Sunday 19 January 2020

Julia Molony: The 'sexual revolution' still left men on top

Just because our society is 'free', doesn't mean it's fair, writes Julia Molony

The woman at the centre of the Profumo affair, the sexual scandal that blew apart the closed culture of 1950s Britain, has said free love wasn't all that fun after all. Christine Keeler was a 20-year-old showgirl in 1963, when she was outed as the mistress of John Profumo, the secretary of state for war.

She almost brought down a British government when it emerged that she was also having an affair with a Russian spy.

Now aged 70 and living in obscurity, Keeler has poured scorn on the sexual-liberation movement, of which she was something of a trailblazer. Looking back, she views those times with regret and distaste.

"All that 'swinging Sixties'. It didn't do anyone any good, did it?" she commented to the Daily Mail. "Easy sex and the pill. Marriages were ruined. I never did approve."

This, it seems, is a view echoed by many of Keeler's contemporaries -- those who were not showgirls at the centre of political scandals, but ordinary women caught up in the spirit of the times.

The respected writer Bel Mooney agrees. She was involved in the free-love moment, but says it benefited men, rather than women.

"A woman's place is underneath" was, she says, the dictum that defined the times.

Not just that but it was the catalyst that marked the end of the nuclear family, contributing, she believes, to the creation of a generation of sexually precocious but emotionally unmoored young women.

We can lament the death of a more protective society, sure. One in which certain securities were safeguarded. Where family values were sacrosanct and, as a result, social bonds were stronger.

Even women like me, who came of age several decades later and who now navigate the complex territory of a world where the relations between the genders are entirely unstructured, may feel some small sense of loss for the safety that has been lost in our pursuit of individual freedoms.

We now live in a society in which sex is unfettered by any expectations of commitment. Yet so many contemporary women find that it is commitment, not uncensored sexual freedom, that they crave.

My generation has discovered that greater contentment doesn't automatically follow greater choice and that loneliness is often the bedfellow of independence.

But while it's valid to constantly question and interrogate this version of "freedom" that our mothers' generation ushered in, we do have to ask ourselves whether we really would prefer the alternative.

Do we really think it would be better to revert to a system where shame and social opprobrium are attached to sexual expression?

Do we really believe that it's better to drive elements of human sexuality that don't fit one strict, socially sanctioned blueprint underground?

Let's not forget that the liberalisation of our society, though it may have claimed many casualties, had many positive consequences, such as the widespread acceptance of homosexuality.

Christine Keeler was undoubtedly a victim of the system. She was born into what would then have been considered the "underclass". Her family life was troubled, she was raised in a converted railway carriage by her mother and a stepfather of whom she "was terrified."

Her alluring looks presented her with an obvious and straightforward means of elevation, although in fact Keeler escaped out of the frying pan into the fire.

Her beauty won her the attention of powerful, privileged men, but they treated her as nothing more than a delectable morsel to be devoured.

Public endorsement of the female orgasm via Cosmopolitan magazine may have been afoot in 1963, but distinctions of class and gender remained relatively unchanged.

All these things meant that Keeler was intensely vulnerable -- a woman whose only means of agency was her body. This, understandably, doesn't exactly make her a poster girl for the sexual revolution.

Not only that but she shared the frontline with a great number of women who found themselves caught in the chasm between widespread behavioural change and accepted public morality.

Though the free-love movement was marching through bedrooms, bar-rooms and university campuses across the western world, it wasn't quite so accepted in public life or in the media.

For a short time, women were subject to two opposing pressures, the pressure to follow the examples of their peers and the pressure to uphold values of respectability that were still adhered to by the rest of society. It can't have been much fun.

Many women got caught in the crossfire. Christine Keeler has a point that is worth remembering. The battle for equality is quite separate from the battle for freedom of sexual expression. We might not want to go back to the 1950s, but it's worth keeping in mind that when a society becomes free it doesn't automatically follow that it becomes fair.

Sunday Independent

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