“Make love, not war,” and the call for “free love” represented a cultural shift in mores. Even The Beatles sang that “All You Need Is Love.” If the ’60s was the time of the “sexual revolution,” the natural question is: who won? There were both winners and losers. In our first article on the Summer of Love, we talked about the general environment of 1967. In this article, we’ll discuss the role of sex in “sex, drugs, and rock & roll.”
More babies were born in the western world between 1946 and 1964 than during any previous period in recorded history, at least until the “Millennial Generation.” In the U.S., this post-war “bloom” of children was called the Baby Boom Generation. It represented a relatively prosperous generation of children born to a middle class with more access to education and entertainment than any generation before it. In 1966, Time magazine declared that the “Generation 25 and Under” would be its “Persons of the Year.”
Three important changes converging in the ’60s made a significant impact on the culture.
- In the U.S., the G.I. Bill following WWII allowed veterans to go to college and provide for their children better than the previous generation.
- The Interstate Highway system, inaugurated by President Eisenhower after WWII — for the purpose of easily and quickly transporting troops across the country — had the effect of allowing for suburban living and commuting into urban centers for work.
- Low-cost Veterans Administration loans for home mortgages required no down payment, putting affordable housing within reach of WWII veterans. Housing subdivisions bloomed in the ’50s and ’60s. The children of these war veterans enjoyed an unusually prosperous life of freedom — thanks to the way new mothers took the teachings of a permissive pediatrician writer Dr. Spock (not the Vulcan) — and relative affluence and the leisure that came with it.
Studies have shown that between 1965 and 1974, the number of women that had sexual intercourse before marriage showed a marked increase. Women had become active participants in the sexual revolution.
“Free love” continued in many respects into the ’70s and ’80s with different forms. When I worked for the University of California, Berkeley Housing Office, we saw this play out. In the residence halls at Berkeley, co-ed dormitories initially meant men on one floor and women on another. That changed to mixed sexes on the same floor but segregated by room, with the opposite sex having to go to another floor to use the single-sex bathrooms. This eventually became inconvenient for the students. When the campus newspaper featured a picture of a man’s and women’s feet behind the same bathroom stall, angry parents wrote in to the Housing Office in the late ’70s protesting this arrangement!
The mid-’80s saw a shift in sexual behavior first with the rise of herpes simplex virus, which had no cure, and experimental antiviral therapy was not available until the late ’70s. Secondly, the spread of AIDS, a deadly sexually-transmitted disease, had no treatment at the time.
By 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had licensed an oral contraceptive. “The Pill,” as it came to be known, was extraordinarily popular, and despite worries over possible side effects, by 1962, an estimated 1,187,000 women were using it.
While there is a correlation between the advent of The Pill and increased sexual activity, it is difficult to draw a causal connection between the two.
Nevertheless, there was a visible trend in the increasingly higher age of women at first marriage in the decades between 1930 and 1970 after contraception was provided to non-married females.
The Pill eventually came to be seen as a symbol of the sexual revolution, though its origins stem less from issues of women’s sexual liberation and more from the 1960s political agendas.
The almost immediate legacy of the “sexual revolution” was the emergence of three trends:
- An unprecedented number of divorces in the ’70s
- The rise in the percentage of unmarried births
- The beginning of what would be tens of millions of abortions
Before 1970, divorce was difficult to obtain and uncommon. Assignment of “fault” was required, usually proof of adultery, abandonment, or cruelty. Before 1965 the divorce rate was approximately ten divorces for every 1,000 married women. By 1979 that percentage had doubled. California first introduced the “no-fault divorce” in 1970 signed by Ronald Regan, then Governor, and himself a divorcee. This spread to other states in the ’70s and ’80s such that all states except for New York had some form of no-fault divorce law.
Until the late ’60s, “shotgun marriages” were the norm in premarital sexual relations. According to the Washington Post, in 1967 the percentage of unmarried births among:
- African Americans (until 1969 denoting all nonwhites including Asians and Native Americans) was about 30%. For Whites it was about 6%, for all groups it was about 10%.
According to the CDC, today for:
- African Americans it is 73%, for Hispanics it is 53%, for Whites it’s 29%.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, the abortion rate in 1969 was 5.2 per 1,000 women. Within a decade, the rate had more than doubled. In 2007 it peaked with 18.6 per 1,000 women residents aged 15–44. The chart looks like this:
One modern writer has quipped,”‘Make love not war’ became a war on the results of that love.”
The “sexual revolution” of 1967 was not something new; it is very old indeed. We can look back to the society of Imperial Rome where sex was casual, and the lower classes had no rights but were treated as property to be used by the powerful and wealthy.
Some have argued that all of this is the inevitable result of a post-Christian society. There is no doubt that we have, in recent years, seen a redefinition of marriage, sexual identity, and malleability, love, chastity, fidelity, even bathroom use. In ancient Rome, the counterculture “revolution” was the rise of the curious faith that talked about a “love feast” and charity between “brothers and sisters.” It had a view that people were made imago dei, in the image of God with inestimable value, and not random meaningless arrangements of molecules. Could that revolution happen again? Could the pendulum swing back the other way?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian