By Dominic Sandbrook
Forget the Swinging Sixties: It was the Seventies that saw an explosion in promiscuity, abortion and pornography
It was the decade that ‘feminised’ men, and made women more masculine. On Saturday, historian Dominic Sandbrook described how in the Seventies feminists helped to reverse the traditional concepts of gender. In the final part of his series, he argues that it was not the Swinging Sixties but the decade after that witnessed the REAL sexual revolution…
We still love to recall the pleasures of the Swinging Sixties, and in the public memory, they are indelibly stamped as the decade of the sexual revolution — a watershed era of freedom that changed society forever.
But this stereotype of the permissive, self-indulgent Sixties is enormously misleading.
In reality, it was a time when, by and large, the great majority of the British population remained remarkably conservative in attitude and in behaviour.
Most teenage boys not only expected their bride to be a virgin, but agreed that a boy should marry a girl if he got her pregnant.
Surveys showed that these youngsters generally led lives of remarkable chastity, with more than two-thirds of boys and three-quarters of girls still virgins.
By the end of the so-called ‘swinging’ decade, only one in ten people was even vaguely promiscuous.
But step over into the Seventies and the brakes come off. The key to all this is the Pill.
It first went on trial in 1960 but had little impact. Nine years later, only four per cent of the nation’s single women were taking it, not least because it was hard to get hold of and only a handful of private clinics would prescribe it for the unmarried.
Then, in 1970, under pressure from the Government, the Family Planning Association instructed its hundreds of clinics to make it available to single women. This was the landmark moment.
New freedoms: The Seventies were the years of explicit advertising and society’s sexual awakening
Within three years, surveys showed that 65 percent of young women had taken it, and this rose to 74 percent two years later. By the end of the Eighties, the figure was 90 percent.
The historic bond between sex and childbirth was broken.
From that point onwards, there was no going back.
Ironically, the crucial point we should remember about this sexual revolution was that it made sex not more but less important.
Before the early Seventies, having sex had immense emotional, economic and symbolic weight attached to it because to sleep with another person was tantamount to choosing them as a life partner.
In the kitchen-sink plays and novels of the early Sixties, such as A Kind Of Loving and A Taste Of Honey, as in real life, having sex was literally life-changing when the girls got pregnant and an unhappy marriage was the only option.
But by the mid-Seventies books and films of the time show an entirely different world, where men and women were having sex with anyone they fancied because the availability of contraception and abortion had taken the danger out of it.
Liberated from its traditional social, ceremonial and emotional baggage and no longer seen in terms of a life-long commitment, it could increasingly be presented as the ultimate consumer luxury.
from cosmetics that promised to make girls more alluring to magazines offering tips on getting and pleasing a man. All of this hammered home the simple message — sex was no longer serious, it was fun.
A new kind of sex manual appeared, emphasising pleasure rather than procreation, gratification rather than reproduction. The most famous of these, The Joy Of Sex, published in 1972 by the London-based obstetrician, anarchist and poet Alex Comfort, was modelled on a cookery book. Its sub-title was A Gourmet Guide and the section titles were Starters, Main Courses and so on.
It sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Britain and spent a stunning 70 weeks in the American bestseller list between 1972 and 1974.
But there is little doubt that in the course of one generation, sexual behaviour and attitudes underwent a tremendous change. Sex was no longer a private expression of intimacy between husband and wife but the ultimate form of recreation.
Accordingly, just as contemporary travel guides opened readers’ eyes to the pleasures of Mediterranean holidays, so magazines such as Cosmopolitan advised its readers to set their standards ever higher, urging them to more and better orgasms with a bewildering variety of partners and positions.
In this context, the idea of remaining chaste until your wedding day seemed downright bizarre. The days when nice girls said no seemed to be long gone
Of course, not all women fell into bed on their first date. A survey published in 1976 reported that only 60 out of the 376 young adults interviewed were genuinely promiscuous. Yet most girls were apparently losing their virginity younger — between the ages of 17 and 20, a full two years earlier than the generation of the Fifties.
Perhaps more importantly, by the mid-Seventies, the majority of young women were doing so before they were married.
As late as 1963 two-thirds of the population said they believed sex before marriage was immoral. By 1973 just one in ten did, and by the end of the decade pre-marital chastity had almost died out.
In the late Eighties, fewer than one in 100 women was a virgin on her wedding day — an extraordinary transformation from the two-thirds of the late Sixties.
Perceptive observers, however, recognised that sexual self-indulgence did not come without a cost.
by the mid-Seventies it was already clear that the sexual revolution had a darker side.
This was epitomised in Malcolm Bradbury’s 1975 novel The History Man, in which, as a lecherous and unprincipled academic was seducing a colleague at a debauched party, his despairing and betrayed wife was slashing her wrists.
Indeed, for all the talk about sex as emancipation, in many cases it was sexual predators who were liberated, freed from all constraint to play on the insecurity and vulnerability of others.
Women, wrote one commentator, were so brainwashed by the desire not to appear repressed and old-fashioned that they were frightened to say no to men, even when they were recoiling inside.
One young woman of the Seventies recalled how men she knew took the line that we’re all friends, we all sleep with each other, and it’s all fine. ‘Actually, it never was fine for us girls. But you had to pretend that it was.’
The irony is that within just a few years, many of the people who had initially welcomed the sexual revolution were lamenting that it had gone badly wrong.
A 1982 survey of young readers of 19 magazine revealed that, although 70 per cent of them had lost their virginity by the time they were 17, they felt they had come under too much pressure and had found it difficult to say no.
What you became terribly aware of in the Seventies, one woman said later, ‘was that it wasn’t free for women, it was an absolute imposition. The Pill removed your autonomy. Suddenly, you were supposed to think that it was absolutely fabulous to wave your legs in the air and get laid.
‘What did women get out of it? Lots of bad sex and lots of sexually transmitted diseases.’
For others, society’s freer attitude to sex was even more costly. Despite the Pill, there was an astonishing rise in illegitimacy. In 1964, only seven percent of children were born out of wedlock. By the end of the Seventies this percentage had almost doubled, and by the Nineties was well on its way to 40 percent.
single parents and illegitimate children were no longer ostracised as they once had been. In 1975 illegitimate children were granted inheritance rights, and in 1976 family allowances were extended to the first child in a one-parent family.
Even so, single mothers still found life hard and society highly censorious, which perhaps explains why abortion clinics saw so much trade.
the figures would go through the roof.
In 1968, there were 23,641 abortions. By 1973 the total was up to 169,362 [Now there are over 200,000 abortions in the UK every year] . Whatever the reasons and whatever the moral arguments, this was a powerful reminder that a high price was being paid for that sexual revolution.
As for society as a whole, what it got from the sexual revolution was a widespread eroticisation that persists to this day. Suddenly, in the Seventies sex was everywhere, not just in the strip clubs and sex shops of Soho, but in mainstream news reports, in cinemas, in paperback bestsellers and on the television screens.
Mainstream sitcoms joked openly about pornography. In the first episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? in 1973, Terry (James Bolam) was seen bumping into his old mate Bob (Rodney Bewes) in a seedy strip club. Ten years before such a scene would have been unthinkable at prime time on BBC1; now it was nothing remarkable.
The blatant smut of Benny Hill’s television spectaculars, with their cast of nubile young women in suspenders, also represented something new on television that many middle-class families had never seen before.
Here was what one cultural critic called the spread of ‘permissive populism’, the trickle-down of permissiveness into everyday life. In fashion, men’s trousers were bulgingly tight, while young women revealed great expanses of cleavage or thigh. In advertising, there was a much heavier emphasis on sexual suggestiveness.
Nowhere was sacrosanct. In Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, which began to appear in 1975, sex, pornography and general seediness were inevitably discovered beneath the veneer of Oxford gentility. Suddenly, the world of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple seemed like ancient history.
The outpouring of X-rated filth that followed claimed at least one victim. The official film censor, John Trevelyan, could take no more and gave up his job. ‘I am simply sickened’, he said, ‘by having to put in days filled from dawn till dusk with the sight and sound of human copulation.’
And that was before Ken Russell’s The Devils, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange caused further outrage with their vivid portrayals of sex and violence.
Possibly more insidious than even these were the so-called sex comedies,
Many ran in provincial cinemas for months on end. With their world of perky, carefree housewives and lecherous young men, of suburban sex romps and ever-available dolly birds, they were said to tap a rich seam of bawdy vulgarity in British working-class humour, from seaside postcards to the Carry On films.
But the truth is that just 15 or even ten years earlier, a mainstream film with such explicit sexual content would have been simply unthinkable.
the BBC made no apology for scenes of female nudity and utter sexual debauchery in the likes of I, Claudius (1976).
In the same year, ITV showed A Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, the story of incestuous passions and a taste for sado-masochism tearing a family apart (recently reprised in a new version). By the end, as the critic Clive James put it at the time, ‘everybody had been to bed with everybody else except the baby’.
plenty of people thought it the supreme symbol of Britain’s ethical degeneration, ‘the final desecration and commercialisation of sex, a manifestation of decay, a canker at the heart of respectability’, as one commentator put it.
A sense developed that cultural change and sexual frankness had gone too far.
Campaigners for ‘decency’ worried about the ‘suffering and social damage which is the direct consequence of an increasingly irresponsible attitude to sex, encouraged by an unholy alliance of commercial sex-exploiters and “progressive” protagonists of sexual anarchy’.
Yet, though there was disquiet, time after time juries chose to acquit those put on trial for corrupting public morals.
In a 1974 case, a cameraman was accused of making 29 indecent films which, according to the prosecution, showed ‘sex in the nastiest, rawest fashion, bestial and perverted, without any question of love or tenderness’.
The judge reminded the jury what had happened in the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet the cameraman was found not guilty.
So were a couple accused of running a magazine in which rape played a central role. As the triumphant couple left the court, one of the female jurors cheerfully remarked: ‘It’s a lot of old rubbish, isn’t it, my duck?’ — as if it was all just a bit of a lark.
Such moral confusion was widespread, as the advice columns of just one issue of Woman’s Own from January 1975 showed.
One woman kept her teenage daughter at home, frightened that meeting boys would lead to venereal disease, pregnancy and abortion; another wrote that she was happy for her 15-year-old daughter to go on the Pill.
There were no longer any binding rules, no agreed moral consensus around which people could instinctively rally. That was the real legacy of the Seventies.