Was There a Seventies “Sexplosion” in the Arts?

“Today, full frontal nudity is more common on cable TV than cigarette smoking is in office buildings,” writes Robert Hofler in Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange—How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos, his fascinating study of how we got to this point. Hofler contends that the American “sexual revolution” of the 1960s ignited a “sexplosion” in the arts in the half decade ranging from 1968 through 1973. In those tumultuous five years, breaking sexual taboos evolved from the counterculture to the mainstream, inspiring a sexual counter-revolution as well that still holds sway over American culture. Artists have always pushed the envelope when it came to sex, but Hofler makes a strong case that the half decade between “The Summer of Love” and Roe v. Wade represents a “big bang” we’re still feeling the vibrations of.  

“Artists have been breaking sex taboos from the beginning of time,” Hofler admits, “ but probably no greater number of those totems to repression were smashed than in the year 1968… Sexplosion is the story of how a number of very talented, risk-taking rebels challenged the world’s prevailing attitudes toward sex, and, in the process, changed pop culture forever.” Hofler, an entertainment journals for four decades, experienced this “sexplosion” firsthand, initially as an admittedly fantasizing college student and later on the front lines as entertainment editor for Penthouse. Although chock full of interesting detail, Hofler never loses sight of the overall story of a powerfully liberating period of change in American arts.

The first question Hofler tackles is how the counterculture taboo breaking went mainstream. Citing the example of the popularity of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, which featured a 2-second glimpse of female full frontal nudity, Hofler argues that “audiences were, indeed, different then… curious because they had seen and heard so little with regard to graphic sex onscreen [and] patient because they were hungry for what they hadn’t seen or heard.” Andy Warhol’s art film Chelsea Girls (a favorite of Antonioni’s) came out around the same time, breaking new ground on a smaller scale. However, major studios soon noticed the buzz surrounding these new, sexually explicit films and jumped on the “sex sells” bandwagon, perhaps not so much to liberate social mores as to make serious money, but the end result turned out to be the same. “Smashing taboos could be profitable,” Hofler points out.

Once Hofler gets rolling into his chronological progression of the “sexplosion,” the results can get a little dizzying. Crossover between media and collaborations between artists make for an incestuous storyline. “These artists knew each other,” Hofler writes, “often collaborated, and just as often competed to be first at discarding whatever the censors threw at them. In many cases, there is only one degree of separation between the novels, movies, TV shows, and plays that they created in the Sexplosion years.” For example, in just January 1968, The Boys in the Band began running Off-Broadway, a slew of sexy films were in production (Candy, Midnight Cowboy, and Barbarella), Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge hit the shelves, and Kenneth Tynan was collecting ideas for his “sex review” Oh! Calcutta! For those unfamiliar with the history of the time, the detail can be dizzying, but I anything less would be untrue to the spirit of the age Hofler’s hoping to convey.

Hofler mixes a bit of social history into the narrative (for example, the 1969 Stonewall Riots), but his main focus is on how sexual issues played out in entertainment. Within that entertainment world, Hofler concentrates mainly on motion pictures and live theater, although he does dip into novels (how Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint discussed the self-love that dare not speak its name) and music (did Jim Morrison really show his penis during a Doors concert in 1969?). Anecdotes abound from these films and plays, but the most fascinating concern the actors enlisted by the writers and directors to smash taboos with their physical, mostly nude portrayals. Whereas newcomer Maria Schneider felt comfortable in her own skin (and nothing else) during the making of Last Tango in Paris, established star Marlon Brando struggled with his weight and his inhibitions. In contrast, Malcolm McDowell “turned out to be the perfect Alex in A Clockwork Orange, after establishing his comfortableness with nudity and graphic sex scenes in If.... After years of hiding his homosexuality in playing heterosexual characters, British actor Ian Bannen struggled to play the gay Dr. Hirsh in 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday.

As could be guessed by the mention of Stonewall, some of the biggest taboos smashed were those concerning homosexuality. Warhol’s Chelsea Girls features as many, if not more, boys with other boys than with girls. Thanks to An American Family, one of the first reality TV shows, Lance Loud (whom Hofler calls “the Zelig of the Sexplosion years”) became “the first openly homosexual ‘character’ on television to have a story line that carried out over multiple episodes,” Hofler writes. Another boundary broken was interracial sex in everything from the controversial poster of topless African-American Jim Brown embracing topless Caucasian Raquel Welch for 100 Rifles to Melvin Van Peebles’ extended examination of male African-American sexuality colorfully titled Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Finally, heterosexual sex came out of the closet with the unbridled nudity and sexuality of plays such as Oh! Calcutta! and Hair and films such as 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (whose climactic scene is shown above), which put on screen the swinging lifestyle hidden behind so many doors.

Although heterosexual and homosexual sex found a measure of freedom, it was a decidedly male brand of freedom, Hofler points out at the end. Although women participated as actresses, Hofler writes, they “were rarely instrumental in making a project happen (Jane Fonda and Natalie Wood being the possible exceptions), and there were no female executives, producers, or directors to help in those groundbreaking endeavors.” Not until books such as Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, both published in 1973, at the tail end of the “sexplosion,” did female sexuality find its voice.

Was all this “sexplosion” just about sex (and selling sex)? Sexplosion says no through the words and actions of its heroes. When American newspaper editorials pushed back against the breaking of sexual taboos, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, fresh off of making A Clockwork Orange, compared such attacks to Adolf Hitler’s assault on what he labeled as “degenerate art” but was really art by Jews, homosexuals, and other excluded groups. The Sexplosion happened because of the critical pressure built up over years of social, moral, and political repression. 1973 marks not only the peak of the “sexplosion” years with the APA’s dismissal of homosexuality as “abnormal” and Roe v. Wade, but also its end, and the beginning of the backlash. “[T]hose twin edicts,” Hofler argues, “functioned to galvanize conservatives, uniting them around causes to stop reproductive rights, stop gay rights, stop pornography, stop whatever else they thought contributed to a permissive society.” The “sexplosion” thus becomes the first strike in what we now know as the culture wars in America. Although we have gay marriage, legal abortion, and internet pornography today, we also have forces opposing those changes everywhere from the halls of Congress to your nearest Hobby Lobby store. Hofler sees the fact that the most recent sexually focused films (Brokeback Mountain, Shame, Crash) all came from small independent studios, in contrast to the major studio productions of the “sexplosion” era, as a sign that the forces of repression might be winning today. Or perhaps we’re going through a second “sexplosion” today and don’t realize it. If so, Robert Hofler’s Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange—How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos is history well worth reading because its history we’re living right now.

[Image: The spouse swapping scene from 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice featuring Elliott Gould, Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, and Dyan Cannon.]

Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less

Active ingredient in Roundup found in 95% of studied beers and wines

The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.

Surprising Science
  • U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
  • A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
  • Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
Keep reading Show less

Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.