Monday, 2 February 2015

Permissiveness - the 1970s debate.

One of the more striking features of the sexual revolution that began in the mid 1960s was how quickly it took hold and how relatively little resistance to it came from the conservative establishment, which not long before had taken a strong line against 'immorality', 'depravity', 'smut' and the like. The most vociferous opponent of this trend was Mary Whitehouse, who established the National Viewers & Listeners Association, to combat what she saw as declining standards in broadcasting. Mrs Whitehouse had an amazing talent for self-publicity, spoke her mind vigorously, and conveyed a deep sincerity underpinned by her Christian values. However, her views were anathema to the burgeoning liberal trailblazers, who ridiculed her conservative appearance, 'reactionary' views and middle class outlook, a highly pejorative term in the liberal mindset.

Mary Whitehouse’s main concerns were the degradation of society arising from the widespread availability of pornography, the portrayal of promiscuity and casual sex as normal and acceptable behaviour in TV drama, alongside the gratuitous inclusion of sexual matters in a wide range of other programmes. Mary Whitehouse encapsulated the pre-permissive age view on sex and, had the climate on this subject not changed, she would have remained an obscure schoolteacher.

Her campaign ultimately failed because of two major flaws. First, as a committed Christian she assumed that her religious beliefs gave her a self-evident right to intervene in the nation's viewing habits. In reality, we live in a post-Christian age in which the overwhelming majority does not accept that the dogma of a minority religion should underpin the personal morality of society as a whole. A second weakness was that once the genie was let out of the bottle, permissiveness proved to be a tricky concept to argue against. Younger people began to question why they should be prevented from doing what they thought best in their private lives, just because some older people in authority expressed their disapproval. The traditional moralists appeared to have no credible response and by the early 1970s, the 'permissive society' was firmly established, and the commercial exploitation of sex quickly became the dominating focus of the media.

Another opponent of permissiveness was Lord Longford, who gained enormous publicity with his report on pornography. It proposed a new Obscenity Bill to include a revised test of obscenity under which 'an article or a performance of a play is obscene if its effect, taken as a whole, is to outrage contemporary standards of decency or humanity accepted by the public at large'. George Gale of The Spectator attacked this recommendation claiming that 'what is being proposed is an extension of censorship. Lord Longford and his crew are trying to tell you and me what we may and may not read and publish...freedom of speech is necessary to resist the depravity and corruption brought about by the totalitarians, just as censorship is necessary for the success of the totalitarians to be assured.' This encapsulated the view of liberals and progressives of the time who were strongly anti-censorship and considered the increased availability of pornography as liberation from the sexual repression of the traditional moralists.

The early seventies was the high point of sexual liberation. It was a time when bohemianism flowered, when the young and liberally minded rejected what they considered the uptight sexual morality of the older generation. However, a challenge to this outlook was beginning to appear with the rise in feminism. This would herald the start of the process whereby the forces of personal liberation and freedom would incrementally and gradually morph into the stifling orthodoxy of political correctness.

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