Notes From the Book Review Archives


This week’s issue is all about pleasure reading — from the history of sex toys to a roundup of romance novels. In 1947, Margaret Mead reviewed “Sex in Our Changing World,” by John McPartland, a blunt meditation on the history of sex in the United States.

The general thesis of the book is essentially sound, if heavily weighted on the seamy side. This book deals for the most part with wide social pathologies — the divorce rate, growing sexual inversion and prostitution rather than courtship, marriage and parenthood. Tackling these social pathologies, sometimes with a detail and frankness to which the American reader is only just accustomed, Mr. McPartland illustrates his main theme, that since World War I America has changed drastically from a sex-shy, inhibited people to a hedonistic, cynical people, openly in search of pleasure, and that our old ethics of home and family have rotted away, leaving nothing except a few sporting rules. There are vivid descriptions of the sordid divorce mills, and other institutions which exploit broken lives. But primarily this is not a source book, but a long ethical essay, with considerable gaiety, humor and a refreshing time perspective. …

“There have been carnal people before and they were the ancestors of most of us.”

One of the most illuminating discussions in the book centers around the idea of “adult orphans,” individuals who have lost the capacity to exist as parts of that complementary human group which we call the family and who, if they marry, merely beget and rear other adult orphans. On a different level of social analysis and seriousness is the amusing chapter headed “Love of Women,” which discusses the way some mysterious occult agreement among women changes the styles in men (when the men aren’t looking), so that the poor male who has just got himself finally organized to be a “Raftish character given to black hats, dark looks and contempt for women” finds that the style has shifted and women are giving “the unpurchasable look to good-natured athletes, broad-shouldered and broad-minded.”

The book ends by suggesting three alternatives for the future: an America which becomes increasingly degenerate, an America which becomes increasingly over-controlled with science assisting the state in keeping sex in its place, and a more endearing picture of an America which will “profit by our new careless freedom, use our new understandings of the working of body and mind and will achieve a sexual code that will be free without being careless.”

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