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The American National character
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During the 1950s, the United States—at perhaps the last moment in which many could still imagine a national public not riven by racial, class, gender, and other differences—defined itself in relation to a constellation of real and imaginary ideals, including both other nations and idealized Americas of the past. New themes also spurred and shaped postwar nation building. These included the postwar endorsement of middle-class status for many previously excluded groups like white ethnics and Jews; threats to the nation from the outside, such as the rise of international Communism; and dangers from within, such as Americans’ alleged laziness, sensuality, consumerism, or any of a host of other characteristics. The very factors through which the nation achieved and celebrated its postwar supremacy—possession of the atomic bomb; an enduring democratic government in the face of fascism, Communism, and revolutions abroad; economic prosperity; the mass production of consumer goods; and a cultural focus on family bonds and personal fulfillment—were double-edged swords. Nuclear knowledge made the United States internationally powerful but also promoted widespread fear and suspicion, and the specter of Communism prompted both celebrations of American democracy and crippling suspicions about internal subversion. Such paradoxes abounded in postwar culture: the economic prosperity that funded single-family homes and supported growing families also created new opportunities for single living, and the consumer economy lauded by boosters was accused of promoting a hedonism that subverted, rather than supported, national values.
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.

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