- PARIS (AFP) - This century's
social and medical advances have made possible a high degree of individual
mastery over man's most powerful instinct, at the cost of breaking down
moral patterns and traditions that had been built up over generations.
- Far from becoming simpler, sex has become a social, psychological
and political minefield.
- This is the century that definitively separated sexual
pleasure from procreation, brought sex out from under the shadow of religion
and the state, allowed sexual activity to continue into old age and strengthened
- It has also introduced a new disease, AIDS, every bit
as deadly as the syphilis that had been the scourge of the 19th century.
- The first steps towards a more permissive society began
with the industrial revolution: women began working, children were encouraged
to pursue education and there was a massive shift from the close-knit rural
communities to the anonymity of city life.
- World War II accelerated the process, freeing women from
traditional roles and allowing them a greater say in sexual matters.
- The uncertainty of the war and the departure and arrival
of men from other regions and other countries, encouraged extramarital
liaisons and hurried marriages. And when the conflict was over, there were
the homecomings and the Baby Boom.
- This was a time that also saw great leaps in medical
- Advances in the treatment of trauma patients permitted
Danish specialists after the war to succeed where pre-war surgeons had
failed in turning a man into a woman.
- In 1952, a US soldier named George Jorgensen became Christine
Jorgensen. An overnight world celebrity, Jorgensen even appeared in some
- Then, in the 1960s, the scientific advances and the upheavals
in post-industrial society collided to create the sexual revolution.
- From its roots in Britain and the United States, this
rebellious wave swept around the world and greatly undermined the ability
of governments or the church to dictate sexual behaviour.
- "Sex without love is an empty gesture. But as empty
gestures go, it is one of the best," cracked film director Woody Allen,
summarising one of the trends of the new movement.
- The symbol of this new permissiveness and focus on sex
for the sake of pleasure rather than making children was the oral contraceptive.
- An early version of the pill went on sale in the United
States in 1961. While effective, the product contained high levels of oestrogen
that resulted in serious side effects. It was withdrawn from the market
in 1988, by which time safer "low dose" abortifacient pills were
- The introduction of the pill (and, to a lesser extent,
intra-uterine devices) brought with it a sea change in the approach to
sex in the modern world. Children became a choice, not a consequence --
as the steady or declining population growth rates in the industrialised
- But not all countries could afford this form of contraception,
and in 1979 China introduced its "One Child Population Control Policy"
in a bid to stem the growth rate of the world's most populated country.
- Under the policy, each Chinese couple is only allowed
one child, all pregnancies must be authorised, and women who have met their
"quota" have to have an IUD inserted.
- Because daughters traditionally leave their families
to become part of the family of their husband, boys are preferred, and
abortions of female foetuses have flourished.
- In the developed world, the outbreak of AIDS in 1981
took the glow off the sexual revolution. While no cure has been found,
effective prevention techniques and, more recently, triple-therapy for
HIV carriers have pushed down the casualty count in richer countries.
- But in poorer countries the toll has kept mounting. This
year, the World Health Organisation put it at the top of the list of causes
of death in Africa with one five deaths attributable to the pandemic.
- Homosexuals, initially ostracised because of the public
hysteria provoked by the first reports of AIDS, soon found themselves politically
stronger because of the media attention and the attempts of governments
to once again regulate sex lives and choices.
- The gay lifestyle came out of the shadows and has been
legalised in many countries, with homosexual "marriages" possible
- Feminism, with its insistence on rethinking the relations
between the sexes, has also caused negotiations between men and women in
sexual matters to become, in many cases, a comedy of misunderstandings.
- The closing years of the century brought two developments
that spoke volumes about our confused attitudes to sex.
- One was the advent of the male anti-impotence drug Viagra,
which raised the prospect of elderly men continuing their sexual activities
up to their death -- and in a few rare cases, combining the two.
- The other was the story of Bill and Monica, a president
and his intern trapped in an imbroglio of cigar abuse, stained dresses,
bugged conversations and political chicanery.
- The affair ballooned uncontrollably and for a moment
it appeared quite possible that the leader of the world's most powerful
nation might be brought down by a dalliance that he couldn't quite bring
himself to describe as sex.