Let's talk about sex: Celebrating 50 years of sexual liberation

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Sex! It's been with us for 50 years, according to the famous poem by Philip Larkin. And goodness, what we’ve been doing with it… From the miniskirt to ‘Fifty Shades’, Virginia Ironside and Kate Wills salute five decades of ever-expanding freedom.

Honestly, with all the fuss you're making of it, you'd have thought no one went to bed with anyone who wasn't their wife before now," grumbled an old friend of mine at the beginning of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. He was referring, of course, to Larkin's poem "Annus Mirabilis":

Warning: The gallery above contains images of a sexual nature

"Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the
'Chatterley' ban
And the Beatles' first LP."

And in a way my friend was right. You only have to read Tom Jones or Pepys' diary or look at the shenanigans going on in the 1920s to realise that widespread and raging sexual intercourse began a long time before 1963.

But the 1960s were different. Society was changing, with class distinction being turned on its head, and the Pill had arrived. Women were liberated. It was thought that now women needed have no fear of becoming pregnant, they would want to have sex just as much as men.

The only problem was that many of them couldn't cope with this sudden transition. It was a confusing time for everyone. When they said to a reluctant woman: "Come on, you know you're gagging for it," men really did imagine this was true. Sexual equality – and by that I mean equality in desire and behaviour – was almost imposed on women whether we liked it or not.

It took the women's movement in the 1970s to free us from this imposed sexual freedom. And, oddly, the liberationists' message was at once freeing and restraining. "No means No!" they proclaimed. And although they meant the phrase as empowering for women, it was ironic that it was almost exactly the same one as used by the modest girls in the 1950s, who would push men away when they'd gone "too far".

Despite this, people went on having sex like there was no tomorrow. Homosexuality was legalised. And in the 1970s, my agony-aunt postbag at Woman magazine was packed with enquiries like: "If I don't have an orgasm will I get cancer?" "Where is my G-spot?" "Do women ejaculate and if they do, why don't I?" (A far cry from the letters of the 1950s that were more likely to ask whether a reader should take her gloves off before shaking hands with a bishop.)

The next brake on the sexual revolution came, of course, from the outbreak of Aids in the 1980s. Doom-laden ads featuring mammoth gravestones warned us not to "die of ignorance". Condoms were handed out like sweets in clubs and condoms meant sex wasn't quite as fun as it used to be. If it didn't stop the sexual revolution, it at least limited the spread of the one-night stand. Temporarily.

Because it soon turned out that we weren't going to "die of ignorance". So people went on bonking. And bonking. And by now, women's liberation had meant that women were able to gets jobs, and become self-sufficient. They didn't have to use sex as some kind of lever to find a husband, as they used to. They could look at sex now in a more dispassionate way. It was more up to them whether they had sex or not. And, perhaps, some did finally find they could look at sex in the same way as men.

And some men, too, freed of the ties that made them feel they were weird or different unless they said "Phwoarr!" every time a pair of boobs on stilts passed by, found that they could be a bit more relaxed about sex, too.

No question, these days most people have many more sexual partners than they did before 1963. So where are we?

As sex becomes more part of our normal lives than something special (like the Saturday-night shag of married couples or the brief anxious-making slip-ups of the 1950s) and as we take it more for granted, isn't it becoming less important?

Love and sex are no longer inextricably combined, as they used to be. The art of seduction, which took a lot of time and energy, has all but disappeared except in countries where sex is still more repressed. There's even a website called Friends With Benefits, which, if you want to have sex, allows you to log in and find someone in your area who's also ready and willing.

There are hardly any tut-tutting noises to be heard at all. True, there are mutterings about whether gays can marry in church or not – but not whether they should be legally united at all. And, of course, there's the over-hysterical witch-hunt-like wave of anti-paedophilia that seems to have erupted from nowhere. But will these voices, too, eventually die down?

Could Philip Larkin actually have been right?

50 moments from 50 years of sexual liberation

By Kate Wills

1. The miniskirt, 1964

The miniskirt, which Mary Quant named after her favourite car, saw newfound freedom for legs and leg lovers. Although the French designer Courrèges was also slashing skirt lengths, Quant herself reminded everyone, "It wasn't me or Courrèges who invented the miniskirt – it was the girls in the street who did it."

2. TV's first interracial kiss, 1964

British hospital soap opera Emergency – Ward 10 made history when black surgeon Louise (Joan Hooley) snogged white Dr Farmer (John White). The more famous Star Trek kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura didn't happen until four years later.

3. London Playboy club opens, 1966

Bunny Girls and an exclusive silver "members' key" made 45 Park Lane the place to be for playboys such as George Best and Sean Connery. It closed in 1981 after gaming licences were revoked, but reopened to protests from feminist groups such as Eff Off Hef last year.

4. The Summer of Love, 1967

100,000 bare-breasted, bare-footed flower children gathered in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco to "Make love not war". But at a price. From 1964 through 1968, the rates of gonorrhea and syphilis in California rose 165 per cent.

5. The Sexual Offences Act, 1967

Until 1967, the love that dare not speak its name carried the risk of anything from a £5 fine to life imprisonment. But while homosexuality was decriminalised, this was only between two men over 21, "in private" but not for privates – same-sex love was still illegal in the armed forces.

6. The Abortion Act, 1967

The move to legalise abortion and provide it free on the NHS caused heated moral and political debate which continues today. It was now "legally defensible" in the UK to terminate pregnancies up to 28 weeks (changed to 24 weeks in 1990), giving women autonomy over their own bodies for the first time. k

7. 'Midnight Cowboy', 1969

A film about a naive male prostitute (Jon Voight in a career-launching role) and an outcast bum (Dustin "I'm walking here!" Hoffman) proved how out of touch the censors were when it became the first (and only) X-rated film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

8. Stonewall riots, 1969

When police raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York, on 27 June, they got more than they bargained for, as customers of the Stonewall Inn fought back, causing a riot which lasted five days. Their number swelled to thousands of protesters, who chanted "Gay Power" in a series of violent clashes.

9. 'Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask)', 1969

ex was out of darkened bedrooms and into the spotlight as the popularity of Dr David Reuben's sex manual proved. It became a bestseller in 52 countries and has been read by 150 million people. Including Woody Allen, who loosely based his 1972 movie on it, and called sex "the most fun you can have without laughing".

10. First Lesbian and Gay Pride March, 1970

To commemorate the Stonewall Riots, the first ever Lesbian and Gay Pride march happened a year later in New York. The first UK Pride march through London was held on 1 July 1972 with approximately 2,000 participants. By 2010, the event was attended by 1 million people.

11. 'Fanny Hill' finally published, 1970

Never mind the Chatterley, John Cleland's Fanny Hill: Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure (written 1749) was still considered too scandalous for publication in 1963. It wasn't until 1970 that an unexpurgated version of the most frequently banned book in history was published.

12. The launch of Page 3, 1970

Sex was even seeping on to the British breakfast table, as The Sun began printing a picture of a topless woman every day. More than 40 years on, the "tradition" continues; a petition to end it, which was begun in September, so far has more than 60,000 signatories.

13. Ann Summers opens, 1970

The first Ann Summers shop, named after the founder's secretary, brought sex to the high street. In 1981 the concept of the Ann Summers Party took off (think Tupperware turned tarty) and there are now 4,000 such events held every week in the UK. That's a lot of fluffy handcuffs.

14. 'The Female Eunuch', 1970

Germaine Greer's seminal text argued that women have been separated from their sexuality by the trappings of femininity. She encouraged women to accept their bodies, taste their own menstrual blood and give up monogamy – "The cunt must come into its own."

15. 'Oh! Calcutta!', 1970

Kenneth Tynan, the first man to use the "f word" on TV, devised this full-frontal nude revue, calling it an "experiment in elegant erotica". With sketches written by John Lennon, Sam Shepard and Joe Orton the show ran for more than 3,900 performances, despite furious protests and a police investigation.

16. The 'Oz' magazine trial, 1971

When "psychedelic hippy" magazine Oz asked schoolkids to design an issue, it caused the longest-running obscenity trial in British history, due in part to a pornographic collage of Rupert Bear. Editors Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis were sentenced to imprisonment but the convictions were later overturned. Rupert didn't sue.

17. 'The Joy of Sex', 1972

Alex Comfort's illustrated guide was banned in Ireland, removed from libraries in the US and went on to sell 10 million copies. The illustrations were based on photos of the artist Charles Raymond and his memorably "bushy-haired" wife.

18. 'Playboy' reaches seven million, 1972

Founded in 1953 by Hugh Hefner with a $1,000 loan from his mother, Playboy peaked at a circulation of more than seven million copies – one-quarter of all American men were buying the magazine every month. Featuring stories by writers such as Nabokov and Ian Fleming, it was also the first gentleman's mag to be printed in Braille.

19. 'Last Tango In Paris', 1972

A middle-aged Marlon Brando having marge-based sex with Maria Schneider in a bare Paris apartment was hailed as "the most powerfully erotic movie ever made". Though banned in several countries, it was released in the UK with just a 10-second cut.

20. British 'Cosmopolitan', 1972

Helen Gurley Brown had created an enthusiastic melting pot of sex tips and sass in the US, and now it was our turn. The first issue of British Cosmo (priced 20p) featured practical if not particularly empowering features such as "How to turn a man on if he's having problems in bed", which continue depressingly unchanged to this day.

21. 'Playgirl', 1973

The success of the first male centrefold – a nude Burt Reynolds lying on a bearskin rug in US Cosmo (sorry for that mental image) – inspired Douglas Lambert to come up with a women's version of Playboy. In 1990 the magazine offered Prince Charles $45,000 to bare all. Perhaps Harry would've been a better bet.

22. Masturbation in Mills & Boon, 1973

It wasn't until the 1970s that unmarried characters could have sex in Mills & Boon novels, but 1973 marks the first masturbation scene, at the, ahem, hands of lonely heroine Suzy Walker. The first oral-sex scene came in 1982 in a book called Antigua Kiss: the heroine was "shocked" but "surrendered to waves of ecstasy".

23. The Pill becomes available to all, 1974

Widely credited with unleashing the "free love" of the 1960s, it wasn't until 1974 that the contraceptive pill was prescribed to unmarried women on the NHS. In 1999, The Economist named it the most important scientific advance of the 20th century.

24. 'Deep Throat', 1972

Considered the first mainstream porn movie, it featured a plot (of sorts), relatively high production values and was screened in selected cinemas. Despite (and probably because of) numerous obscenity trials, it went on to become the most popular porn movie of all time, banking a reported $600m. See also, Debbie Does Dallas, "porno chic".

25. The Chippendales, 1979

Founded in LA by Steve Banerjee as a Broadway-style show that would attract middle-class women, the Chippendales and their polished pecs, bow-ties and shirt cuffs, are now seen by two million people a year. But the story gets darker than their tans; in 1990, Banerjee hired a hitman to murder former Chippendales who were starting up a competitive show and hanged himself in prison in 1994.

26. Death of Terrence Higgins, 1982

Terrence Higgins was one of the first Brits to die of an Aids-related illness on 4 July 1982, thereby bringing the dangers of sex crashing home. By the mid-1980s there were around 7,500 HIV cases in Britain and hard-hitting leaflets were delivered to every household in the country headlined: "Aids: Don't Die of Ignorance."

27. 'Lace', 1982

Shirley Conran's feminist bonkbuster about the relationships of four women sold more than three million copies and became a rite-of-passage for teenage girls and their mothers (and grandmothers) in the 1980s. Remembered for the line "Which one of you bitches is my mother?" – and the goldfish scene. See also: Jilly Cooper.

28. Internet porn, 1991

Tim Berners-Lee's world wide web has revolutionised the way we communicate, shop and do business. It's also the largest assemblage of bottoms in the history of the universe. A recent report estimated that 30 per cent of all web traffic is for adult sites. Looks like the Avenue Q song was right – the internet is for porn.

29. Madonna, 1992

With the release of her coffee-table book Sex (arty shots of a leather-clad Madge straddling a dog) and her album Erotica, Madonna's controversy -courting message of female sexual empowerment defined her career. And she's still flashing at 50. See also: Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, Lady Gaga.

30. The 'Brookside' kiss, 1994

The first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British television was between bobbly-knitwear-sporting teenagers Beth (Anna Friel) and Margaret (Nicola Stephenson) on Brookside. A significant part of British cultural history, it even got a mention in the Olympic opening ceremony, making it the first same-sex kiss to be screened in Saudi Arabia.

31. Online dating, 1995

Market leader Match.com launched back in 1995, and now more than nine million Brits log on to dating websites to find love at first byte. From Cougar Dating to JDate, about 30 per cent of relationships now arise from the internet. A subsection of sites purely for "erotic encounters" such as Shagaholic.com are thought to have more than 2.8 million users.

32. Viagra, 1996

When volunteers testing a drug for high blood pressure reported a suspicious number of erections, pharmaceuticals company Pfizer realised something was up. Literally. More than 37 million little blue pills have been prescribed in the UK, earning Pfizer more than £1bn a year. And only half of that's Hugh Hefner.

33. 'The Vagina Monologues', 1996

Drawing on interviews with more than 200 women, Eve Ensler wrote a series of monologues to "celebrate the vagina", one titled "Reclaiming Cunt". It has now been performed in 140 countries by all manner of celebrities. If your vagina could actually speak it'd ask never to be voiced by Christine Hamilton again.

34. The 'Crash' Controversy, 1996

David Cronenberg's film about a couple who fetishise car crashes caused tabloid furore, including the Daily Mail film critic Christopher Tookey's objection to "sex with cripples", which probably caused more offence to the disabled community than the film did.

35. 'Sex and the City', 1998

HBO's comedy about four single women in New York managed to be both funny and (mostly) realistic about sex, thereby spawning legions of fans, two terrible films and endless conversations about whether you were a Carrie/Samantha/Miranda/Charlotte. See also: Girls.

36. Rampant Rabbit, 1998

Though vibrators have been buzzing since Victorian times, they went truly mainstream after the Rabbit featured in an episode of Sex and the City (see above). So much so that Ann Summers sold a million of them in 12 months.

37. Dad and Dad, 1999

Tony and Barrie Drewitt-Barlow hit the headlines after they fought – and won – a battle to bring their surrogate twins home to the UK from California and became the first British same-sex couple to be named on their children's birth certificates. They now have five children and are planning a sixth.

38. The Sexual Offences (amendment) Act, 2000

Although in 1994 the homosexual age of consent was lowered to 18, it wasn't until 2000 that the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual men and women was equalised to 16 (and 17 in Northern Ireland). There had previously been no age of consent for lesbian sex.

39. Belle de Jour blog, 2003

While completing her doctoral studies, Brooke Magnanti began working as an escort and writing an anonymous blog about her sex-capades. Under the pen name of Belle de Jour she published two books and had her blog adapted into a TV series, before revealing her identity in 2009. See also: Girl With a One-Track Mind.

40. Vibrators sex up 'Good Housekeeping', 2003

The women's magazine for the over-50s, best known for its practical recipes and testing of household appliances, did its first ever survey of sex toys. The Rampant Rabbit came out top, if you're interested.

41. Lap dancing on the high street, 2003

Although Paul Raymond set up the first strip club in Soho back in 1958, in 2003 licensing laws put them in the same category as cafés. The number of strip clubs in Britain doubled to 300 and pole-dancing classes at every gym, hen do and drunken night out show just how normalised it has become.

42. Michael Winterbottom's '9 Songs', 2004

Director Michael Winterbottom proved that sex on screen still had the power to trigger the "art or porn?" debate with 9 Songs, which featured unsimulated sex scenes (yep, they're really doing it), including the only shot of an ejaculating penis in a mainstream feature film. See also: Don't Look Now, Intimacy, Lars von Trier's forthcoming Nymphomaniac.

43. 'Brokeback Mountain', 2005

It took eight years for the film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to find funding and it was initially released only to limited cinemas, but eventually "the gay cowboy movie" lassooed box-office gold and became one of the most honoured films in cinema history, despite missing out on a Best Picture Oscar (leading to accusations of homophobia within the Academy).

44. First ever civil partnership, 2005

The first civil partnership was between Matthew Roche and Christopher Cramp at St Barnabas Hospice, Worthing, West Sussex. The statutory 15-day waiting period was waived as Roche was suffering from a terminal illness. He died the following day. More than 100,000 people have entered a civil partnership since they became legal in 2005.

45. London's Masturbate-a-thon, 2006

In 1999 the Masturbate-a-thon was launched in – where else? – San Francisco to raise money for charity and remove the stigma surrounding self-pleasure. With the slogan "Come for a cause", London hosted Europe's first "wank-a-thon" in August 2006.

46. Grindr, 2009

Dubbed "the gay bar of the 21st century", the app which locates gay and bisexual men nearby using GPS has been downloaded by more than 2.6 million men in 192 countries and heralded a new age of sexual networking. A straight version, Blendr, was launched in 2011 but has yet to take off in the same way.

47. Gareth Thomas comes out, 2009

The Wales and British Lions rugby captain Gareth Thomas's public confirmation of his sexuality made him the world's only then-current professional male athlete in a team sport who was openly gay. He was named top of The Independent on Sunday's Pink List in 2010. See also: cricketer Steven Davies, boxer Orlando Cruz.

48. SlutWalk, 2011

Three thousand women took their "sluttiness" to the streets – marching in bras and panties – in protest after a Toronto police officer suggested that to remain safe, women should "avoid dressing like sluts". The movement has divided feminists, some calling it "the pornification of protest".

49. The first gay superhero, 2012

Although there have been doubts about Batman and Robin for years, the first major comic-book hero to come out of the cartoon closet was the Green Lantern. After 72 years, DC Comics confirmed Hal Jordan would be reintroduced as gay, prompting outrage from a Christian family group. And Wonder Woman.

50. 'Fifty Shades of Grey', 2012

EL James brought BDSM (that's bondage, dominance, sadomasochism, by the way) to the masses after her "Mommy porn" sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, mainly thanks to downloads on e-readers. The start of a new sexual revolution? Or just the same old submissive-woman cliché repackaged for the Kindle age?

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