Let's talk about sex: Celebrating 50 years of sexual liberation

By Virginia Ironside

It took eight years for the film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to find funding and it was initially released only to limited cinemas.Photo / File
It took eight years for the film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to find funding and it was initially released only to limited cinemas.Photo / File

"Honestly, with all the fuss you're making of it, you'd have thought no one went to bed with anyone who wasn't their wife before now," grumbled an old friend of mine at the beginning of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. He was referring, of course, to Larkin's poem Annus Mirabilis:

"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."

And in a way my friend was right. You only have to read Tom Jones or Pepys' diary or look at the shenanigans going on in the 1920s to realise that widespread and raging sexual intercourse began a long time before 1963.

But the 1960s were different. Society was changing, with class distinction being turned on its head, and the Pill had arrived. Women were liberated. It was thought that now women needed have no fear of becoming pregnant, they would want to have sex just as much as men.

The only problem was that many of them couldn't cope with this sudden transition. It was a confusing time for everyone. When they said to a reluctant woman: "Come on, you know you're gagging for it," men really did imagine this was true. Sexual equality - and by that I mean equality in desire and behaviour - was almost imposed on women whether we liked it or not.

It took the women's movement in the 1970s to free us from this imposed sexual freedom. And, oddly, the liberationists' message was at once freeing and restraining. "No means No!" they proclaimed. And although they meant the phrase as empowering for women, it was ironic that it was almost exactly the same one as used by the modest girls in the 1950s, who would push men away when they'd gone "too far".

Despite this, people went on having sex like there was no tomorrow. Homosexuality was legalised. And in the 1970s, my agony-aunt postbag at Woman magazine was packed with enquiries like: "If I don't have an orgasm will I get cancer?" "Where is my G-spot?" "Do women ejaculate and if they do, why don't I?" (A far cry from the letters of the 1950s that were more likely to ask whether a reader should take her gloves off before shaking hands with a bishop.)

The next brake on the sexual revolution came, of course, from the outbreak of Aids in the 1980s. Doom-laden ads featuring mammoth gravestones warned us not to "die of ignorance". Condoms were handed out like sweets in clubs and condoms meant sex wasn't quite as fun as it used to be. If it didn't stop the sexual revolution, it at least limited the spread of the one-night stand. Temporarily.

Because it soon turned out that we weren't going to "die of ignorance". So people went on bonking. And bonking. And by now, women's liberation had meant that women were able to gets jobs, and become self-sufficient. They didn't have to use sex as some kind of lever to find a husband, as they used to. They could look at sex now in a more dispassionate way. It was more up to them whether they had sex or not. And, perhaps, some did finally find they could look at sex in the same way as men.

And some men, too, freed of the ties that made them feel they were weird or different unless they said "Phwoarr!" every time a pair of boobs on stilts passed by, found that they could be a bit more relaxed about sex, too.

No question, these days most people have many more sexual partners than they did before 1963. So where are we?

As sex becomes more part of our normal lives than something special (like the Saturday-night shag of married couples or the brief anxious-making slip-ups of the 1950s) and as we take it more for granted, isn't it becoming less important?

Love and sex are no longer inextricably combined, as they used to be. The art of seduction, which took a lot of time and energy, has all but disappeared except in countries where sex is still more repressed. There's even a website called Friends With Benefits, which, if you want to have sex, allows you to log in and find someone in your area who's also ready and willing.

There are hardly any tut-tutting noises to be heard at all. True, there are mutterings about whether gays can marry in church or not - but not whether they should be legally united at all. And, of course, there's the over-hysterical witch-hunt-like wave of anti-paedophilia that seems to have erupted from nowhere. But will these voices, too, eventually die down?

Could Philip Larkin actually have been right?

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