Was 1960s Britain as sexually liberal as we all thought?
2012 was the year the mod crept, tassel loafers intact, from the grave of British pop culture. The button up polo, the parka, and the wrinkled resurgence of the Stones all show a craving for 60s living. Even sport can’t escape it, as Bradley Wiggins (who’s partial to buttoning up his polo shirt and idolising Paul Weller) has been branded ‘King of the Mods’. People love the nostalgia, harking back to a time of crazy excesses and the free spirits of the 1960s.
This was the era of pop music, mini-skirts and free love, where the Beatles reigned and women found sexual expression through The Pill and relaxed abortion laws. The strict moral codes of the 50s were no more, the youth were free at last…
If you are getting bored already, don’t worry. This cliché has been suitably mocked in the Austin Powers movies, but as funny as they were, it seems that the irony has been lost.
Perhaps London was ‘swinging,’ but London is not synonymous with the whole of Britain. Rural communities still made up 20% of the population – they count as part of society. Were Brampton, Yeovil and Ely sexually liberated? Probably not, but there is hardly anything written about the village in this time. They are seen as being unexciting. The historian who writes about the vibrant city culture will capture people’s imaginations and so rural cultures are often marginalised in the books. Personally, I think that Swinging Yeovil in the Sixties sounds like an exciting account yet to be written.
It is true that in urban environments soul music, blues and rock’n’roll found a popular footing through the Beatles and the Stones in the dancehalls and clubs throughout the country. One can imagine that it was a liberating feeling but it was not widespread. Other than the Beatles and Elvis, the top hits of the decade were by the likes of Englebert Humperdink, Roy Orbison and The Everly Brothers – heart throbs perhaps, but by no means pumping sex icons. The country ballad and sense of romance remained.
It is true that The Pill was made popular in the 1960s and abortion laws were relaxed. However, this rise in recorded abortion rates was inevitable, considering it was illegal and therefore hardly recorded at all prior to 1965! The Pill was only available to single women by 1967, a time when homosexuals were still considered mentally ill by a large portion of society.
Many however cite the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967 as one of the great steps of liberal thinking that seem to define the decade. Boringly enough there is more to it. This reform of the Sexual Offences Act only made homosexuality legal. No effort was made to change attitudes. To go further, even this glimpse of liberal mindedness can in fact be attributed to thoughts and policies introduced in the 1950s and not the 60s.
Statistics provided by demographers and government workers at the time shatter the dreams of shag pile and lava lamps. They show that women were happy to be sexually inferior in marriage and expected their partners to be experienced whilst they remained virgins. Figures also indicate that more were getting married generally in this era when compared to the Edwardians. Yet no films are made about the edgy Edwardians and their risqué literature on bunny rabbits and magical boys in tights. Although I am being flippant, the point is that Edwardians are remembered for their moustaches, and those in the sixties for sex and mopeds, despite their sexual habits being depressingly similar.
This is not to say that women were at all content with the situation. Indeed, the women’s movement erupted later in the 1960s and in the early 70s. The position of the women’s movement at the end of the decade shows that this idea of sexual imbalance in marriage was not a popular one. Indeed this may have been a period of sexual dis-‘satisfaction’ – in the words of leading feminist and visionary Mick Jagger.
A great deal of sixties theatre suggested that the family had been severely corrupted. In Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane the sexually explicit protagonist destroys the family structure by causing the death of the father figure and mixing the maternal with the sensual. Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming clearly shows the illusive nature of female liberation, where the female character seems to dominate, but only through her sex, which she becomes totally consumed and defined by. If there was any sense of sexual liberation, it was something thrust upon and not offered to the women of the sixties.
So, if you thought the sixties were outrageous you were probably wrong. Replace The Who with Cliff Richard, the paisley patterns with corduroy and the all night swinger parties in London with a sensibly organised tea party in Torquay and you’re nearer the mark.
Written for Razz by Louie Freeman-Bassett.