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Grown Up in the 1960s - The Sexual Revolution

Alongside Grown Up in Britain, we take a look at the Sexual Revolution and changing attitudes in the 1960s

A packet of contraceptive pills laid on a piece of red fabric

Alongside our Grown Up in Britain exhibition, we've been exploring how life for young people has changed over the last 100 years. Today, we're taking a look at the impact of new laws around sexual freedoms introduced in the 1960s. 

The 1960s is often remembered as a time when big shifts happened in the freedoms that young people enjoyed, with abortion and homosexuality (for those over the age of 21, at least) partially decriminalised in 1967, the same year the contraceptive pill was first made available to unmarried women.

However, while changing laws is one thing, attitudes and values reinforced over decades and even centuries don’t budge quite so easily, and we need only look at responses to the recent overturning of Roe vs Wade in the US to see how debates around some of these issues continue to rage today.

In practice, the “Sexual Revolution” of the 60s was less a sudden upheaval than a process of gradual change, that was far from complete even into the 70s and 80s. The pill, for example, was actually available on the NHS from 1961, but initially could be prescribed only to married women, due to fears around encouraging promiscuity. Even then, the take-up of GPs prescribing it remained relatively slow, until family planning clinics were permitted to prescribe it in 1974. This in turn led to debates around whether GPs and parents should be informed about prescriptions given to young women. That aside, take up amongst young women grew quickly, and the control the pill offered did radically change the lives of both married and unmarried women.

While the 1967 Abortion Act also increased access to the procedure, certain criteria officially still need to be met, and in the 1960s and 70s, the domination of the medical profession by men meant that women had much less say in the medical treatment of their bodies than they might expect today. The act also only applied in England, Scotland and Wales, and Northern Ireland still has separate laws around abortion even today.

On the matter of laws around homosexuality, meanwhile, it’s important to note that the 1967 Sexual Offences Act constituted only a partial decriminalisation, applying only to men over the age of 21, and only in England and Wales (the reforms were eventually extended to Scotland in 1980 and to Northern Ireland in 1982). Strict conditions were still enforced on the circumstances under which sex between men (or even the suggestion of it) was deemed permissible.

Moreover, it has been argued that in some ways, life for gay men became even more difficult after 1967, with the passing of the act triggering a kind of moral panic. In 2017, as the UK celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, Peter Tatchell revealed new research showing that annual conviction rates for sexual offences actually increased by over 300% between 1966 and 1974.

Laws against gross indecency and “procuring” remained in force, meaning that men could still be arrested for kissing, touching and even “chatting up” other men in public places. Gay clubs and saunas were routinely raided, and police were known to stake-out parks and toilets. There were also fears about how young people might be influenced by shifting sexual mores, which ultimately led to the notorious Section 28 clause of the Local Government Act in 1986, which prohibited local authorities (including schools) from doing anything that could be interpreted as “promoting” homosexuality.

Today, consensus on issues of sexual freedom seems to be stronger in the UK than in many places. For example, a 2022 Gallup poll saw 55% of American respondents identify themselves as pro-choice – an increase on a figure that has traditionally hovered around 50%. A 2020 YouGov survey, meanwhile, revealed that 91% of women and 88% of men in the UK support women’s freedom to choose.

Nevertheless, as we reflect on what life has been like for young people of different backgrounds and sexualities growing up in the UK over the last 50-60 years, we should remember that much of what we take for granted now has only changed relatively recently.

Curated by the Museum of Youth Culture, Grown Up in Britain is free to visit until February 2023. Find out more.