The postwar era's teachings about sex fit perfectly into this contradictory pattern, as authorities simultaneously maintained that sexuality had the potential to ruin families and community standards and sought to harness its appeal for the maintenance of traditional lifestyles. The second word of my title phrase, sexual, thus alludes to the ways in which Americans brought sexuality into the public arena in the decade and a half after the end of World War II, making it a political and social topic as well as a personal one. The war changed the sexual landscape for many Americans, as wartime economic and social shifts promoted geographical and class mobility. War and its aftermath furthered dialogue about which of the domestic crises associated with war-desertion and failed marriages, promiscuity, same-sex sexual relations, and so on-were temporary eruptions and which were here to stay. When Kinsey's first study appeared a few years later, it provided vivid evidence of sexual change.
The reports, along with the host of other explorations of American sexuality that appeared in their wake, were received not only as collections of statistics but also as important statements about gender difference, social change, and American identity. Topics such as the increasingly direct depiction of sexual themes in the popular media, the future of the nuclear family, and the importance of sexual pleasure in marriage were also topics of heated discussion. Even more troubling to many was "unnatural" sex, and campaigns targeting "perverts," described as a threat to American security interests, drummed suspected homosexuals out of military and governmental service. As well as finding a far higher incidence of same-sex sexual practices than many had previously believed existed in the United States, the reports found that sexual behaviors long believed to be the province of homosexuals, including oral and anal sex, were in fact widely practiced by heterosexuals. Most Americans, according to Kinsey, believed fervently that "sexual behavior is either normal or abnormal, socially acceptable or unacceptable, heterosexual or homosexual, and many persons do not want to believe that there are gradations in these matters from one extreme to the other." The report's statistics made these convictions increasingly untenable, as evidence suggested that the dividing line between heterosexual and homosexual was increasingly blurred.
The nation's changing sexual patterns were discussed by people across the political spectrum, including self-defined sexual liberals, libertarians, and conservatives. In postwar debates over sexuality, however, traditional political labels were not always reliable or helpful. The midcentury political consensus known as cold war liberalism was a flexible and extensive category, and in battles where the cultural and the political merged, seemingly similar concerns could emerge from vastly different places. Conservatives and liberals alike, for example, at some moments worried that Americans lacked basic sexual knowledge, and at others lamented the omnipresence of sexual information in the mass media. Both those who identified as sexual freethinkers and those who embraced traditionalism critiqued Americans' alleged materialism and consumerism and complained that the modern focus on sex threatened to rob it of emotional meaning.
Along with a host of conservative social scientists who argued that national and international stability depended upon an immediate desexualization of American mores and morals, liberals like the sociologist David Riesman deemed the national focus on sex to be a new and particularly dangerous form of consumerism that distracted modern Americans from their civic duties. In an assessment of the assumptions and motives of postwar authorities who produced information on American sexuality, an important distinction emerges between sexual pessimists, who foresaw the decline and collapse of the nation in changes in the sexual status quo, and idealists, who envisioned a new sexual order as liberating and empowering. Those who believed that sexual behaviors outside marriage were potentially dangerous generally agreed that public attention to matters of sex was pathological, while believers in sexual liberalism cast the same behaviors as a welcome reversal of puritan repression. The definition of sex as a liberatory force, along with the belief that truths about sex can be unearthed and examined, was an important concept in the twentieth-century United States.
In the years after World War II, political and sexual respectability were closely linked and the social and political order that many saw as crucial to national stability was based upon deeply polarized gender roles and a conservative deployment of sexual energy. When the liberal sexologist Albert Ellis charged that "most Americans are sexual fascists," his choice of terms underlined the connections many saw between private behavior and the nation's moral and political character during the cold war. So too did charges that sexual investigators, or certain sexual acts, were un-American or Communist. Sexual deviance, whether understood as homosexual activity, promiscuity, interracial sex, or any other arrangement that violated the prescribed path of monogamous sexual expression within marriage, was coupled rhetorically with political subversion. At the same time, the marital bond and the sexual satisfaction identified with it were viewed as cornerstones of family happiness and national stability. The tension between these two themes-American sexuality as a sign of cultural disintegration and political weakness or as the locus for familial and social cohesion-shaped postwar discourse on sexuality. Whether commentators on American sexual character championed new forms of sexual dissent or called for a return to traditional practices and beliefs, they shared a firm belief that Americans' sexual behavior could and did shape their moral character, civic roles, and political future.
Americans had worried and written about sex before, of course, and observers had long drawn connections between the national interest and sexual behavior by punishing sexual expression that took place outside marriage or between "inappropriate" partners. The social purity movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth