By A N Wilson
PUBLISHED: 23:24, 4 January 2013 | UPDATED: 19:03, 7 January 2013
Humorous: In the view of poet Philip Larkin, the Sexual Revolution started 50 years ago
The Sexual Revolution started 50 years ago. At least, that was the view of the poet Philip Larkin, who wrote:
‘Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three. Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.’
Probably when today’s students read this poem, they understand the reference to the Beatles first LP, but need a bit of help with ‘the Chatterley ban’. D.H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, had been banned for obscenity, and all the liberal-minded ‘great and the good’ — novelists, professors of literature, an Anglican bishop and sociologists — trooped to the Old Bailey to explain to a learned judge why Penguin Books should be allowed to publish it. To my mind, Lawrence’s account of how a sex-starved rich woman romps naked in the woods with her husband’s gamekeeper is risible. It is hard to read the accounts of them cavorting in the rain, and sticking wild flowers in one another’s pubic hair, without laughing.
Yet the great English Literature professors of the Fifties and Sixties spoke of Lady C in the same breath as the most wonderful writings of the world, and the Chatterley trial in 1960 marked a major watershed. The prosecuting counsel, Mr Mervyn Griffith-Jones, lost the case when he shot himself in the foot by asking the jury whether they considered Lawrence’s bizarre novel was something they would wish their wives or servants to read. By putting the question in that way and referring to ‘servants’, he seemed to suggest that being loyal to one partner was as outmoded as having a butler and a parlour-maid.
With the ban lifted, Lawrence’s book became the best-selling novel of the early Sixties. And by the end of the decade, hippies with flowers in their hair, or would-be hippies, were practising free love Chatterley-style. Those who could not classify themselves as hippies looked on a bit wistfully. Of course, Larkin — born in 1922 — was being ironical and humorous. But the 1960s were a turning-point, and the decade did undoubtedly herald the Sexual Revolution.
I was born in 1950, 28 years after Larkin. And far from being ‘rather late for me’, the revolutionary doctrines of the Sixties were all readily adopted by me and countless others. From being schoolboys who read Lady Chatterley under the sheets, to teenagers and young men who had the Rolling Stones reverberating in our ears, we had no intention of being stuffy like our parents. The arrival of a contraceptive pill for women in 1961 appeared to signal the beginning of guilt-free, pregnancy-free sex. We were saying goodbye to what Larkin (in that poem) called ‘A shame that started at sixteen / And spread to everything.’
The Sixties: Teenagers and young men who had the Rolling Stones (pictured in 1964) reverberating in their ears had no intention of being stuffy like their parents
But if the propagators of the Sexual Revolution had been able to fast-forward 50 years, what would they have expected to see? Surely not the shocking statistics about today’s sexual habits in the UK which are available for all to study. In 2011, there were 189,931 abortions carried out, a small rise on the previous year, and about seven per cent more than a decade ago. Ninety-six per cent of these abortions were funded by the NHS, i.e. by you and me, the taxpayer. One per cent of these were performed because the would-be parents feared the child would be born handicapped in some way. Forty-seven per cent were so-called medical abortions, carried out because the health of mother and child were at risk. The term ‘medical abortion’ is very widely applied and covers the psychological ‘health’ of the patient. But even if you concede that a little less than half the abortions had some medical justification, this still tells us that more than 90,000 foetuses are aborted every year in this country simply as a means of lazy ‘birth control’. Ninety thousand human lives are thrown away because their births are considered too expensive or in some other way inconvenient.
Lazy: When women neglected to take the Pill, there seemed all the more reason to use abortion as a form of birth control
The Pill, far from reducing the numbers of unwanted pregnancies, actually led to more. When women neglected to take the Pill, there seemed all the more reason to use abortion as a form of birth control. Despite the fact that, in the wake of the Aids crisis, people were urged to use condoms and to indulge in safe-sex, the message did not appear to get through. In the past few years, sexually transmitted diseases among young people have hugely increased, with more and more young people contracting chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and other diseases, many of them unaware they were infected until after they had been sexually active with a number of partners.
The divorce statistics tell another miserable story. About one third of marriages in Britain end in divorce. And because many couples do not marry at all before splitting up, the number of broken homes is even greater. This time of year is when the painfulness of family break-up is felt most acutely. January 3 has been nicknamed ‘divorce day’ by lawyers. In a moving article in the Mail recently, Lowri Turner, a twice-divorced mother of three children, wrote about the pain of waking up on Christmas morning without her children. She looks at the presents under the tree, with no children to open them, and thinks: ‘This isn’t the way things are supposed to be.’
Every parent who has been through the often self-inflicted hell of divorce will know what she means. So will the thousands of children this Christmas who spent the day with only one parent — and often with that parent’s new ‘partner’ whom they hate. I hold up my hands. I have been divorced. Although I was labelled a Young Fogey in my youth, I imbibed all the liberationist sexual mores of the Sixties as far as sexual morality was concerned.
I made myself and dozens of people extremely unhappy — including, of course, my children and other people’s children. I am absolutely certain that my parents, by contrast, who married in 1939 and stayed together for more than 40 years until my father died, never strayed from the marriage bed. There were long periods when they found marriage extremely tough, but having lived through years of aching irritation and frustration, they grew to be Darby and Joan, deeply dependent upon one another in old age, and in an imperfect but recognisable way, an object lesson in the meaning of the word ‘love’.
Happiness: The GfK’s most recent poll shows most of us feel that what will make us very happy is having a long-lasting, stable relationship, having children, and maintaining, if possible, lifelong marriage.
Back in the Fifties, GfK National Opinon Poll conducted a survey asking how happy people felt on a sliding scale — from very happy to very unhappy. In 1957, 52 per cent said they were ‘very happy’. By 2005, the same set of questions found only 36 per cent were ‘very happy’, and the figures are falling. More than half of those questioned in the GfK’s most recent survey said that it was a stable relationship which made them happy. Half those who were married said they were ‘very happy’, compared with only a quarter of singles.
The truth is that the Sexual Revolution had the power to alter our way of life, but it could not alter our essential nature; it could not alter the reality of who and what we are as human beings. It made nearly everyone feel that they were free, or free-er, than their parents had been — free to smoke pot, free to sleep around, free to pursue the passing dream of what felt, at the time, like overwhelming love — an emotion which very seldom lasts, and a word which is meaningless unless its definition includes commitment. How easy it was to dismiss old-fashioned sexual morality as ‘suburban’, as a prison for the human soul. How easy it was to laugh at the ‘prudes’ who questioned the wisdom of what was happening in the Sexual Revolution.
About one-third of marriages in Britain end in divorce
Yet, as the opinion poll shows, most of us feel at a very deep level that what will make us very happy is not romping with a succession of lovers. In fact, it is having a long-lasting, stable relationship, having children, and maintaining, if possible, lifelong marriage.
An amusing Victorian historian, John Seeley, said the British Empire had been acquired in ‘a fit of absence of mind’. He meant that no one sat down and planned for the British to take over large parts of Asia and Africa: it was more a case of one thing leading to another. In many ways, the Sexual Revolution of the Sixties and Seventies in Britain was a bit like this. People became more prosperous. People were living longer. The old-fashioned concept of staying in the same marriage and the same job all your life suddenly seemed so, so boring. But in the Forties and Fifties, divorce had not been an option for most people because it was so very expensive, in terms of economic as well as emotional cost. So people slogged through their unhappy phases and came out at the other end.
It is easy to see, then, if the tempting option of escaping a boring marriage was presented, that so many people were prone to take the adventurous chance of a new partner, a new way of life. But the Sexual Revolution was not, of course, all accidental. Not a bit of it. Many of the most influential opinion-formers of the age were doing their best to undermine all traditional morality, and especially the traditional morality of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which has always taught that marriage is for life.
A decade on from the Chatterley trial, in 1971, an ‘alternative’ magazine called Oz, written by the Australian Richard Neville and his mates, was had up, not for obscenity, but for ‘conspiracy to debauch and corrupt the morals of children’. What brought the authors into trouble was ‘The School Kids’ Issue’, which depicted Rupert Bear in a state of arousal, and which carried many obscene adverts. The three perpetrators of the filth were sent to prison, but the sentence was quashed on appeal.
The ‘alternative’ magazine called Oz, written by the Australian Richard Neville (pictured) and his mates, was had up for ‘conspiracy to debauch and corrupt the morals of children. Their defender was none other than dear old Mr Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer QC — warming to the role of the nation’s teddy bear. He said that if you were a ‘writer’, you should be allowed to describe any activity, however depraved. Obscenity could not be defined or identified. And it was positively good for us to be outraged from time to time. Even the Left-leaning liberal Noel Annan, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, suggested this was nonsense. He remarked that it was impossible to think of any civilisation in history that fitted Mortimer’s propositions. But when the Oz Three were released from prison, the Chattering Classes all rejoiced.
Of course, this was the era when the BBC was turning a blind eye to the predatory activities of Jimmy Savile, and when the entire artistic and academic establishment was swayed by the ideas which John Mortimer presented to the Court of Appeal: namely that old-fashioned ideas of sexual morality were dead. Moribund. Over. From now on, anything goes — and it was ‘repressive’ to teach children otherwise.
The wackier clerics of the Church of England, the pundits of the BBC, the groovier representatives of the educational establishment, the liberal Press, have all, since the Sexual Revolution began, gone along with the notion that a relaxation of sexual morality will lead to a more enlightened and happy society. This was despite the fact that all the evidence around us demonstrates that the exact opposite is the case.
In the Fifties, the era when people were supposedly ‘repressed’, we were actually much happier than we have been more recently — in an era when confused young people have been invited to make up their own sexual morals as they went along. The old American cliché is that you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube; and it is usually a metaphor used to suggest that it is impossible to turn the clock back in matters of public behaviour and morality. Actually, you know, I think that is wrong.
One of the brilliantly funny things about the TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous was that the drunken, chain-smoking, sexually promiscuous old harridans Edina Monsoon (played by Jennifer Saunders) and her friend Patsy (Joanna Lumley) are despised by the puritanical Saffy — Eddie’s daughter.
The TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous featured the drunken, chain-smoking, sexually promiscuous old harridans Edina Monsoon (played by Jennifer Saunders, left) and her friend Patsy (Joanna Lumley)
A small backlash has already definitely occurred against that generation. I have not conducted a scientific survey, but my impression, based on anecdotal evidence and the lives of the children of my contemporaries, is that they are far less badly behaved, and far more sensible, than we were.My guess is that the backlash will be even greater in the wake of the whole Jimmy Savile affair, and in reaction against the miserable world which my generation has handed on to our children — with our confused sexual morality, and our broken homes.
Our generation, who started to grow up ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP’ got it all so horribly wrong.We ignored the obvious fact that moral conventions develop in human societies for a reason.We may have thought it was ‘hypocritical’ to condemn any form of sexual behaviour, and we may have dismissed the undoubted happiness felt by married people as stuffy, repressed and old hat.
But we were wrong, wrong, wrong. Two generations have grown up — comprising children of selfish grown-ups who put their own momentary emotional needs and impulses before family stability and the needs of their children. However, I don’t think this behaviour can last much longer. The price we all pay for the fragmentation of society, caused by the break-up of so many homes, will surely lead to a massive rethink. At least, let’s hope so.
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