The flip side of the sexual revolution
The sexual revolution of the swinging 60s kick-started by the
arrival of the pill seems glamorous, exciting and seductive when
depicted in hit TV shows such as Mad Men. But, argues Virginia
Ironside, there was a bleaker side to such freedom
By Virginia Ironside
15th January 2011
Whenever I reveal I was young in the 1960s, people's eyes grow round
with envy. 'Lucky you!' they say. Then they add, saucily: 'But of
course they say that if you can remember the 60s you weren't there!'
Well, I was there and I can, unfortunately, remember the 60s all too
well. And although I've no doubt it was a fantastic or 'fab' as we
used to say time for men, for women (or young girls as we were
then) it was absolutely grisly.
Because when it came to sex, we were, of course, the trailblazers for
a completely new attitude, and blazing trails is always horribly
uncomfortable. We were the ones with the hacksaws and dust masks,
clearing our way through the sexual undergrowth, getting covered with
scratches and gashes and slipping into invisible swamps. It's the
people who follow afterwards who have the easier time, sauntering
along the trodden path, picking roses along the way. Young people today.
It's difficult to understand sex in the 60s without understanding
what life was like before the 60s. In the 50s, sex was completely
taboo. At Woman magazine, where I worked a decade later, the
journalists weren't ever allowed to use the word 'bottom' not even
in 'bottom of the garden' or 'bottom of the saucepan'. They couldn't
print the word 'menstruation', and if a reader wanted to know
anything about sex she had to write in to the agony aunt who might
suggest she wrote in again enclosing a stamped addressed plain brown
envelope into which, but only if you were married of course, she
would insert a leaflet explaining the Facts of Life.
My parents, who presumably had sex in order to have me, were totally
reticent about sex. They rarely, if ever, hugged in front of me, and
if ever the subject did come up they zipped their mouths. It's true,
my mother did thrust a booklet into my hands when I was about 12
which started: 'The body is built of little bricks, called cells.'
There was a brief page on reproduction which referred to seeds
which I'd only ever seen in small paper packets named Carters and
that was about it.
If you can imagine emerging from this repressed background into the
swinging 60s, equipped with a contraceptive pill that had only
recently become the hugely popular and completely reliable form of
birth control, you can also imagine how ill-prepared we all were for
what was to follow.
True, we'd been brought up to say 'no' to sex, but the only reason
for that was because we might get pregnant. And if we'd got pregnant
then of course we might have been thrown out of our parents' home, or
forced to give the baby up for adoption. Before the law changed in
1967 there were abortionists around, but they were illegal, and you
couldn't go to one without paying a lot of money in used notes to a
dodgy doctor off Harley Street.
But now, armed with the pill, and with every man knowing you were
armed with the pill, pregnancy was no longer a reason to say 'no' to
sex. And men exploited this mercilessly. Now, for them, 'no' always
It's worth remembering, too, that feminists at that time were not
even a glimmer in their father's eyes. We had been brought up to
kowtow to men, to defer to their wishes, to listen wide-eyed to their
views. We hadn't been brought up to insist on paying our way, or
getting home on our own, or taking control of our own evenings and
sleeping where and with whom we wished.
To be honest, I mainly remember the 60s as an endless round of
miserable promiscuity, a time when often it seemed easier and,
believe it or not, more polite, to sleep with a man than to chuck him
out of your flat. I recall a complete stranger once slipping into bed
beside me when I was staying in an all-male household in Oxford, and
feeling so baffled about what the right thing was to do that I let
him have sex with me; I remember being got drunk by a grossly fat
tabloid newspaper journalist and taken back to a flat belonging to a
friend of his to which he had a key, being subjected to what would
now be described as rape, and still thinking it was my fault for
accepting so much wine. I remember going out to dinner with a young
lawyer who inveigled me back to his flat saying he'd got to pick
something up before he could take me home, and then suggested we have
sex. 'Oh no,' I said feebly. 'I'm too tired.' 'Oh, go on,' he
replied. 'It'll only take a couple of minutes.' So I did.
In my teens, I lived with my father my mother had left home by
then. He did his best to be a good dad, but he, like most parents,
had no experience of bringing up a young girl emerging into a social
revolution. A woman friend of his had advised him to suggest that I
go to a doctor to get 'fixed up' and to always let him know by phone
if I wasn't going to be home for breakfast. I took his advice. But
there were no limits set, no mention of sex and love being remotely connected.
To make things worse, there were two added factors that made
promiscuity so difficult to avoid. Firstly, there was very little
awareness of sexually transmitted diseases HIV wasn't yet an issue
and very few men, now that the pill was on the scene, had any clue
about how to put on a condom. Again, there was even less reason to
say 'no' to sex, and the result was that lots of us girls spent the
entire 60s in tears, because however one tried to separate sex from
love, we'd been brought up to associate the two; so every time we
went to bed with someone, we'd hope it would lead to something more
permanent…and each time it never did.
The other reason that sex was so grim was that now it was so easy,
the art of seduction had flown out of the window. I'm sure this was
partly why working-class men became so much more attractive to
everyone in the 60s. They'd always found, with less birth control
available among the working classes and expensive abortion not an
option, that in order to get a girl into bed they had to work really
hard at the chat-up lines. But as for men considering women's
feelings why should they?
They continued to satisfy their own needs and never for a moment
considered whether the women they were having sex with found it
pleasurable or satisfying. Most of us girls, at least those on the
London rock scene as I was, didn't have a clue as to what sex could
be like when it was good. When we weren't crying, we'd giggle, like
the schoolgirls we were, about our exploits, without realising how
damaging our sexual behaviour was both to our self-esteem and our souls.
Not every girl behaved quite as I did, but most came under the same
kinds of pressures and few can have missed out on the occasional
bleak and ghastly 'one-night stand', a phrase that simply didn't
exist for my parents' generation.
After a decade of sleeping around pretty indiscriminately, girls of
the 60s eventually became fairly jaded about sex. It took me years to
discover that continual sex with different partners is, with very few
exceptions, joyless, uncomfortable and humiliating, and it's only now
I'm older that I've discovered that one of the ingredients of a good
sex life is, at the very least, a grain of affection between the two
Would I go back to the swinging 60s? Never!