Before I unleash my inner-Daily Express, let’s establish two caveats to this theory. First, sexual abuse certainly existed prior to the 1960s. The infrequency of arrests is probably due to a culture of silence encouraged by patriarchy, but we still have plenty of evidence of both individual and systematic abuse of minors. Second, the sexual revolution liberated many. It’s simplistic to say that only men benefited from a culture of greater openness and experimentation. An example to the contrary was women’s growing control over their own sexual health. Second wave feminism is almost inseparable from the sexual revolution because both tried to give women greater independence and agency, which would eventually be the undoing of men like Savile (more on that later).
But the immediate downside of the sexual revolution is that it undid many of the social constraints that policed sexual behaviour. When The Pill hit the market, sex suddenly had fewer consequences and was redefined from a generative to a pleasurable act. In the 1950s, 60 per cent of Britons had sex before marriage but only with their intended spouse, and pregnancy led to marriage within the vast majority of cases. By the early 1990s, only 1 per cent of first time sexual encounters occurred within marriage.
Sex became ubiquitous and commercialised. That’s obvious from the culture of the period, which saw hemlines rise and the lyrics of pop songs become more overtly sexual. Free love was all the rage and TV and film encouraged the idea that sex was on tap – as evidenced by the now infamous clip of Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile getting comfy with underage girls on Savile’s show Clunk Click. It was a whirlwind of change: divorce became easier, the age of consent fell, strip clubs opened and homosexuality was legalised. The problem was that a society newly liberated from Victorian sexual rules hadn’t yet defined alternative boundaries of acceptable sexual practice. The confusion was aptly demonstrated by the openness of paedophile “rights” groups advocating the abolition of the age of consent. Poet Allen Ginsberg proudly told reporters, “I had sex when I was 8 with a man in the back of my grandfather's candy store in Revere, and I turned out okay!” The rest of society would beg to differ.
These problems were exacerbated by how long Britain’s creaking institutions took to catch up with the changes in sexual behaviour. Institutions that were defined by authoritarianism, hierarchy and – crucially – access to vulnerable people, lost their ethics but none of their power. Morally hollow, they were captured by networks of abusers who used them to their advantage. They were rarely investigated because while Victorian sexual attitudes were on the wane, deference to authority wasn’t yet lost. Teachers, priests and TV personalities still cast a spell. It’s shocking to read of children who told their parents that they were abused by Savile and their parents not only ignored the complaint but, in some cases, forced the child to apologise for making it.
After Britain divested itself of bourgeois Christian morality it had to find new ways of controlling aberrant behaviour. By the mid-1970s, it was starting to do so. One welcome change was the concept of children’s rights – the idea that children had personhood beyond parents or state. Slowly it became socially unacceptable to physically discipline children and they gained new leverages of power over adults, including organisations like ChildLine. The other movement that restored sexual limits was feminism. If the war that conservatives waged against sexual license just looked like antiquarian prudery, feminists redefined attacks on porn as a defence of women’s rights – and so created a new political constituency for sexual moderation. By the 1990s, it was unacceptable for men like Jimmy Savile to make unwanted advances to women. The arrival of the sexual harassment tribunal – although a frequent source of amusement to the tabloids – vastly improved the lives of millions of women. Perhaps it’s ironic, perhaps not, that the rather conservative forces of child and feminist rights were themselves products of the liberal 1960s. The very same age that gave us the sexual revolution also created the movements that would curtail and limit it. The Sixties wasn’t all bad, Peter Hitchens.
You might infer from nostalgiacs like Hitchens that nothing good whatsoever came out of the 1960s. But a greater regard for human rights and growing criticism of established authority did have their advantages as Britain tried to establish a post-Victorian social order. Nevertheless, the point stands that this transformation took too long to happen and for two decades the sexual revolution facilitated or excused the abusive practices of men like Savile. The 1960s and 1970s combined a) greater opportunity for sex, b) uncertainty about what was and what wasn’t acceptable and c) declining social sanction. It might seem strange that so many people knew about Savile’s behaviour and didn’t complain. But aside from his use of blackmail to silence critics, what’s equally remarkable is how many regarded Savile’s crimes as a big joke and effectively tolerated them. The rape of children was treated as (in the words of Esther Ranzen, founder of ChildLine) “green room gossip.”
That colleagues didn’t take immediate offence to Savile’s crimes doesn’t just testify to the corruption of television as an institution but of Britain as a society. The sexual revolution freed us from the constraints of Victorian morality. But, for a time, it unleashed a great sickness upon the world.