“We Might as Well Have Just Been Shaking Hands:” Why Sex Sold in the 1970s

Life for an American resident during the 1970s was clouded by feelings of disillusionment toward government and a perceptive sense of pessimism concerning their country in decline. Relative to the 1960s, a time of peace, love, and liberalism, the 1970s were shrouded by the deterioration of what had recently been the most powerful country in the world. Living in the shadow of the failure of the Vietnam War, as well as economic crisis, American citizens turned to a visceral form of entertainment, pornography and sexual exploration. At this time, the people of the United States moved toward a more overt position on sex from the hush-hush practices of the past. This unprecedented movement towards sexual liberation can be comprehended by reading the books as well as viewing the movies from the period. John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich shows the effects of the times on a man who peaked in high school alongside the United States, now stuck in a rut of cynicism, using sexual fantasies to get him through the monotonous days at the car dealership he partially owns alongside his wife and mother-in-law and manages. The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols, shows the turning point from covert sexuality in America to the overt sexuality seen in the 1970s. It can be seen from primary sources such as Rabbit is Rich and The Graduate that due to hard times politically and economically, Americans were ready to engage in patterns of behavior regarding sexuality never before seen in the conservative United States, which made an imprint on a decade otherwise veiled in depression and disappointment.

Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist in John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich, was a high school basketball star, now making it big on his late father-in-law’s Toyota car dealership. However, Rabbit does not see himself as a necessarily fortunate man as he always finds little matters to complain about. From the very first pages of the novel, it is clear that Rabbit’s pessimism concerning the times and his life are going to be a persisting subject throughout. He claim’s “The fucking world is running out of gas” in the literal sense as this work is taking place during the 1979 Oil Crisis, but this is also relevant in a figurative understanding.[1] By saying that the world is running out of gas he is alluding to the fact that America is no longer the great country it used to be. It has seen defeat in the Vietnam War, which signaled the decline of the leading powerhouse country in the world, as well as fallen into economic hard times, and seen a shift for the worse regarding trust in government. The world is running out of gas and Rabbit Angstrom needs a way out. He finds his emancipation from the doldrums of everyday life in small-town U.S.A. by way of sensual, and often erotic, daydreams about the women he comes into contact with. For much of the novel the reader finds themselves inside Rabbit’s wandering thoughts, which often lead to sexual notions regarding the ladies surrounding every facet of his life. However, except when “guy-talking” with his co-worker Charlie Stavros, Rabbit keeps his thoughts to himself, not engaging in the covert to overt practices of the masses concerning sexuality, a sign that Rabbit is trying to live in America’s gilded past unlike much of America’s middle and upper class populations.

In 1967, American troops had been stationed in Vietnam for six years and public opinion about American involvement had begun to spiral downward.[2] As a way to cope with a developing disappointment in the east, American citizens began to turn toward an alternative style of entertainment, a more liberal cinema. In contrast to Rabbit, Benjamin Braddock, the main character in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, is at the right age to fully participate in this exploration of sexual limits seen during the late 1960s and 1970s. Released in 1967, The Graduate illustrates the turning point in American media towards a more sexual entertainment industry. Although there are no explicit scenes and no inappropriate body parts are shown, the inappropriate relationship between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson foreshadows the more revealing movies, such as the quintessential pornographic film Deep Throat, which will be released to audiences in the 1970s. The ideas regarding sexual relations during the 1970s can be adequately summed up in Benjamin’s conversation with Mr. Robinson when Benjamin states that for him, sleeping with Mrs. Robinson did not mean anything and that they “might as well have just been shaking hands.”[3] By making this statement, Benjamin effectively shows the depersonalization of sex during the late 1960s that would only continue and heighten during the 1970s.

The release of more graphic films and other forms of entertainment is directly proportional to American morale in the 1970s. As American spirits dropped, the movie industries produced more and more provocative films. By the time Deep Throat was released in 1972, the American population had seen the Viet Cong take the American Embassy during the Tet Offensive in 1968, which caused a major plunge in the American public opinion of involvement in the Vietnam War. In only five years, entertainment shifted from the inappropriate relationship on Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, to actual pornography for amusement, which was used a diversion from the current dismal political and economic climate. As Rabbit uses his imagination in Rabbit is Rich to flee from monotony and dissatisfaction of his personal life, the American public is able to access their own version of escape through the movies produced during this era.

Living in the wake of the failure of the Vietnam War led American culture to the brink of the unthinkable. Open policies regarding sex would have been unthinkable only twenty years before and would be so again twenty years after. Immediately after Vietnam Americans were faced with a malaise that could not be shaken. Their country had been defeated, there was no trust in government, and there was a crushing focus on individualism. To escape this dreary present, the American people escaped to their sexual fantasies, just like Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit is Rich. Movies, such as The Graduate, books, and other sources of entertainment provided relief during those difficult times. In the present day of 2015, such movies as Deep Throat being shown at regular movie theaters would be unheard of. Perhaps another severe drop in American morale would bring the 1970s, with its laissez-faire policies regarding sex, back to life.

[1] John Updike, Rabbit is Rich. (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1981), 3.

[2] William Lunch and Peter Sperlich, “American Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam,” Western Political Quarterly 32 (1979): 23.

[3] The Graduate directed by Mike Nichols (1967;


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