Sexuality and Modernity
The Sexual Revolution of the 60s

John & Yoko 32
"Bed in for peace"

There has been significant shifts in social attitudes, behaviours and institutional regulations surrounding sexuality since Freud opened the door to the bedroom. Sexuality throughout the 20th century has moved closer to the centre of public debate than ever before. One hundred years ago the idea of sexual politics would have been unthinkable. For many in the lecture today the 1960s which unleashed the so called sexual revolution seems more a source of comic relief and tragic nostalgic recirculation than political inspiration. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s the combination of student protests, counter culture movements and medically prescribed contraceptives ushered in a decisive break with the preceding values which prescribed confinement of women’s sexual pleasure within the suburban walls of heterosexual marriage and the regulation of man’s sexuality in the public. D.H Lawrence may have shocked an earlier generation with Lady Chatterley’s extramarital sexual independence, but it was not until the 1970s that women’s sexuality outside marriage became widely accepted.

The predominantly young who became involved with the peace movement and co-operative counter cultures which flourished particularly between 1967-72 took sexual liberation and sexual freedom as cental to its politics.

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Championed writers of the so called "new left" such as Herbert Marcuse & William Riech fused Marxism and Psychoanalysis to forge a revolutionary sexual radicalism which argued that capitalism sexually repressed the masses in the interests of its life negating and exploitative goals. Capitalism demanded self-restraint and compulsive work, both it was argued were contrary to any liberated and spontaneous sexual expression. Sexual libido had been colonised and brought into the service of capitalism’s nexus of production and consumption. The bourgeoisie a century earlier had forged an identity around the confinement of sexuality within the private domain of the heterosexual family. The anti-authoritarian and revolutionary movements of the 1960s saw the reproductive suburban family along with its morality of self restraint, hard work and moral puritanism as an expression of class domination. Sexual freedom was tied to revolutionary outcomes. 35 The so called "permissive" or "swinging sixties" has become a metaphor for contemporary social conflict. For progressives it is heralded as a time of revolutionary ferment which ushered in much needed social change, ushering in the civil rights movements, decolonisation, women’s liberation, gay & lesbian liberation, green and peace movements. For conservatives it has become a scapegoat to blame many contemporary problems upon. Issues such as pornography, marriage breakdowns, single parent families, welfare state dependancy, drugs and youth crime are all seen as having their origins in the "permissiveness" of the sixties. For the generation after the sixties, the love children of the baby boomers, it is often seen as a failed project which sustains their parents romanticisation of their youth prior to selling out.

To summarise the nineteen sixties sexual revolution and its consequences...

  • Sexuality became political, emerging as an axis around which new social movements organised.
  • Shifts in the relations between women and men, particularly those inspired by the emergent women’s liberation movements. This parallels women’s increased presence in the public realm and personal autonomy concerning reproductive choices and sexual expression.
  • The political mobilisation of the gay & lesbian movements.
  • A destabilising of the rigid boundary between the private family and the individualistic orientated public realm.
  • Reforms in the legal and medical regulation of sexuality.
  • The increased commercialisation and commodification of sexuality through pornography and mass media. The concomitant relaxation of censorship laws.


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