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Puritans to Pussy Hats: Changing Sexual Norms in American Popular Culture

Posted on: November 28th, 2018 by Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz

“I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States in the 1830s.

The Puritans punishing and humiliating someone. Credit: F.T. Merrill.

The Puritans
Though the Puritans arrived almost 400 years ago, aspects of their culture, including the desire to repress public displays of sexuality, continue to inform American society. Puritan villagers belonged to a single church and resisted the intrusion of outsiders. Relying on mutual surveillance, they sought communal unity and frequently took each other to court on charges of moral violations in order to suppress deviance.They controlled individual behavior through fierce gossip and public punishments, like whipping, use of the stockade, and the infamous scarlet letter for adulterers.

Voices of Change

Ideas about female sexuality have changed dramatically over the last two centuries, when, frustrated at being thought of as property, women began to demand legal and personal rights.

In 1792, British author Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, in which she argued that women should be formally educated and that men should be held to the same sexual standards as women.

Sigmund Freud lived from 1856-1923, and his theories and research methods were as controversial during his life as they remain today. He theorized that neuroses are the result of sexual desires from early childhood that have been repressed from conscious awareness but continue to impact personality. Freud believed a woman’s life was dominated by her reproductive functions and that “hysteria” was the result of women repressing their sexual desires.

Sexual Behavior of the Human Female. Credit: Fine Editions Ltd.

At Indiana University in the 1940s, Alfred Kinsey and his research team set out to understand the actual sexual behavior of Americans. He conducted interviews with thousands of people and wrote detailed “sexual histories” of each. He introduced Americans to the “Kinsey Scale,” the idea that people do not fit into exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories and sexuality exists on a continuum.

In 1960, the Federal Drug Administration approved the birth control pill. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique argued against the notion that it was a woman’s destiny to marry and bear children. 1967 brought about the “Summer of Love,” a “Human Be-In” that ushered the hippie way of life to the forefront of American media. In 1968, New York Radical Women protested the Miss America pageant because of its stereotypical notions of female sexuality, throwing bras, high heels and other trappings of femininity into the “freedom trash cans”.

Dan Savage’s sex-advice column, Savage Love, has been going strong since the early 1990s. Savage, a self described “deviant of the highest order,” encourages sex-positivity and sexual interactions where consenting parties strive to be “GGG”: good in bed, giving of equal time and pleasure to your partner, and game for anything within reason. In 2010, he founded the It Gets Better Project, an internet-based effort committed to creating a world “where all LGBTQ+ are free to live equally and know their worthiness and power as individuals”.

Sexuality in the 1990s

The 1990s, when the characters of Usual Girls are coming of age, can be seen as a decade celebrating female sexuality. Pamela Anderson posing in Playboy was marketed as a sign of female empowerment. Britney Spears came on the scene in her Catholic schoolgirl skirt and tied up white shirt. Lil' Kim released Hard Core, and a week later Foxy Brown dropped Ill Na Na, both brazenly celebrating their sexuality through uncensored rhymes.

But in the 1990s many women who were seen as too angry, too ambitious, or too sexual, were also maligned in the media. Feminist Allison Yarrow coined the term “bitchification” to explain this process of reducing women “to their sexual function in order to thwart their progress.” White House intern Monica Lewinsky, after participating in sexual activity with a man in a position of power over her and 27 years her senior, was reduced to a punchline.

Third wave feminism, a phrase introduced in 1992 by Rebecca Walker partly in response to the silencing of Anita Hill, took hold in popular culture. This period in feminism also embraced sex-positivity and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s concept of intersectional feminism—the idea that multiple identifiers are essential in understanding an individual’s experience of the world. The Riot Grrrl movement combined these feminist ideas with punk music and culture to start a “girl riot” against a society that offered no validation of women’s experiences and held a narrow view of beauty and sexuality. In 1993, thanks to student activists at Ohio’s Antioch College, the country’s first “yes means yes” policy was enacted, making verbal affirmative consent necessary at every step of a sexual interaction.

Pussyhats. Credit: Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh.

Pussyhats and the Present

During a 2016 presidential debate, the Republican candidate called his opponent a “nasty woman”—just a few weeks after The Washington Post released tapes from 2005 in which he boasted that he can get away with grabbing women “by the pussy”. In response, over a million craftivists donned pink “Pussyhats”™ and marched on Washington in January 2017.

Public discussions of pubic hair and the political implications of how a woman grooms herself can be found everywhere from “Keeping up With the Kardashians” to magazines at the checkout stand. TV commercials advertise lingerie, vaginal lubricants, condoms, and adult toys. Nevertheless, puritanical norms still abound. Abstinence-only education programs, though proven ineffective, prevail. Purity rings and chastity club ceremonies publicly celebrate waiting until marriage to have sexual intercourse. While the media titillate consumers with sexual imagery, so often the message young women receive is that female sexuality is bad or dirty—that a woman should appeal to sex partners, but not actually engage in sex and certainly not enjoy it. Four hundred years after the Puritans’ ships docked in these shoals, Puritanical values linger in America’s soul.


Usual Girls is playing at the Black Box Theatre through December 23, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.



Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls


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