Starting around 1992, young Americans began killing off the sexual revolution that reigned during the '60s through the '80s -- by waiting much longer to get started, having fewer partners, using condoms more often, and so on. These are just a few of the starkest examples of how sexual wildness tracks the level of violence in society, the logic of which I explained some posts below.
Earlier we saw that reports from lit fic observers that interest in sex shriveled up among the novels of the superstars of the 1990s and 2000s, especially compared to the blockbuster writers of the '60s through the '80s, for whom no amount of sex was gratuitous. An even better place to look for the cultural reflection of the birth and death of sexual liberation is movies. They have to appeal to a much broader audience, there are a lot fewer of them than books and hence easier to study close to the whole universe of "popular movies," and busybody parents have already put together a wealth of information about whether a movie shows skin or not.
To quantify this, I took the top 10 movies at the box office for a year -- that's surely a good measure of the movie's resonance with what audiences wanted. I then checked the "parental advisory" section of their entry at imdb.com (or in a few cases where the movie was more obscure, at other "protect the kids" online resources for parents). If there was at least one scene of partial nudity -- even an exposed nipple -- that lasted longer than a moment, I counted it as having nudity; otherwise, not. So this isn't a measure of really raunchy stuff. Because it's such an easy threshold to clear, if hardly any movies in some year fail to meet it, then we are very safe in categorizing that year as a prudish one.
The first full year that nudity in movies was allowed was 1969, after an earlier ban was reversed in 1968. The ban, also known as the Hays Code, was only enforced starting in 1934 -- the very first year of falling crime that would last through the '50s, after the earlier surge of crime from at least 1900 through the Roaring Twenties and the early '30s. As an aside, a probably something I'll flesh out more later, these bans typically only occur when they are not needed -- when the people are themselves already becoming tamer. They are expressive of the more prudish zeitgeist, not an attempt to deal with a real problem.
Here is the change over time:
The change is so incredibly stark that you could probably go just by your impressions -- though that's only assuming you remember anything, which most people don't. We hear so much nonsense about how skankified and sexually perverted the culture keeps getting, but try to think of the last time you saw some nice T&A in a mainstream movie. Back in the late '70s and '80s, every movie was also partly a softcore porn flick. It wasn't just the screwball teen comedies like Porky's -- even mainstream comedies that were actually funny, like Caddyshack or Stripes or Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Beverly Hills Cop, show plenty of skin. Same with dramas like Fatal Attraction. Ditto for action movies, like when Conan the Barbarian and a witch get it on, or when we see the actual sex act where Sarah Connor conceives the future savior of humankind with Kyle Reese, or when Dirty Harry chases a criminal across some rooftops and they happen to crash through into an orgy with about a dozen people being filmed for a porno. And it's hard to think of a thriller/horror movie from that period that does not have a nude scene.
There are two clear periods: a wilder period from 1969 through 1988, where the mean, median, and mode are all 4; and a tamer one from 1989 through 2009, where the mean, median, and mode are all 1. Although each year's movies are only a handful of draws from the larger distribution of culture, creating year-to-year variation, it's clear that sometime in the late '80s or early '90s the main tendency of that distribution shifted sharply in the covered-up direction. To my eye, the year-to-year variation doesn't allow us to pinpoint whether the decline of T&A in movies slightly preceded or occurred right alongside the fall in violence and promiscuity, but it's obvious that the two trends are closely related.
One thing is certain -- the internet has nothing to do with it. The internet only became widespread among the audiences that go to movies around 1994. I remember that very clearly, and there was no porn around. Free and easy-to-get internet porn didn't show up until the late '90s (the first year I recall it being a phenomenon was 2000, but I was probably late to the trend). Nudity in one domain of entertainment or media is not a substitute for nudity in some other domain, as this idea assumes (internet nudity replacing movie nudity). Rather, they are complements -- they all feed off of each other and contribute to a larger culture of sexual liberation. That's why in the heyday of the sexual revolution, there was nudity not only in movies but also in lit fic novels, on album covers, in magazines, and anywhere else they could have shown it.
Similarly, once the sexual counter-revolution began in the early-mid 1990s, nudity vanished from all of those domains. We can't use the internet in this comparison over time because it did not exist during rising-crime times. But can you imagine what people would have uploaded to YouTube in 1977? Or what percent of all internet traffic would have been for porn in 1984? If you think kids today post sexualized photos on social networks, you can guess what it would have looked like if people at Studio 54 or Danceteria had had Facebook or Flickr to show their friends what they were up to last weekend (or what they saw at any rate). I've earlier noted the death of streaking during the falling-crime times. They captured more images of streakers in the '70s and '80s without the benefit of more modern technology because people were actually streaking back then, and have not since.
It's harder to get a feel for, but I think even adolescent guys' bedrooms aren't saturated with nudity like they used to be. I'm just thinking of every YouTube video I've ever watched that was shot in someone's bedroom, and I don't ever recall seeing one where there was a poster of a girl showing her boobs, let alone posing nude. But rewind to Jeff Spicoli's room, and it's covered in pages ripped out of Playboy or Penthouse. During the '90s, this practice was fading but it was still prevalent enough on an absolute level for me to remember it (at least the early-mid '90s anyway, not so much after that). Even if it wasn't a Playboy centerfold, maybe it was Kathy Ireland from Sports Illustrated or the Janet Jackson cover of Rolling Stone.
Maybe someone with more free time can go through all the teen screwball comedies over the years and rate them for how much square footage of the characters' walls are taken up by pictures of girls. I don't recall any in American Pie or Superbad, but I wasn't paying attention for it either. Plus I haven't bothered with a lot of the dork squad comedies like the Harold and Kumar movies. My impression is that the same pattern seen above would hold up. Millennial guys are too busy using their computer, TV, internet, and cell phone to play video games -- no time left to think about girls. And I think the posters on their walls would reflect that too -- more likely to see ones about video games than half-naked chicks.
The final reason that the internet or technology in general has nothing to do with these changes up and down is that we see the same pattern over historical time. When violence was surging in the 14th C., there's an obsession with explicit and raunchy sex themes in even high literature like the Canterbury Tales or the Decameron. Ditto the Elizabethan-Jacobean period, the Romantic-Gothic period, and the lesser crime wave of the early 20th C. These cultures not only are more interested in the act of sex -- the look, the feel, everything -- but they explore a lot more, I hate to use the word, "transgressive" sexual themes. The clearest example is incest, perhaps the ultimate sexual taboo: see Hamlet, The Duchess of Malfi, Vathek and the Episodes, Twin Peaks, among many others.
The periods in between these are falling-crime times, and they barely touch these topics at all. There seems to be a greater treatment of bodily hygiene, STDs, and the unhealthiness of masturbation, but not of wild sexuality per se. People sheltered from the sublime have more important Matters of Exquisite Taste to attend to.