“Free love” of the 1960s fueled the sexual revolution, which liberated many women but failed to end violence and inequality. #MeToo is a needed next stage.


The author and her sister at a march in 1979 in favor of abortion rights
(photo by Roy Cuckow )

This article is part of a series by our correspondents and guest writers reflecting on the 1960s — a decade of political and social convulsions around the globe — and on the Vietnam War, a Cold War battleground that left an indelible mark on U.S. politics and an entire generation of Americans who came of age in that era. Our hope is that today’s younger generations can learn from their elders’ experiences.

When California hippies were floating on cloud nine during the Summer of Love in 1967, I was just 12 years old. I’m pretty sure I had not yet heard of the sexual revolution.

But TV images of music festivals with gentle people wearing flowers in their hair spoke to a generation and made a girl dream of a different future.

In the 1960s, women were still defined as wives and mothers, and this was what girls were encouraged to aspire to. My own mother had to leave her teaching job with her first pregnancy in 1954 and returned to work three children later, coincidentally just after that heady summer.

Going back to work with a family was unusual at the time and not universally approved of.  A schoolfriend’s mother tut-tutted that she, at least, fulfilled her maternal role properly. There was no sexual revolution yet in our part of provincial England, even though it had given the world The Beatles and The Hollies.

Although the notion of “free love” shocked a rigid society, the sexual revolution was still embryonic in the 1960s.

In some of North America and Western Europe, at least, the Pill was authorized for use as a contraceptive from 1960. But sexual mores remained intact: the Pill was officially limited to married women, even if singles could get it to alleviate menstruation pain.

Something new was afoot.

The critical decade was the 1970s. Contraception became freely available, and laws on abortion and divorce were liberalized in many Western countries. Also in the 1970s, sex discrimination was outlawed, and the principle of equal pay was enacted.

These reforms brought droves of women into the labor force in a booming economy that needed more workers, particularly in service industries. Some argue the changes were motivated only by economic and capitalistic logic, not women’s rights.

While there is truth in that, something new was also afoot, and it birthed a critique of society from a female point of view.

As I remember it, the Women’s Liberation Movement emerged from dissatisfaction with 1960s counter-culture. “Free love” questioned the prudery and double standards of women always having to say no to sex, but replaced it with pressure to always be willing.

I believe this flaw has led us to #MeToo.

The movement was an unstructured, informal collection of small groups of women only, and this allowed many previously taboo issues to surface. A personal example that has stayed with me came out of one meeting of the women’s group I went to as a student at the London School of Economics in the mid-1970s.

There were six women in the room, all aged barely 20, and it emerged that half of us had been raped. That’s a tiny sample but a high percentage. And it was not compatible with flowers, caftans, the Pill, peace and love.

Violence against women is alive and well.

This kind of awakening to the harsher side of women’s lives was happening across the Western world. It led to campaigns that threw out old assumptions and reclaimed control of women’s bodies.

On abortion, we said: “Our bodies are our own” and “A woman’s right to choose.” On rape, we said: “Reclaim the night – women walk without fear.” Sexuality was no longer taboo. Women objected to being treated as sex objects. The personal became political.

All of that was truly revolutionary. But this, the kernel of women’s liberation, is proving to be the most elusive part of the sexual revolution – which is in any case a work in progress.

We are told nowadays that women have it all and their rise has left men and boys without a role. Even so, the number of female heads of state or captains of industry is still a drop in the ocean of humanity.

Women still do not have equal pay in practice or proper representation in the bodies of government or business. They dominate in low-paid, insecure jobs and may be raising children single-handedly.

And worst of all, violence against women is alive and well.

A much-needed next stage

The signs were there early on. As we moved into a new century, a new generation of girls had grown up with an image of womanhood represented by the improbably elongated Barbie doll. They wore make-up and sexy clothes from the age of 10.

Boys had grown up with Internet porn. Concepts of “body shaming” and “plus size” arrived in an age where you can watch and be watched from any angle.

So women are now more objectified than ever. And we discover that in these circumstances, sex is anything but “free love.”

We can read online accounts of teen boys pressuring teen girls into sex acts they have seen in porn clips online. In the wake of  #MeToo, we have sickeningly detailed articles describing the abuse of blue-collar workers and major film stars.

Newspapers recount men being exonerated of gang rape (Pamplona, Belfast) or of reluctance to prosecute horrific child rapes and murders (India). That’s just in the past month or so.

The sexual revolution has bequeathed many things over two generations, but how to explain the continuing abuse and torture of women and girls?

I mentioned a flaw, and this is it. Certainly, much “free love” in the 1960s and 1970s was consensual, and also sensual. It was a liberation for both women and men, not least in making it easier to be gay or straight.

But some was taken as a due, and some was forced. Rape was (is) not new – it is as old as the hills – but perhaps the degree of entitlement was.

I would argue that this concept of entitlement, which has been used in recent years to name and explain disreputable or disrespectful treatment of women, paradoxically has its roots in the sexual revolution. #MeToo is a much-needed next stage.

(For more stories in our series about the 1960s, click here.)

Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.

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HistoryFrom the 1960s and Summer of Love to #MeToo