Revolted by your parent’s descriptions of the ‘swinging’ sixties but want to know more?
Referred to as the ‘sexual revolution’ or the age of ‘free love’, the 1960s sparked a social and cultural shift in attitudes towards sexual relationships with a markedly more liberal view which shaped the decades that followed. But what were the swinging sixties really like? Was it really the love fest that the media would have us believe and to what do we owe this decade in terms of alternative scenes?
In this feature, we’ll answer these questions, and more, as we take a closer look at sex in the swinging 1960s and find out the truth behind the history book headlines.
What Caused the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s?
Okay, a pre-warning here but we are going to give you a whirlwind history lesson to try and put the 1960s into context. It’s important, so bear with us.
First of all, the sexual revolution of the 1960s is not the only time in our history when attitudes towards sexuality have been affected in a big way. No, to set the scene we have to go back a few thousand years to a time before Christianity.
When in Rome….
It’s Europe and we’re in the height of the period of the Roman Empire and way before those religious taboos of pre-marital sex and prudishness. In fact, the Romans enjoyed a healthy and open attitude towards sex (if you were a man, at least) and their society openly accommodated, and legalized, prostitution and (to some extent) homosexuality. Though chastity in respectable women was expected, promiscuity for men was acceptable and encouraged.
The Age of Sin
Enter the religious prohibitions of the Christian faith and these liberal views and laws were gradually eroded over time.
What followed across Europe over a thousand or so years was a period of puritanical cleansing with the Catholic church largely at its center. Sin was the buzzword of the day and pretty much every kind of sex was frowned upon (to say the least) unless it was between a married man and woman…..and only then if it was for the purposes of procreation. Of course, what really went on behind closed doors is very different and homosexuality, prostitution and libertinism still thrived….just underground.
Of course, from the 15th century onward, the Europeans took their puritanism to the Americas and other colonies and, whilst converting the various natives to Christianity, thus spread their ‘ideals’.
It wasn’t until the 18th century during the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ (sometimes referred to as the ‘Age of Reason’) that there was a more widespread slackening of these highly moralistic views. Philosophers, scientists, artists and writers were all starting to question the religious dogmas of the day. Through their work, they began questioning the authority of the church and of the various monarchies of Europe. The result was a more open-mindedness that paved the way for various revolutions to come.
The Decline of ‘Victorian’ Values
In continental Europe, the libertinism that grew out of the Age of Reason did not penetrate the United Kingdom. Known for their conservatism and conventional nature, the Brits were entering their own period of high morality.
Victorian values emerged during the 19th century and came to a peak at the beginning of the 20th century, under the reign of Queen Victoria I. A strict social code of conduct, the repression of sexuality was at the heart of these values. Yet, contrary to popular belief the Victorians enjoyed a varied and regular sex life with erotica from this period proving it. However, the etiquette of the day demanded a conservative ‘front’. Of course, the British Empire at this time was extensive and these values were perpetuated across the world. At its peak, the Empire held influence over a quarter of the world’s population which effectively meant that prudishness reigned supreme.
The Age of Excess and the Start of Equality
It wasn’t until the 1920s, post World War I, that the first societal shifts in terms of modern sexuality began to occur…at least in the Western world. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ were a time of great economic prosperity and heralded an era of hedonism and cultural shift towards greater liberalism.
Women were beginning to enjoy more freedom and these years are epitomized by the ‘flapper’ girls. Low in inhibitions and high in spirits, these young women were coming of age in an era where they had finally won the right to vote and in a world that was trying to put the horrors of WWI behind them. For many, it was a time of prosperity and gaiety with the youth of the period claiming (as later generations would) the stage.
The period was also known as the ‘Golden Age’ and was a time of rapid growth in many areas, not only economically but also, in technology and popular culture.
Cinema, music (jazz and ragtime), dance (swing, the Charleston, Lindy Hop) art (expressionism and surrealism) and fashion were all experiencing huge shifts away from tradition and embracing a far more liberal style.
The twenties were also called the ‘crazy years’ in Europe and this decade, with its novel and modern outlook, was the first in a major cultural shift away from conservatism.
Austerity and The Post War Years
However, the economic crash that followed the 1920s which was compounded by World War II brought about an abrupt halt to this evolution over the next few decades.
The war had a profound effect on all aspects of life. The economic consequences could be seen in austerity measures imposed across Europe and the wider world during the 1940s, yet the United States was to emerge in this period as the greatest economic power; along with Europe, they were also set to yield an even greater cultural influence than ever before.
Socially and politically, the 1950s were marked by communism clashing with capitalism and the decline of colonialism across the world. Yet it was rock and roll music, television and film plus art, literature and fashion that were to shape the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The fifties was the first age of real fame and screen icons like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Lauren Bacall, Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot were all setting the cultural barometer as well as musicians like Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and the Motown crew.
Add to this a wider appetite for social change with political movements fighting against racial segregation, gender inequality and repression of gay rights and the stage was inevitably set for something bit to happen.
To counter this, its important to remember though that the 1950s was still a period of repression and although sexual liberation was tantalizingly close, it was largely still taboo. A line was still firmly drawn in the sand by the ‘establishment’ but more and more people were crossing it.
The Baby Boomers Hit Their Prime
The generation born immediately after the end of Second World War are known as the Baby Boomers. Born into a world of immense social and political change but largely enjoying great economic prosperity, they are divided into two cohorts; those born between 1946 and 1955 and those born between 1956 and 1964. It is the first cohort, certainly in the U.S., that were witness to events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King and be at risk of being drafted into the Vietnam War.
More educated and far less trusting of authoritarian figures and organisations, this was a generation of people who saw things very differently to their parents.
Characterized as being free-spirited, experimental and highly individualistic, this generation of young people were coming of age during the 1960s. This was their world and they wanted to shape it in a revolutionary way.
Key Influences in the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s
So, there we have it, the stage is set for the sexual revolution of the swinging sixties but we are still missing some important players that were to be key ‘enablers’.
Firstly, the development of the birth control pill in 1960 enabled women, for the firs time, to be in control of contraception. Although latex condoms had been mass produced and cheaply available since the early twentieth century, the Pill (along with the feminist movement which was gathering pace) empowered women to have freedom when it came to having casual sex.
Next, the emergence of the Underground Press, a collection of publications free from any official approval or censorship. For the first time in modern history, this kind of unifying source of information (as well as pirate radio stations) allowed this generation a ‘voice’ with a wide reach. Interestingly, this was also a factor in the Age of Enlightenment during the 18th century. Free to express their, often left-wing, views, these weekly, monthly or occasional publications were at the heart of the appetite for change and an inciting factor in bringing people together.
Add to this the incredible influence of popular culture with films and televisions, but more importantly, music. This was the era of artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Doors and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. If you weren’t having sex in the 1960s then the chances are you were listening to the music that other people were having sex to!
Though the history of porn predates the 1960s by thousands of years, it was the normalization and easy access to explicit adult content during this period which may also have served as important factor. Although in the early to mid-sixties, the U.S. and the U.K were still censoring films, books and other media, European filmmakers were becoming more licentious. Even mainstream movies coming out of the continent were showing more nudity and were more erotic in theme.
A genre of adult films that is also associated with the 1960s is the sexploitation movie. Skirting a fine line between what could be deemed obscene by the censors yet depicting simulated sex and gratuitous nudity, these films were originally screened only in small grindhouse theatres. As the decade wore on and attitudes towards sex grew more liberal, scenes became more explicit and were shown more frequently in larger venues and to wider audiences.
Pornographic magazines were also getting more diverse and reaching wider audiences. In 1965, the Swedish pornographer Berth Milton Sr. launched the world’s first full-color hardcore magazine, Private. This was just the start of a new era of adult print content and ‘girlie’ mags began to evolve from the partial nudity promoted through the 1950s in magazines like Playboy to more explicit imagery.
The advent of affordable and easy access to home video cameras like the Super-8 also saw a rise in the production of more experimental movies as well as heralding the age of the amateur porn movie.
By the late 1960s, more permissive legislation in the USA led to films like Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie gaining a wide release. This particular pornographic film depicted explicit sex and s credited as paving the way for the porno chic movement which followed into the 1970s
Drugs were also a prominent factor in some parts of the sexual revolution and wide-scale use of marijuana in particular characterizes many subsets of society. Although the use of LSD and heroin would gain more notoriety in the 1970s, the fact remains that the 1960s were an era in which recreational drugs were becoming easier to access and more acceptable to use.
Lastly, feminism was to play a huge role in the sexual revolution and the 1960s was a period when women were beginning to assert their ownership of their sexuality and, importantly, be ‘allowed’ to overtly enjoy sex. Yes, this was the decade when the female orgasm was ‘discovered’!?
The pioneering human sexual response scientists, Masters and Johnson, were to report widely on women’s ability to achieve multiple climaxes and the challenge of this holy grail was set in stone.
So, what we have is a generation of liberal minded baby boomers:
- Distancing themselves from traditional values and creating a counterculture.
- embracing the ideals of ‘free’ society.
- experimenting with drugs.
- exposed to mainstream popular culture that was celebrating ‘eroticism’.
- able to readily get their hands on explicit adult material.
- had more permissive and liberal attitudes.
- with access to reliable contraception.
- were enjoying a period of relative prosperity and safety.
The result? An inevitable shift away from traditionalism and conservatism with a young generation shaping the world with their liberal views and permissive choices.
The 1960s: The Emergence of Alternative Sex Scenes
In a break from all traditional values it was hardly a surprise that the 1960s saw a huge decrease in the rate of marriage, an increase in divorce rates and a rise in the number of pre-marital sexual encounters. In the U.S. alone the number of unmarried young Americans doubled in the 16-year period 1960-1976 from 4.3 million to 9.7 million.
Turning their back on their parent’s ideas of a social norm, this generation was to try and reshape the institution of marriage (and monogamy) by experimenting with some alternative sex scenes.
One of these was partner-swapping which, along with communal sex (or orgies), was most certainly the start of the swinging scene as we know it. Couples were trying out open marriages and used their bohemian ideals to create a movement we now know as ‘free love’.
Homosexuality and Bisexuality
Although decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.S. wouldn’t start happening on a state-wide scale until the 1970s and 1980s (it wasn’t legalized nationally until 2003!), socio-political movements of the 1960s were beginning to afford gay men (and women) some more freedoms.
Certainly, this generation of explorative baby boomers were experimenting more with same-sex relationships and underground clubs were growing in numbers. And, many of the clubs in North America were becoming known for their leather culture.
Groups coming together for pleasure and embracing their love of fetish clothing, naturally led to sub-cultures developing within these scenes….
….one of which was BDSM.
Of course, the practices of Bondage & Discipline, Domination & Submission and Sadism & Masochism are as old as time itself but it was during the sexual revolution of the 1960s that BDSM content began to appear in more mainstream media. From photography to commercial films with names like Bettie Page, Eric Stanton and Irving Klaw, this kind of fetish was starting to gain wider cultural prominence. In fact, the term ‘BDSM’ itself was coined in 1969….just in time to claim this fetish from the 1970s.
Another adult entertainment scene that enjoyed the liberal markets that opened in the 1960s was stripping. Although topless bars had become more common during the 1950s, it was the emergence of large scale and more upmarket clubs like the Playboy club in Chicago (1960) that added to its appeal and acceptability.
So, What Were the 1960s Like for Sex?
So, we finally come back to the question of what was it really like in the 1960s when it came to sex?
According to the popular phrase, they say that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there which kind of gives you some clue about the experience for some people.
Judging by everything we know about this decade, sex in the 1960s can be characterized as one of experimentation and promiscuity. From the liberation of women to explore their sexuality and set out to conquer their own orgasms to new and emerging alternative sex scenes, the 1960s were a period of great change.
But not for everyone….just as in this century, there are those of us who are more liberal minded when it comes to sex, society in the 1960s was pretty polarized.
However, one of the biggest myths about the sexual revolution of the 1960s is that it was confined to this decade and this just isn’t true. The vast majority of people who experienced the prime of their lives during the latter part of the 1960s are quick to point out that it was actually the 1970s when sex began to really come into its own. So, whilst the swinging sixties opened the door, the party really got started in the seventies.
What is true is that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the hippies, mods and rockers of the 1960s without whom our own sexual freedoms may not have been diverse and easy to come by. You just might never look at your parents or grandparents in the same way again…..
Featured image via Wikimedia.