Sex Through The Decades

By Carolyn Bradley

There’s new information available every day so we can educate ourselves on virtually any subject. And that has led to more open discussions on a particularly hot topic: sex. People are slowly feeling more comfortable addressing sex  and related discussions.

This wasn’t always the case. Until the mid-to-late 20th century, conversations on sex did not exist—or if they did, they were done in whispers. 

Noel Paul Hertz, owner of Noel Paul Hertz Psychotherapy, an individual practice, taught a “Human Sexuality” course at Columbia in the ‘90s.

Hertz said he thinks the change in conversation about sex often parallels the story of U.S. presidents.

Currently, President Donald Trump’s comments on his treatment of women, for instance, have driven women to wear hats shaped like women’s genitals, Hertz said.



Hertz also said Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was president from 1953–1961, had an affair with his Jeep driver during his service as supreme allied commander during World War II.

During this time, Hertz said, citizens shunned sex discussions altogether, and as a result, no one asked questions about the then-president’s affair.



In addition, Hertz said President John F. Kennedy was said to have sexual liaisons with women during his time in the White House from 1961–1963, which remained covert under the Secret Service’s security in a time where men were allowed more sexual freedom.


‘70s & ‘80s

Hertz explained that the ‘70s altered looking at sexual assault as a crime of property as feminists framed it as a crime of violence against the victim. Universities have been working more diligently at stopping sexual abuse on campus in the last 25 years, he added, though there is still a problem with sweeping the dilemma under the rug.

“As you hear more about it, then more people will hear that it’s actually something you can do something about, and they’ll push more people to do something about it,” Hertz said.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is also a difficult issue. The topic has spurred movies about the issue as a way of talking about the problem.

Michelle Rafacz, an assistant professor in the Science & Mathematics Department, teaches “Evolution of Sex: Honors” in which she and her students go beyond the “taboos” of sex dialogue through the exploration of other species.

“We look to the animal kingdom for explanations of certain behaviors that we consider taboo [and] why they exist,” Rafacz said. “There’s always an evolutionary reason for it, so why not look to [animals] for evidence?”

Rafacz said curiosity about various sexual behaviors has opened up the conversation on sex in recent years.



During the Clinton administration, the taboo of public sex conversation began to change significantly.

Former President Bill Clinton, who was infamous for his affair with Monica Lewinski, initially denied having sexual relations with the intern, Hertz said.

But because news stations nationwide broadcast Clinton’s scandal, Hertz said sex conversation began to increase. The scandal forced people to face the topic.

“In the ‘90s, there was this big push to get the genetics of homosexuality; looking to biology to see if there’s a scientific basis for homosexuality or other behaviors,” Rafacz said.

Science has served as a tool to prove certain sexual behaviors as either normal or abnormal, she said.

Hertz said once he moved away from his initial practice of family therapy and gravitated toward sex therapy in this decade, he found clients becoming more comfortable with talking about sex and addressing sexual issues.

“As we move on, we are finding more and more people who would like to get help,” Hertz said. “If you don’t know there’s a problem, it’s very difficult to ask for help.”