When we talk about sexual liberation, what are we really talking about? For most people, these two words bring up images of women burning their bras during mass demonstrations, the Summer of Love and Haight-Ashbury, and a general sense of a sexual free-for-all that had previously been unknown. However you define it, sexual liberation was an important, cultural-shifting social movement that took place during the twenty-year period between the 1960s and the 1980s, and forever changed the way sexuality, especially women’s sexuality, was viewed.
For women, sexual liberation is all about empowerment.
A sexually liberated woman has free agency over her body, her pleasure, her choice in partners, and how she wishes to live her sexual relationships—exclusive, non-exclusive, etc. Let’s meet some women whose sexual awakening came at this pivotal time of sexual liberation.
Sally was 23 and living in San Francisco when the culture shifted
“I had grown up in a household that was suburban – traditional,” she tells us. “My mom stayed at home raising my brothers and myself, and my dad worked. There was little talk about sex and no talk about sexual pleasure. It was assumed I would stay a virgin until I married. And I was a virgin all through college.
After my studies, I moved to San Francisco and hit it right at that critical Summer of Love time. Our motto? “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” There was a plethora of drugs circulating, a new form of music coming on the scene, and we were all dressing in Mary Quant and tie-dye.
With all that of course was this idea of free love. We had access to birth control and the fear of pregnancy had been taken out of the equation.
So we slept with whomever we wanted, when we wanted to, with or without a commitment from the guy. It really was a sexual liberation for me…and I’m so lucky I got to live that. It shaped the way I view sex and sexual pleasure for the rest of my life.”
Fawn was 19 at the time, and she echoes what Sally expresses
“I consider myself fortunate to have come of age during a time of sexual liberation. Gone were the labels like “slut” or “easy girl” or all the other monikers that people used pejoratively towards women who asserted their sexual desires.
We were not only free to enjoy sex, but we were free from the shame that accompanied sexual enjoyment, shame I think our mothers had.
Sexual liberation also meant we could have numerous partners without worrying about being perceived as being a slut. Everyone had a variety of partners, it was part of the culture. In fact, if you wanted to be monogamous (which was more my tendency), people called you “uptight” or “possessive”.
I’m actually glad things kind of settled down in the 80s, and there was a return to monogamy, especially once AIDS came on the scene because this was my natural state.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I loved the feeling of empowerment the sexual liberation movement gave me, but in the end, I was really a one-man kind of woman. Still, I had the choice, and that was good.”
Marc, 50, is a historian whose work focuses on the era of sexual liberation
He educates us: “The main drive behind sexual liberation was the improvement and more widespread availability of birth control. My sense is without this, sexual liberation would be impossible. Think about it. If women had never had access to The Pill, sex probably would have remained reserved for married couples, who had in place a structure to raise all those children born because there was no reliable method of contraception.
With the advent of The Pill came freedom to have sex for pleasure’s sake, and not just for procreation. This was a whole new ballgame for women, who until the sexual liberation movement, did not really have the freedom, as men did, to enjoy sex with little or no fear of pregnancy.
From there, women understood that they were the drivers of their sexuality, their pleasure, and how they could use sex to express themselves and connect with the world around them. What a shift for them!
Are we better off for it?
Yes, in many senses we are. Sex and pleasure are important parts of life. Put it this way. Before the sexual revolution, women had a need to get in touch with their sexuality but no way to do so except in the context of marriage. That was truly limiting for them.
But after the sexual revolution, they were liberated and could now experience what it means to have agency in all areas of their lives, sexual and non-sexual.”
Rhonda has a less-favorable view of sexual liberation
“Listen, I lived through this period when it was in full swing. And I can tell you one thing: the true beneficiaries of sexual liberation were not the females. It was the males. Suddenly they could have sex when they wanted, with a variety of partners, with zero commitment and zero consequences.
But guess what?
For all their “liberated” talk, women have always been the same: they want commitment. They want to have sex with a loving partner, one with whom they are in a relationship. You see all these media images of Woodstock and the men and women having sex everywhere with anyone, but really, the most sexually-liberated of us wanted to settle down with one good guy at the end of the day and just have really good sex with him.
Oh, the men were overjoyed with this free market of sex. But the women? I can’t think of one of them who would today want to relive their days of sexual liberation.”