A social historian, observing trends in the public treatment of sex from 1960 to 1980 and projecting those trends into the future, could be forgiven for thinking that society would soon shed its remaining behavioral restrictions and reservations on our way to base animal behavior, for good or ill.
As Elusive Wapiti comments in my last post, however, what actually happened is a little more complicated. While it is true that many measures of sexual morality have continued their decline, they have also broken down along class lines. After a fling with divorce and teen sex in the '70s, the upper middle class has largely abandoned it.
Consider as well the treatment of sex in movies. There is little today's viewer of even "R" rated movies will miss out on, sexually speaking, but our imaginary historian, considering the early careers of Eva Ionesco and Brooke Shields, would have supposed that these media depictions would have involved ever younger teens, and even children.
And yet, by the rollout of Beverly Hills 90210, a show with no shortage of sexual themes, Hollywood had turned to using adults even in their mid to late twenties to play high school students. I understand this trend has continued, although I don't really know. (I've never seen an episode of Degrassi, for instance.)
The limited reversal of sexual trends after 1980 can be chalked up to our society's recurring moral panics about children, but I can't help but wonder if the social affects are double-edged. Television and movie audiences encouraged to regard "teen" sex as normal and healthy by watching physically mature 20-somethings are being sold a lie; if rather they were shown actual, still-developing teens, the audiences would likely be more conflicted about the message, if not entirely put off. And in fact, whatever their viewing habits, the upper middle class knows better anyway; it is the working class that has fell victim to the lie.
Is the tide turning once more? This Guardian article provides some useful history and quotes experts on all sides, but can't quite make up its mind whether adult-child sex is abuse or just another orientation.
Parenthetically, it is noteworthy that Brooke Shields, while still very attractive at 47, has not had the movie career I would have predicted from her Calvin Klein and Blue Lagoon popularity in the early 80s. She still acts, apparently, but not in anything I can remember seeing.