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The Century of Sex: Playboy's History of the Sexual Revolution, 1900-1999 Hardcover – October, 1999

3.8 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

James R. Petersen, the former Playboy Advisor, turns pop historian in The Century of Sex, a breezy, data-packed history of American sexual culture and politics in the 20th century. Although the history was commissioned by the legendary founder of Playboy, Hugh Hefner explains in a foreword that the sexual revolution it chronicles is "not the one that I am sometimes credited (or, conversely, blamed for) starting." And so The Century of Sex begins with the battle between Anthony Comstock, the early 20th century's most powerful censor, and free-love advocate Ida Craddock (in which Comstock, pursuing charges of "circulation of obscene literature" against Craddock for distributing sex-education pamphlets through the mail, drove the activist to suicide.) Playboy's role certainly isn't overlooked, but it is situated within a context that includes changing representations of sexuality in cinema, women's and gay liberation, and the advent of cybersex. (The color plates in the middle of the book are a captivating visual synopsis, as the images get franker and more provocative.) There are a few clunkers--for example, identifying Madonna as a riot grrrl--but, all in all, Petersen's chronicle is informative and fun.

From Publishers Weekly

In an accessible survey of 100 years of sexual change in the U.S., Petersen, who wrote and edited the "Playboy Advisor" column for two decades, deftly demonstrates how deeply integral sex and sexuality have been to American society. More importantly, he charts how our endless conflicts over the regulation and representation of sexual activity have been emblematic of broader battles concerning the meaning of freedom and personal autonomy. Although some of Petersen's anecdotes are shopworn (e.g., Charlie Chaplin's lusty demands on his 15-year-old wife and J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of Martin Luther King's sex life), he turns up some surprises, such as the sustained campaign by religious leaders against the circulation of pinups among G.I.s or the odd fact that such antithetical figures as Rev. Billy Graham and Margaret Mead both attacked the Kinsey Report. While Petersen gives some space to homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism, his focus is overwhelmingly heterosexual: for instance, when discussing I Was a Teenage Werewolf in the context of the eroticism of youth-oriented horror movies of the 1950s, he ignores the widely recognized gay male subtext. Lesbianism fares better here but, more often than not, is presented as titillating. By the end of the volume, Petersen's "pro-sex" discussion of the politics of rape, sexual harassment and porn takes on a strident, anti-feminist tone that becomes an unnuanced "defense" of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner's philosophy. 32 pages of photos. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 548 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (October 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802116523
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802116529
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 7.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,346,222 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I find it incredibly entertaining that the reviewers voted "most helpful" were the ones who pooh-poohed this book as completely biased, anti-feminist, and generally useless. These are, no doubt, the very same people who never think to question governments, laws, or religious bodies.
I found the book a fascinating read, showing the constant tug-of-war between those who would force their morality on others(resulting in the Comstock Act, Mann Act, etc.) and those who believed in personal freedom of choice. The things televangelists are ranting about today as sure signs of the decline of our society - abortion, pornography, sex education - are... SURPRISE! the same things our nation has teetered back and forth on since the very beginning of the twentieth century.
Sure, there may be some bias, but the book's recounting of past injustices committed in the name of morality is eye-opening.
For example, Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and spearheaded the Comstock law, making it illegal to send "obscene material" through the mail. He built up quite the collection to show off to visiting senators, and was quite skilled at running roughshod over the judicial system. He dragged Ira Craddock to court for writing a manual to enhance the sex life of married couples and told the judge that it was "so obscene" the jury should not even be traumatized by looking at it. They convicted Craddock without judge or jury actually looking at the document in question. She committed suicide as a result. The Mann act (making it illegal to transport someone across state lines for licentuous purposes) was randomly enforced to imprison people those in power didn't like, such as a black boxer with a white girlfriend.
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Format: Hardcover
One could argue this book is biased, and hell, it's published in cooperation with Playboy, so that's telling in itself. But it is an interesting read, covering each decade of the 20th century, pointing out trends and controversies and boundaries, whether broken or renewed. Birth control, porn films, swinger lifestyles, AIDS, homophobia, sexual provocateurs and repressive trends are all covered and more. I found it to be very interesting and informative, and the book definitely got me thinking and I was happy to come away from the read feeling I've really learned something. For such potentially shocking material that the book covers, it never approaches the subject matter in a prurient or lecherous way. More of a sociological/historical approach to sex.
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Format: Hardcover
While not a picture-book, something to just be flipped through on the coffee table, it is a sharp, fun, detailed look at sex this century in the United States, and as such, it encompasses much more than the bedroom. One theme is Puritanism. The similarity between censorship battles in the Post Office nearly 100 years ago and over the Internet now can't be missed. We also see the connection between our sexuality and other joys and fears of the times -- the ups of the 20s, the downs of the 30s, etc. The other theme is the development of women's rights. Heroines such as Margaret Sanger are presented, and we see that so many of the changes in sex have been reflections of the changes in women's status, and reactions to those changes. Petersen's book is a great lens through which to view America in the 20th century. It's a rare combination: a serious handling of an important topic that is at the same time fun, interesting and accessible.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Five Stars...This is an excellent history of sex in America in the 20th century. It has a substantial review of censorship and its opposition through the century. The importance of sex researchers and sex philosophers is well documented. The influence of war, movies and stars on sexual change are enthralling. A fine addition to our library of sexual reference
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Format: Hardcover
True, a admire anyone who is a revolutionary speaking as one, and therefore highly recommend this book. Has many interesting pictures, and provides a stimulating picture after returning from a hard days work. I recommend to anyone who likes photograhpy.
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