan culture could have changed markedly in the time between Mead’s visit and Freeman’s arrival in Samoa, 15 years later. But Freeman rejects that observation, pointing to accounts of rape that were reported regularly in a Samoan newspaper in Mead’s locality during the time of her stay.

Freeman offers two main reasons for Mead’s errant research. First, he says in effect that the young girls Mead interviewed duped her by making up yarns about love in the afternoon under the palm trees. According to Freeman, Samoans are fond of dissembling because it serves as “a respite from the severities of their authoritarian society.” Others have suggested the girls were merely being hospitable in telling Mead what they thought she wanted to hear.

But Freeman’s most serious allegation is that Mead had arrived at her conclusions before she did the research, that she used false evidence to substantiate an assumption. That assumption was that behavior could be explained in purely cultural terms. This implies that there is no inherent morality. This belief was strongly advanced by Franz Boas, Mead’s mentor at Columbia. Once Mead conceded that Boas “was always tailoring a piece of research to the exigencies of theoretical priorities.”

Freeman cites Mead’s analysis of the nature of jealousy as an example of how her research was later misused. Mead concluded that Samoans did not experience jealousy and that it was, therefore, a cultural, not a universal, trait. Then came the sexual revolution, which guaranteed that jealousy would not be a factor. “But people discovered it was not like that at all,” says Freeman. He observes that feelings of jealousy persisted in spite of the revolution’s promises.

Although anthropologist Charles Kraft of the Fuller School of World Mission would welcome a return to Christian morality, he believes the recent controversy over Mead has been blown out of proportion, Kraft observes that criticism of previous findings is to be expected, that it is essential to the anthropological dialogue. He says that much of the criticism that has been hurled at Mead throughout the years was born of jealousy.

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Kraft is not so much concerned about the inaccuracy of Mead’s findings as he is about how they were applied. “The big problem,” he says, “is that people have mistaken cultural relativity for ethical relativity.” In Kraft’s view, efforts made to apply Samoan culture to the United States violate the sacred anthropological rule of cultural validity. This rule states simply that cultures are not transferable. Thus, a specific behavior may be right in one culture and wrong in another although the absolute ethical principle underlying the behavior is identical.

Regarding the criticism of Mead’s Coming of Age, Kraft points out that many anthropologists have been voicing complaints similar to Freeman’s for more than 20 years. This observation brings to the surface a much more intriguing question: Why has an academic community that was so eager to adopt Mead’s findings been so negligent for so long in accepting the criticism of her work in Samoa?

Christian anthropologist Sherwood Lingenfelter of the State University of New York at Brockport says it’s all in the timing. He suggests that American society was not ready to hear Freeman’s message until now. This observation springs from his theory of cultural change.

Time magazine reported that Mead’s research marked a turning point in society, that her view was “approved and eventually accepted by millions.” Lingenfelter says that’s a naïve view of how cultures change. Lingenfelter shares the view of many anthropologists that American society of 50 years ago, with academicians at the vanguard, was ripe for Mead’s message. Anthropologist Kraft suggests that scholars compromised themselves in favor of that message.

Thus, in Lingenfelter’s view, the popularity of Mead’s book was more a reflection than it was a cause of the attitudes that foreshadowed the sexual revolution. The culture had already changed—Mead pronounced the benediction.

Lingenfelter believes further that the popularity of Freeman’s book and the fact that Mead’s findings are no longer sacred in the public mind are possible hints of a return to traditional sexual values.

In any case, there does seem to be change in the wind, as people seek to go beyond the sexual revolution. As George Leonard writes: “The best kept secret of the sexual revolution is at last coming out of the closet. What people want most (though sometimes they can hardly bear to say it) is a return to the personal in all things, especially in erotic love.”

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