Bunúis na réabhlóide, 3/5

The swinging Sixties didn't just swing on the dance floor. This was the decade of sexual liberation.

English poet, Philip Larkin, commemorated its advent in a famous verse he composed in 1967. 

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.[1] 

Irish politician, Oliver J. Flanagan, agreed about the timing (kind of), but framed his reflections in more prosaic language. In March 1971, during a heated debate on The Late Late Show, Flanagan claimed that “there was no sex in Ireland before television”.[2] 

Of course neither man was being literal. It wasn’t that people didn’t engage in sexual activity prior to 1960. In their different ways what Larkin and Flanagan were highlighting was a significant shift in public attitudes towards sex, which they subsequently associated with the early years of the decade. 

Yes, the Chatterley case, pop music, and television, probably helped fuel the relaxing of societal views of sex. But there were other factors, like new and better treatments for syphilis, the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour, and growing secularism in the western world. Yet, while all these were important, one development more than any other made the Sixties the era of “free love”. According to novelist Fay Weldon: 

It was the beginning of the separating out of babies from sex… The pill made an enormous difference to women quite quickly.[3] 

Thanks to the contraceptive pill, sex was no longer about procreation - it could be enjoyed in its own right by anyone, married or single. At least this was the dream of its progenitor, birth-control activist Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). In the early-1950s Sanger had a fateful encounter with a biologist named Gregory Pincus (1903-1967). 

The topic of their conversation?

nothing less than a revolution. No guns or bombs would be involved - only sex, the more the better. Sex without marriage. Sex without children. Sex redesigned, re-engineered, made safe, made limitless, for the pleasure of women.[4] 

One critic described the outcome of the Sanger/Pincus alliance as “the most important development in history since the exile of Adam and Eve”.[5]  In the USA, Britain, and a few other countries, an oral contraceptive to prevent pregnancy was made available to the public in 1961. 

While some women welcomed the freedom the pill gave them, others saw it differently. By putting women at the mercy of a medical/pharmaceutical system run mainly by men, the pill was deplored in radical feminist circles as a buttress to patriarchal control, and criticised for the many possible side effects that could endanger the health and wellbeing of its users.[6] 

But pill or no pill, some fundamentals did not change. 

While commitment-free sex remained high on men’s agenda, women still just wanted love. Now, however, it was more difficult for a woman to resist male sexual desire by invoking the prospect of pregnancy for her and fatherhood for the man. 

The sexual act often became debased. As Gerard de Groot observed:

The generation that convinced itself that “all you need is love” somehow managed to trivialize love’s most transcendent expression.[7] 

De Groot illustrated his point by describing an incident that occurred in 1969 during a “hippie happening” in New York’s Central Park. A young girl dancing in the rain was set upon and raped by a dozen young men while hundreds looked on.

As she staggered around dazed and muddy, all she wore was a four-letter word painted on her forehead: ‘Love’.[8] 

Yet most of those involved viewed what happened, not as a heinous assault, but as “a harmless example of sexual exuberance”.[9]  

The oral contraceptive pill remained illegal in Ireland until 1980. So while Irish women remained “safe” from the mixed blessings of the sexual revolution, they had to contend with other, more traditional, forms of repression.

[1] “Annus mirabilis”, in Philip Larkin, High Windows (London, 1974). In Nov. 1960 a legal challenge to the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was defeated at the Old Bailey in London. The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me, was released on 22 Mar 1963. 

[2] Fergal Tobin, The best of decades: Ireland in the 1960s (Dublin, 1984), p. 66. Telefís Éireann, Ireland’s first indigenous television station, was launched on 31 Dec. 1961.

[3] The Guardian, 27 Apr 2013.

[4] Jonathan Eig, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Pioneers Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (New York, 2014), p. 6.

[5] Ibid., p. 309.

[6] Arthur Marwick, The Sixties (Oxford, 1998), pp 700-01.

[7] Gerard de Groot, The Sixties Unplugged: A kaleidoscopic history of a disorderly decade (Basingstoke, 2008), p. 215.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

< Cuid 2                                                                                                                                          Cuid 4 >