How did we go from a permissive society to #MeToo in the space of 50 years? A woman who remembers her own period of miserable promiscuity talks us through it
Things have happened so fast, sexually speaking, in the last 50 years, that it’s difficult to keep up. I’ve lived through the repressive 1950s to the liberal ’60s and ’70s and now, with #MeToo, we’re back in a sexual straitjacket. It’s almost as if the Summer of Love in 1967 never existed.
In the ’50s, sex outside marriage was completely taboo. At Woman magazine journalists weren’t even allowed to use the word “bottom” at all in the magazine—not even in “bottom of the garden” or “bottom of the saucepan”, according to The Evelyn Home Story by Evelyn Home. Answers to sexual questions were delivered to readers in stamped addressed discreet brown envelopes.
At the same time, if you got pregnant your father might well throw you out of the family house. Abortion was illegal, and difficult to access even if you lived in London and had money.
So just imagine what it was like to emerge from all this repression into the “swinging ’60s”, equipped with a contraceptive pill that had only recently been announced as a completely reliable form of birth control, and was free on the NHS. Just think how ill prepared young people were for what was to follow.
How could women say “no” to sex when there was no reason against it except outmoded fears of unwanted pregnancy? Men couldn’t understand a refusal—they must have thought that women were as “up for it” as they were—and women who didn’t want sex were plagued by fears that they were frigid or repressed.
Meanwhile, the Cuban Missile Crisis made us all want to “live for today, for tomorrow we may die”, the laws on homosexuality would soon be repealed, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence was finally deemed suitable to be put on sale in bookshops.
Feminists were not even a glint in their father’s eyes. The phrase “no means no” didn’t exist, and neither did AIDS. So all too often we women said “yes”.
Free love? My lasting memories of the ’60s are of an endless round of miserable promiscuity, when often it seemed easier and politer to sleep with a man than to chuck him out of your apartment. I remember going out to dinner with a young lawyer who inveigled me back home and then suggested we have sex. When I refused, he replied: “Oh, go on, it’ll only take a couple of minutes.” So I did.
It wasn’t yet realized that, because of their biological make-up, the majority of women enjoy sex but in a different way to men. It’s not as easy for us to keep it so casual.
Experience and the restrictions of having children started to cause less enthusiasm for the free love movement. Lynn Barber, award-winning journalist and a pioneer of sexual freedom (she wrote one of the earliest sex manuals, How to Improve Your Man in Bed) says: “There was a great enthusiasm for free love in the ’60s and ’70s, helped of course by Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch telling us we should all liberate ourselves by sleeping around. I was happy to do so before my marriage and with no ill-effects.”
Dr Celia Brayfield is a writer, senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and cultural commentator, and she also remembers the time well. “I remember a wonderful window, from 1967 to 1969, when people were really transformed by love. They got on buses to give out flowers, or ran free food stalls at music festivals. It was just a great outpouring of kindness, generosity and goodwill. But, of course, this didn’t last, because people who didn’t get it exploited that spirit in every possible way, including sexually. The link between sex and love was broken. Earnest followers of D H Lawrence talked about making sex the center of your being to justify being cruel and selfish. It turned out that free love wasn’t free at all—the price of it was a lot of unhappiness.”
It’s no wonder, then, why we’ve swung back to a kind of sexual puritanism, in which men have to ask before going in for a kiss and practically sign documents before having sex. I used to think it was ridiculous. But, looking back, now I’m not so sure.
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