In the late 1960s, many young Americans rejected traditional standards of sexual morality that forbade sex outside of marriage, and embraced the “sexual revolution” – the popular movement that equated sexual freedom with personal liberation. They championed a more permissive sexual climate that fostered concrete behavioral changes, such as higher rates of premarital sex, rising divorce rates, shrinking family size, and greater numbers of sexual partners for both women and men. Individuals had more choice regarding their sexual lives, and many openly engaged in sex before marriage, living with someone outside of marriage, or having casual sex with numerous partners, all with relatively little fear of social ostracism. Although these changes may have seemed shocking to mainstream America, they actually built on long-term, gradual trends toward greater sexual freedom that had been at work in American culture since the 1920s. Since that time, Americans' attitudes regarding sexual behavior had moved, somewhat haltingly and with bouts of opposition, in a direction that the historians John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman refer to as “sexual liberalism.”
To the extent that a true sexual revolution occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, it found its fullest expression in a widespread set of attitudinal changes regarding the meaning of sex. Many people came to regard sex as a gratifying touchstone of life – a “self-enriching, joyous phenomenon” – that did not have to be restricted to marriage or serious courtship.