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.