Home Society & Culture The Rise of Sexual Liberation and the Feminist Force in the Swinging Sixties

The Rise of Sexual Liberation and the Feminist Force in the Swinging Sixties

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In the early 1960s, a remarkable and forward-thinking gynaecologist operated an NHS birth control clinic in the East End. She also maintained a private practice in her exquisite Nash Terrace home in Regent’s Park. A feminist pioneer, she advocated for women’s rights well ahead of her time. This period predated the advent of the pill, and access to condoms was a clandestine and awkward affair. Young women found it inconceivable to obtain them, while young men, who could not be counted on for consistency, experienced embarrassment in doing so.

She provided sex education, a painless physical examination, the fitting of a diaphragm and the admonition that it should be used every single time one had sex, no matter what the time of the month. She saved countless girls from unwanted pregnancies and instilled sexual confidence and self-esteem.

On the other side of the Park, a posh Harley Street gynaecologist, FRCS no less, with a discreet nursing home in the suburbs, was plying his highly lucrative trade as an expert abortionist, sign here, no questions asked, cash, please. A lot of cash, no shortage of customers.

The Abortion Act was not passed until 1967. Those who could not afford Harley Street quality relied on the backstreet practitioners, always a risky procedure which often resulted in damage to their reproductive organs and consequent infertility.

Whatever the circumstances, the whole issue was associated with guilt and shame, stigma, and secrecy. Women were still trapped by their biology and moral hypocrisy.

However as early as 1961 the miracle pill came along (so famous it does not have a qualifying name), with the potential to transform women’s lives right across the world. At first, it was only available to married – or at the very least – engaged women. Then it was more freely prescribed to unmarried women with menstrual problems, broadly interpreted. It took about five years before it was truly available on demand. The rest is history.

Freud had put sex on the menu for the 20th century. Kinsey published his famous reports in 1948 and 1953. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” with its fabulous descriptions of sex and its use of the words “fuck” and “cunt” in their true meaning, came out in 1960 after the famous obscenity trial. But sexual activity was still shrouded in ignorance and secrecy. Girls were expected to marry and brides were expected to be virgins. Sex education was minimal and sexuality was still suppressed if not repressed. When sexual activity did take place it was often hasty and furtive, in less-than-ideal conditions. No sharing of beds in the parental home or the university halls of residence. If you were unlucky enough to get pregnant and marriage was not on offer and you decided to keep the baby, you were defined as an unmarried mother and your child was illegitimate. It took courage to overcome the stigma that went with these labels.

But something was stirring. Around 1963 girls were cutting 12 inches off their hems, discarding those horrible restraining panty girdles and suspenders and in many cases disposing of if not actually burning their uncomfortable wired padded bras. The deforming pointy stilettos were replaced by flatties and low heels. No more expensive perms, shampoo and set, curlers and rollers under the claustrophobic hairdryer. Now it was Vidal Sassoon’s quirky cuts and “wash’n’go”.

The designers that launched the new look were Mary Quant and Biba, Courreges and Pierre Cardin. The models were Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, the photographers were David Bailey and Terry O’Neill. Julie Christie (“Billy Liar”) and Vanessa Redgrave (“Blow up”) epitomised the look. Nova was the hip cool cutting edge magazine that helped set the trend.

Girls found new freedom in their bodies, literally from top to toe, and with it a positive awareness of their attractiveness and sexuality.

In 1963 Betty Friedan, a leading figure in the women’s movement published her feminist book The Feminine Mystique. This was a wake-up call. She expressed the growing dissatisfaction women felt in being trapped in the 50s domestic role of housewife and mother, at the service of their husbands in their suburban enclaves. She was hugely influential in changing the way women perceived their function in life.

In 1963 Phillip Larkin wrote his poem “Annus Mirabilis”, which starts:

“Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me)-

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles first LP”…

Indeed the Beatles released their first album “Please please me” and Bob Dylan told us that “the times they were a changin’.”

Out went guilt and shame, ignorance and inhibition, furtiveness and secrecy, in came fun and free love. Mick Jagger could get no satisfaction (patently untrue) but the sexual revolution and the permissive society were truly on their way.

Helen Gurley Brown took over as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1965. She had previously published her ground-breaking and provocative book “Sex and the single girl” and she continued to spread the message about sexual liberation.

To this day sex and sexuality are still their main features.

Something amazing happened in the summer of 1967. The Beatles released “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “All You Need Is Love”. 100,000 people converged on Haight Ashbury, a rundown neighbourhood of San Francisco. This event consolidated the hippie counterculture movement with its philosophy of liberal drug use, communal living and free love. These were the flower children in the Summer of Love and there was no looking back.

Tom Wolfe wrote Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test which described Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ psychedelic LSD-fuelled epic road trip in their painted bus.

Either you were “on the bus” or you were going nowhere.

Then in 1969, half a million people descended on Woodstock in the spirit of peace and love, embracing all aspects of hippie philosophy. The three-day festival ended in the rain and mud at dawn with Jimi Hendrix playing an incomparable version of the American national anthem on his magic guitar.

“You’ve come a long way baby” was the slogan for Virginia Slims, an American cigarette designed specifically for women. It could have come straight from Mad Men.

But there was still a long way to go.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Lord Chamberlain was stripped of his power of censorship and “Hair”, the controversial hippie rock musical with nudity, drugs and sexual freedom broke new ground on the London stage. It was revived in the West End in 2010 as a piece of cultural history.

“Hair” was followed a couple of years later by Kenneth Tynan’s “Oh Calcutta”, a series of sex-related racy sketches with much nudity.

Then came the Oz trial. The Australian hip satirical magazine had moved to London where it was part of the underground press, pushing the boundaries with its discussions of sex, drugs and alternative lifestyles and left-wing politics. The edition edited by school kids had the editors in court on obscenity charges. Although they were found guilty they were acquitted later on appeal.

Mary Whitehouse started her anti-permissive clean-up campaign which ran in vain for 25 years. There really was no going back.

The 70s kicked off with several major publications. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch picked up where Betty Friedan left off. This was not just about women’s perception of themselves, this was about the shaping of stereotypes and the untapped power of female sexuality. Traditional values had repressed and neutered women who were conditioned to be compliant, sexless and effectively powerless. Greer’s voice was that of a radical revolutionary feminist who identified the enemy as male figures in positions of authority. It was a ground-breaking best-seller which changed the way people thought about sex.

Our Bodies, Ourselves, written by the Boston Women’s Collective, was about every aspect of women’s health and sexuality from a feminist point of view. It encouraged women to know and understand their bodies through shared experience and led to consciousness-raising groups where women explored sexual issues and exchanged intimate knowledge of their bodies.

The first illustrated sex manual to come out of the sexual revolution, The joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking by Alex Comfort, was published in 1972. The format was inspired by The Joy of Cooking and the text was laid out like a menu with starters and main courses. The faintly ludicrous drawings were based on photographs and were considered to be erotic at the time. The book featured various sexual positions and practices including oral sex, bondage and swinging. An updated edition was published in 2008.

Next came “Spare Rib”, the radical magazine born out of the women’s movement which explored feminism, gender roles and sexuality.

Erica Jong gave us the zipless fuck (easy anonymous sex with a stranger) in Fear of Flying and Marlon Brando broke another taboo by acting out anonymous anal sex with butter in Bertolucci’s film Last tango in Paris.

But what exactly are the physical processes that occur during sex? Masters and Johnson pioneered research into human sexuality and published their findings on Human Sexual Response in 1966. Their sex therapy exercises are still in use today. They were the first to study what actually happens during sex by observing and measuring sexual intercourse and masturbation in the laboratory. One of their conclusions was that there was no difference physiologically between the so-called vaginal and clitoral orgasms.

Shere Hite picked up this major controversial issue in “The Hite Report on Female Sexuality”, the result of thousands of interviews. She was a feminist sexologist and writer who focussed on the meaning of sexual experience. She did not agree with Masters and Johnson’s narrow definition of orgasm in women which stated that it was a result of penetrative sex. She found that only 30% of women were orgasmic with full intercourse and that 70% were orgasmic with clitoral stimulation. There is no doubt that her work was a major influence on how we perceive sex and sexuality. The fact that a majority of women are only orgasmic with clitoral stimulation rather than penetrative sex is still not fully acknowledged to this day despite all the evidence.

The female orgasm remains a complex issue, a mysterious marvel. What exactly is it? Where does one feel it? How do you make it happen? Can it happen more than once? Does it matter if it does not happen at all? Whether it is experienced as a butterfly flutter or as river deep mountain high, it is now certain that it originates in the clitoris with its myriad nerve endings and that women’s sensitivities and experiences vary.

But where is the clitoris, hidden in all those outer and inner bits? If she does not know where it is, how is he supposed to find it and what is he supposed to do with it when he does? This is why it is so important for women to know and understand their bodies and their sexuality and for men to share that knowledge.

What was on offer in the culture for men at that time?  Soft porn ”girlie mags” such as Playboy, Penthouse, Mayfair, Men Only and Hustler, each one raunchier than its predecessor.

They started out with pictures of topless models with big full breasts, moved on to nudes with big full breasts and curvy bums and eventually to full-frontal but neat-looking genitalia. These magazines had problem pages which were an excuse to write about male sexual fantasies in explicit detail.

There was an array of erotic books, blue movies, art and photography on sale, not all of it legal at the time, and somewhat sleazy striptease clubs and live sex shows to visit.

By the 1990s most of this pornographic output had been replaced on a massive scale by the internet porn explosion which now caters to every possible predilection, both legal and illegal. It runs 24 hours a day and nothing is off limits.

Matters were improving for homosexuals but at a much slower pace. In 1967 homosexuality was decriminalised among consenting adults over 21. This was amended to over 18 in 1984. It was only in 2001 that the age of consent was dropped to 16 in line with heterosexual practice. Section 28, which outlawed the teaching and promotion of homosexuality, came into force in 1986 and was not repealed until 2003.

Gay couples have been permitted to adopt since 2002 and civil partnerships were instituted in 2005.

The gay culture found its voice in the gay pride movement after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, but homophobia is still alive and well today despite these major advances.

Unfortunately, AIDS made its appearance in the 1980s with devastating effects, particularly in the gay community.

One of the downsides of sexual liberation and free love was the risk of infections. Antibiotics took care of them and venereal disease clinics opened in some of the larger hospitals in the mid-60s.

For some unfortunate women there were hidden consequences. Symptomless infections sometimes led to blocked fallopian tubes, chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, peritonitis and infertility.

Currently, there is still no cure for herpes and we know that genital warts can lead to cervical cancer. At the time safe sex meant not getting pregnant.

The sex toy industry suddenly took off as a result of the changes in sexual attitudes. If you wanted to buy a vibrator in the’70s you had to dare to enter a seedy Soho sex shop or find something mail order which would arrive by post in a plain brown envelope. Now sex toys are on sale on the High Street with fantasy dress-up outfits, whips, handcuffs and sexy lingerie. Your local pharmacy stocks condoms with a choice of colours and flavours. The internet stocks anything and everything.

How did we manage without them? There is no doubt that a rampant Rabbit or some little battery-operated buzzy thing will bring pleasure and satisfaction to the most anorgasmic women, but it will never give you a hug or whisper your name.

During the 1980s the post-war generation was mostly settling into marriage, children and careers. However after at least a decade of liberal and liberated sex, many were finding monogamy too much of a challenge, morals had been loosened, and rules set aside. Some couples were just too bored to have sex with each other once the romance wore off. Women were flexing their shoulder pads and asserting their sexual power. Combined with Thatcherism and its cult of the individual and self-entitlement this often led to flings, affairs, divorce and remarriage. As ever, sex had consequences.

By the 90s it was time for the midlife crisis and menopause. For some people, the desire for sex waned, often with an accompanying sense of powerlessness and indeed impotence. Pharmaceutics were on hand to help. For women, there was HRT to keep them young and for men the wonder of Viagra and its successors.

Older men are naturally attracted to younger women, and blame it on the evolutionary drive. Sadly there are many older women who find themselves single and are still interested in sex but are unable to find appropriate partners. The cougar/toyboy relationship is still seen as something dubious, but who knows?

According to research, individuals who maintain good health and retain interest can continue engaging in sexual activities until old age, despite potential changes in their sexual responses. One can still go out with a bang, not a whimper.

As for finding peace and love in the 21st century, will sexual dynamics ever stabilise after the tumultuous swings of the 1960s? It may be, as Chou Enlai purportedly said when queried about his thoughts on the French Revolution, “too soon to say.”


Carol Martin-Sperry is a sex therapist and the author of three books about couples and sex. Carol is a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. 

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