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In the 1960s, British society experienced a shift in moral, sexual, and social norms. In the previous decade, sexual prudence and Christian values represented the moral character of the nation. But British society began to rapidly reject these notions for an era of more tolerant and liberal attitudes towards sexuality, abortion, race, and sexual freedoms. But, why? What changed?
Permissive society builds upon the nineteenth century’s liberalist political and philosophical principles (liberalism) by adding social and moral freedom.
There are two key tenants of modern permissive societies:
1. Sexual freedom. The freedom to participate in certain sexual activities that were previously illegal or even criminal increased. One example is homosexuality. Also included in this sexual freedom is the elimination of censorship in films, music, art, and literature
2. A decline in the power of religious groups. Secularism is often the result.
A belief system that rejects religion, or believes that religion should be separate from the affairs of the state or public education.
According to British historians, modern Britain experienced its own form of permissiveness in the 1960s. The 1960s were widely considered a time of change in British social attitudes and behaviour.
With the social and sexual revolution of the 1960s, restrictive Victorian values in Britain began to change, as people became more tolerant and open-minded about homosexuality, sexual and artistic freedom.
The term ‘permissive society’ was first used by people who believed that sexual promiscuity was too high. However, the term is now used to denote a period of progressive change and tolerance. These changes were not marked by a single event, unlike many political revolutions.
Historians argue that the changes were broadly a reflection of a general anti-establishment mood, the decline of Christian Britain, and the rise of secular society.
There was an intense debate on the merits and drawbacks of permissiveness during this time period, and these debates led to deep divisions within British cultural groups.
The beginning of Britain’s permissive period can be largely attributed to two main factors:
1. Anti-establishment attitudes.
2. The decline of Christianity as an extension.
The establishment represents a structure of official power. Thus, anti-establishment can generally be characterised as rejecting or opposing this structure of power. Anti-establishment ideologies question the legitimacy of establishments and even regard their influence on society as anti-democratic.
The anti-establishment era can be widely seen as a countercultural era. This means that in this era, British people, youth especially, began to drastically deviate from the conventional social norms subscribed to by the previous generation and subsequently created their own cultural standards.
The anti-establishment era represented a general change in attitude in British society. British society, particularly the youth, began to question the validity of certain authority and establishment structures.
One of the fundamental structures that British youth disconnected from, rejected, or generally questioned the importance of its power over moral and social influence, was the church.
After the end of the Second World War and the repressed decades of the 1940s and 1950s, there was a huge shift in morality. The wartime experience had strengthened Britain’s religiosity in the late 1940s. During this time, according to Anglican Bishop Peter Forster, the British people believed in the truth of Christianity, respected it highly, and associated it with moral behaviour.
However, this changed in the anti-establishment period. What once represented and stood as a prime example of the British establishment and its influence on societal behaviour had now become obsolete.
British historian Peter Hennessy argued that long-held attitudes did not stop change and that by mid-century
Britain was still a Christian country only in a vague attitudinal sense, belief generally being more a residual husk than the kernel of conviction.
This idea is supported by historian Kenneth O. Morgan who stated that:
The Protestant churches, Anglican, and more especially non-conformist, all felt the pressure of falling numbers and of secular challenge.
During the anti-establishment era of the 1960s, Christianity lost its personal value to the average Brit. Christianity no longer acted as a guiding principle or tenant. British society’s identity shifted quickly: in the 40s and 50s to be Christian was the norm, but in the 60s it was a deviation from social normality.
Historians such as Callum G Brown use the term ‘secular revolution’ to denote this period of British history.
This change allowed an era of new ideas to emerge, one that reconstituted and redefined British morality, one that was especially shaped by the new youth subcultures and counterculture. Thus British society began to redefine the parameters of sexual freedoms, body autonomy, especially in regards to women, and sexuality.
Three main groups moulded or shaped the ideas and attitudes during the 1960s.
Ideas surrounding women’s sexuality, autonomy and their general role in society experienced a rather distinct change during the 1960s. The change in attitudes in this era allowed women to explore their sexual identity and freedom. Since the church no longer played a rigid role in promoting moral order women were no longer held to the religious moral standard that chastised premarital sex, ‘promiscuity’, divorce, and abortion.
The change in moral attitudes was quickly supported by legal actions that helped to reconstruct woman’s position in society.
Such acts included:
This legislation, as well as the general change in attitude, shook off the strict Victorian morality which paraded the sanctity of marriage, sex, and motherhood. Britain became more accepting of sexual freedom and diversity.
Before the 1960s homosexuality was punishable by law.
In March 1954, three men were convicted and sentenced to prison for homosexual crimes. Among the defendants was Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, his cousin, and his friend, a Daily Mail diplomatic correspondent. A large number of media and the public attended the trial. Concerned about the men's safety, the police kept them in their cells for two hours, hoping people would disperse. This did not happen. As the men left the courthouse on their way to prison, they were clapped and cheered.
By the 1960s, even though being homosexual remained illegal, attitudes towards homosexuality changed. These changes were facilitated by the rise of secularism and a general attitude that permitted sexual freedoms.
This change in attitude was best exemplified by the support shown to the Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his two friends. Despite the fact that they had just been convicted of a sexual crime, the public reaction suggested that the law was out of sync with public opinion.
During the 1960s gay activism increased. For example:
In 1963, the Minorities Research Group (MRG) became the first group to openly advocate for lesbians in the UK. They produced a lesbian magazine called Arena Three.
Founded in 1964, the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee abandoned the medical model of homosexuality as a sickness and called for its decriminalisation.
In 1967 the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed, and this act decriminalised private sexual activity between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales.
Although these movements were extremely significant and showed a huge change in attitudes and legislation, there was still a rather large push back against homosexuality’s acceptance and the 1967 legislation.
Although when we talk about the permissive era we usually think about sexual and religious freedom, one of the rather large social consequences of the era were changing attitudes towards race, immigration, and migration.
Christianity, colonialism, and a change in attitude
To fully understand these attitudinal changes, we have to talk again about Christianity.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Christianity was synonymous with civilisation, but in the 1960s people started seeing it as pre-modern.
Brewitt-Taylor, along with other historians argue that the trope of Christianity as synonymous with civilization was used as a way to defend Britain’s involvement in the Second WorId War, and colonialism.
Thus, when Christianity started to lose its merits for British society so did colonialism. At the same time, several African, Caribbean, and South Asian colonies began to enter into the early stages or achieve independence.
This generally changed the attitude towards race, migration, and immigration.
In the 1950s, due to a labour shortage in the UK, people from elsewhere in the British Empire were encouraged to come to Britain for work.
The 1948 British Nationality Act said that all Commonwealth citizens could have British passports and work in the UK. Whole communities from the British Empire across the Caribbean came to Britain to help rebuild the country after the Second World War. These people were labelled the Windrush migrants.
The violent partition of India and Pakistan and the civil war in Cyprus also caused many to escape and seek a better life in the UK.
These migrants brought new cultures, music, and fashions with them that would help shape the era. Migration generally intersected and double layered the era of sexual freedom because race relations became a crucial feature of the discourse of permissive society.
Caribbean migration became a huge topic of discussion in British society’s social and sexual mores because of interracial relations.
Social norms that are widely accepted and observed in a particular society or culture.
Sexual norms that are widely accepted and observed in a particular society or culture.
Although there was a general attitudinal change towards immigration, British society was still very racist. With the arrival of Caribbean migrants, tropes began to appear that characterised Caribbean men as a threat to morality.
Frank Mort, a British cultural historian, argues that sex crimes were now characterised through lines of racialised geography. Certain areas in London, such as Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, were branded as morally and sexually corrupt because of the presence of Caribbean migration.
The beginnings of interracial relationships further conflated the already existing fears and tensions. In Britain, though there was some moral pushback to interracial relationships, unlike in America, it wasn’t illegal.
However, such relationships led subcultural groups, such as the Teddy Boys, to feel threatened, especially in regards to their manhood, masculinity, and the taking of their women.
This was the most distinctive youth style and youth subculture of 1950s and 1960s Britain. The ‘Teds’ wore long, draped jackets, usually in dark shades, sometimes with pocket flaps and velvet trims, the trousers were narrow and worn high on the waist. This group largely consisted of working-class youth who thanks to the economic freedoms of the Golden Age were able to be fashion-forward. However, some factions of the Teddy Boys were extremely racist and were the key catalyst for the 1958 Notting Hill race riots.
Both Soho and Notting Hill became beacons for anxieties over the changing character of sex in the city and the cultural impact of decolonisation.
During the Harold Wilson Labour government, Roy Jenkins served as Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967. Since his first days in politics, Jenkins championed liberal reform and pushed for far-reaching reforms, notably of the laws on homosexuality and abortion.
On the controversial issues of immigration and race relations, he combated deep-seated prejudice. Although he was only in charge of the Home Office for less than two years, he transformed the department into a vehicle of social change and brought about a raft of liberal reforms.
During his tenure, abortion was legalised and homosexuality was decriminalised. Jenkins abolished theatre censorship and put into place the first laws against racial and gender discrimination.
While conservatives negatively labelled him as the godfather of the permissive society, Jenkins is now revered as a pioneering supporter of gay rights, racial equality, and feminism.
On 23 May 1966, Jenkins delivered a speech on race relations, widely considered to be one of his best. He said:
Where in the world is there a university which could preserve its fame or a cultural centre which could keep its eminence or a metropolis which could hold its drawing power, if it were to turn inwards and serve only its own hinterland and its own racial group?
There were six key events in law reform in the 1960s that saw Britain move towards a permissive society:
The publishing house Penguin Books decided to publish an uncensored version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. The Obscene Publications Act of 1959 criminalised the publishing of obscene articles and books. However, Penguin fought the prosecution and eventually won.
The book was published uncensored in 1961. It is generally considered that the not-guilty verdict marked the beginning of permissiveness in literature, as well as the beginning of permissiveness as a whole, according to Roy Jenkins.
The contraceptive pill was first made available for all women through the NHS on 4 December 1961 and it cost 2 shillings per month. Originally, it was only available to married women, but the NHS Family Planning Act of 1967 made it available to unmarried women as well.
It gave women control over their own fertility and body autonomy. It worked to significantly shift the power balance of gender, as prior to its release men were primarily in charge of contraception. However, the pill reversed these roles.
It separated contraception from sexual acts, which allowed for sex to be seen as an act of pleasure that was separate from motherhood.
Greatly reduced the risk of unwanted pregnancy.
It gave women greater freedom to pursue careers and become more financially independent before starting a family.
This Act decriminalised private sexual activity between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales, as long as it was consensual. Scotland followed in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982.
This Act made abortions legal until the point of 28 weeks gestation. However, it was still up to a doctor whether or not the reason for abortion was valid and it required consent from two doctors to go ahead. The law was not extended to Northern Ireland until 2019.
This Act removed the need for any play to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain before it could be performed, which effectively removed censorship.
This allowed for playwrights to be freer to express sexual topics that would have been considered taboo in the previous decade and ushered in new attitudes and ideas to womanhood, sexuality, and sexual freedom.
Before 1969, women could not get a divorce except on grounds of adultery. That changed with the Divorce Reform Act. If the marriage had irretrievably broken down, couples wishing to get divorced could now do so. The couple could annul the marriage if they had been separated for five years. If both parties followed the process, it only took two years.
Divorce rates increased sharply and Britain came to have one of the highest divorce rates in Europe by the 1990s.
Women were recognised as equal partners in marriages.
Nevertheless, women were more likely to suffer financially after a divorce than men. Women in single-parent households earned less money despite their legal rights to property and maintenance.
Divorce continued to receive widespread social disapproval, more frequently directed at women than at men.
The definition of permissive society may differ slightly among those seeking to define it, but generally, sexual freedom is emphasised. If we examine closely the changes in British society as well as the liberalising laws that were enforced during the decade, it is clear that legislation towards sexual freedoms had changed.
However, it is debatable how far sexual attitudes and behaviour changed during the 1960s, and the idea that there was a ‘sexual revolution’ is strongly contested. Although the legal changes that occurred are tangible, it would be too liberal to call the era a ‘revolution’.
In the era, liberals viewed permissiveness as a positive attribute. For example, Roy Jenkins supported and encouraged progressive social thinking, and he wanted tolerant, sophisticated attitudes to prevail throughout Britain. Social conservatives, on the other hand, were less tolerant. As they perceived it, permissiveness was encouraging socially irresponsible behaviour, weakening the moral and socio-cultural structures essential for a civilised society.
Some historians suggest that there wasn’t a permissive society by arguing that although people had more freedom, they didn’t use it. However, this argument is largely disputed by the statistics regarding rates of abortion, divorce, and of the use of contraceptive pills in the decades preceding.
1. Anti-establishment attitudes.
2. The decline of Christianity.
The collapse of these moral attitudes helped bring about legal changes.
Some acts that were passed at the time are:
Roy Jenkins served as Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967. Jenkins championed liberal reform and pushed for far-reaching reforms, notably of the laws on homosexuality and abortion.
Although the legal changes that occurred were tangible and we have indisputable evidence that a change occurred, British historians argue that ‘sexual revolution’ is too liberal of a term to denote the era.
Based on the reduction of censorship, the general change of attitude in the era, and the liberalising of laws, there was a permissive society in 1960s Britain.
According to British historians the beginning of Britain's permissive period can be largely attributed to two main factors:
1. Anti-establishment attitudes
2. The decline of Christianity
Between 1951 and 1964, British society underwent significant changes. In British culture and the media, new trends emerged that ushered in a more individualistic and less conformist society that was less eager to follow the 'Establishment'.
What are the two key tenants of a modern permissive society?
What were some of the key legalisations that helped bring about 1960s permissive society?
Which Labour Home Secretary is considered to have championed liberal reforms?
What is secularism?
Is a belief system that rejects religion, or believes that religion should be separate from the affairs of the state or public education.
Was there a sexual revolution in the 1960s permissive society?
Historians often debate the extent to which this term can be used to denote this period of modern British history.
Although many changes in legislation occurred some British historians argue that such changes were not well received and widely accepted by British society as a whole.
However, this idea is largely contested by several historians as the permissive period and the legislation that came with it are often regarded as a general indication of a change of attitudes inspired by the anti-establishment era. This idea can be furthered by the general acceptance of the legalisation towards abortion, divorce and contraception.
How did migration contribute to the discourse on permissive society?
The arrival of Caribbean migration brought with it ideas and tropes that began to characterise Caribbean men as a threat to morality.
How did social conservatives view the permissive society?
Social conservatives perceived permissiveness as encouraging socially irresponsible behaviour, weakening the moral and socio-cultural structures essential for a civilised society.
What principles did the 1960s permissive society build upon?
Permissive society builds upon the nineteenth century's liberalist political and philosophical principles (liberalism) by adding social and moral freedom.
What three legislations allowed women in the 60s to become more socially and sexually empowered?
In 1963 which group became the first lesbian political and social organization in the UK?
Minorities Research Group (MRG)
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