Since 1998, I’ve interviewed over sixty people about their experiences of the 1960s, all them ‘baby boomers’ who shared that particular cultural upheaval. The stories have a lot in common. We wanted to break away from entrenched beliefs and stereotypes to embrace a more tolerant view of the world. We saw a responsibility to work for change. We searched out environments where we had the freedom to reinvent ourselves as citizens of a new age.
But recently I’ve reached a startling realization having to do with a striking difference between the male and female narrative. That is, the men I’ve interviewed rarely if ever mention their sexual activities of those times. Women, on the other hand, describe sexual activity as a key point in their lives.
At first I thought this had to do with the natural reticence of men to discuss emotional and/or personal experiences, and their tendency to focus more on activities and interactions having to do with work and other external matters. But it occurs to me now that the difference more likely is a result of the fact that for men, not much of the tradition of male sex lives changed with the ‘60s. (Unless they were gay, of course.)
Not so for women! The Sixties and the Seventies were times of major change in women’s sex lives, and from there, a change in just about everything else as well. Birth control pills meant that for the first time, women could enjoy sex without the overwhelming risk of pregnancy. On the heels of widely-available birth control, the U S Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade meant that even if raped or confronted with the failure of birth control, a woman could obtain a safe medical abortion.
Suddenly women were masters of their own lives. Without the unnatural expectation to wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity, women could focus on education, political action, and career building. For the first time, women could approach men as an equal in the sexual arena, pick and choose sex partners, and be just as promiscuous as men had always been. Not that all women were. The liberation of women had to do with gaining options.
So of course women who came of age in those years would include stories of how those changes affected them. Raised in the mindset of earlier times, women of the ‘boomer’ generation suddenly could set aside the old threats of illegitimate children and the social stigma that inevitably followed such public evidence of out-of-wedlock sex. A female’s identity no longer centered around her role as wife and mother, but rather what she could offer her community in any of multiple roles.
Maybe women are more likely to discuss private emotional experiences than are men. But I think that women of my generation are rightfully proud to be the ground upon which a revolution took place. From this has flowed a wealth of new ideas in the workplace, changes in the arts including erotic literature in a manner never before imagined, and exciting relationship options inconceivable fifty years ago. I encourage all of us to tell our stories so that our daughters and all women coming after us never lose sight of what we have won.