‘For my generation’, writes Linda Grant of the Sixties, ‘sex was a political act.’ Smashing monogamy would help smash the state by undermining its bourgeois conventions. Plus, through sexual freedom one found personal freedom, a metaphysical oneness with all creation. It was ‘physical liberation, psychic liberation, almost a tool for world peace.’
Today, in the era of Aids, such visionary hopes have gone out of style. But Grant seeks, if not to revive them, at least to subject them to respectful scrutiny. Surveying the communes, love-ins and sex reformers on both sides of the Atlantic, Sexing the Millennium provides a lively, readable journey through the Sixties and Seventies, after the mass-marketing of the Pill and before the onset of Aids, when, very briefly, we glimpsed utopia: sex disconnected from danger, freed from both pregnancy and disease.
The value of Grant’s study lies in her insistence on the seriousness of that utopian vision. Far from an exercise in ‘mindless hedonism’, the sexual revolution was impelled by ideas. She finds those ideas in the most unlikely places- even in the wacky activism of San Francisco sex radical Jefferson Poland. Founder of the Sexual Freedom League and high priest of the Psychedelic Venus Church, Poland is supremely easy to caricature. His war on a sexually repressive Establishment included several legal battles to change his name: first to ‘Jefferson Fuck Poland’, then simply to ‘Fuck’, and finally to ‘Jefferson Clitlick’
Yet even Poland, for all his sheer nuttiness, was guided by an expressly political vision. A champion of civil rights, abortion, and farm- workers’ unions, he linked sexual freedom to a broad agenda of social and economic change. Sex could be a source of spiritual transcendence, of ‘psychic liberation’ and ‘union between people’, only if the body were freed from all its shackles – not just the shackles of prudery, but those of poverty, racism, exploitation and disease.
To Grant, that politicised vision of sex stands as the Sixties’ most commendable legacy, one desperately in need of revival in the Nineties, when even our most flamboyant icons place sex in an apolitical vacuum. Madonna may champion female bravado, but bravado alone can take women only so far. What’s needed, in addition, is social action – against rape, sexual harassment, economic injustice – that can provide women with the material freedom to live out their sexual desires.
Women’s anger at such sexual coercion fuelled the burgeoning feminist movement. What resulted dealt a deathblow to the Left’s emphasis on the political importance of sexual pleasure. The feminism that developed in the Seventies and Eighties posed sex as the corner stone of female oppression, a vision expressed in its major campaigns – against rape, sexual harassment, and pornography.
All of which is true as far as it goes, but it represents only part of the story. The women’s movement was by no means wholly ‘sex negative’. Alongside the fights against sexual danger it waged passionate campaigns for sexual pleasure: above all, in America, for legal abortion, which would ensure for all women the right to be sexual without fear of facing punitive consequences.
Grant argues that Sixties sex radicalism collapsed under the weight of its own limitations – and nowhere was it more limited than in its comprehension of the position of women. In the end, many female participants in the counterculture declared the new sexual ‘freedom’ simply oppressive. Sex may have become ’a political act’, but its terms were being dictated by men. Sleeping around became women’s political duty; saying ‘no’ laid them open to castigation as ‘uptight’, ‘prudish’, insufficiently committed to the revolutionary struggle.
Far from simply attacking the sexual revolution, in many ways the women’s movement sought to extend it: to challenge the Left to formulate a more egalitarian politics of pleasure. Indeed, for many activists feminism was all about pleasure – remaking love in the service of their own desires. This is as Alix Kates Shulman’s novel Burning Questions (1978) attests: a tale of a housewife’s radicalisation, it concludes with a feminist manifesto for lovemaking that makes three non-negotiable demands: lots of dope, cunnilingus; and ‘three hours minimum’.
Rather than lamenting the sexual revolution’s collapse in the Seventies and Eighties, Grant might have explored its transformation, as new social movements offered new visions of sexual pleasure. After all, it was women’s and gay liberation, perhaps even more than their hippie forebears, that provoked the ‘family values’ backlash of the Eighties by terrorising the political Right. More attention to their incendiary politics would have strengthened this already compelling book.