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Page last updated at 13:11 GMT, Monday, 18 January 2010

Five key moments in Britain's sexual revolution

Page 3 peeper

The sexual revolution may have started in the 60s, but for most of Britain it took until the 70s and 80s for attitudes to really change. So how did it happen?

For a long time sex was something the average British family did not talk about, but in the 1970s that started to change.

A BBC Two series tracing the recent history of the British family identifies a number of key events that changed attitudes.


If one book in particular illustrated how much attitudes to sex had changed among British people it was Shirley Conran's Lace.

The British Family series, presented by Kirsty Young, continues on Monday at 2100 GMT on BBC Two
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Published in 1982, the novel traces the relationships of four women who became friends at school - and one of who gives birth to an illegitimate child. It was incredibly explicit for the time, but it was also considered groundbreaking for other reasons.

Lace told women it was all right to be single, to be sexual and to be successful. It was also a huge mainstream hit, selling a million copies and ending up on family bookshelves across the nation. Reading it and passing it round to friends became something of a rite of passage for teenage girls - and many boys - who'd sneaked it off their parents' bookshelf.

"The main thing about the book was that it was a novel about sex written from the woman's point of view," says Ms Conran, who made her name in the 70s with Superwoman, a meditation on women who combine career ambitions with being a wife and mother.

"It sold by the bucketful. When I heard 14 and 15 year olds were passing in around in brown paper wrappers I was really thrilled because I knew it had got to my audience."


Ten years earlier, a different sort of book had started to bring the idea of sexual enjoyment and experimentation into millions of homes - The Joy Of Sex.

Dr Alex Comfort
The man behind The Joy of Sex - Dr Alex Comfort

When it was first published in 1972 it helped to shape already changing attitudes. It had graphic illustrations, suggested positions like the "goldfish" and had chapters on subjects such as "foursomes and moresomes". To date it has sold eight million copies.

Thinking back four decades, Barbara Bloomfield, who was a teenager at the time, recalls how her mother put it on the family bookshelf. For a family that rarely talked about emotions, let alone sex, it was incredible.

"She put it among all the old-fashioned books. There was The Joy of Sex, it was like a beacon," recalls Ms Bloomfield.


If the Joy of Sex was the first publication to bring graphic sexual imagery into many a home, it wasn't the first to introduce nudity. That taboo was breached by the Sun newspaper which delivered topless women daily to breakfast tables up and down the country, courtesy of its Page 3 feature.

Just a few years earlier such pictures would have been viewed by most as pornography and when the topless shots were first published, a lot of people still thought they were. Indeed, 40 years on, this daily depiction of a semi-naked woman in a mass market newspaper still has the power to offend. Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, spoke out against it last year.

But in the 1970s Page 3 signified how sex was sweeping through British family life and was a key part in the explosion of sexual imagery that was happening.


The internet has brought pornography on tap, but in the 70s sexually stimulating material was distinguished by its rarity. The film Debbie Does Dallas was in the vanguard of porn's popularisation. For many, not only was it the first time they had seen a pornographic movie but the first time they'd seen anything sexual on screen.

"It was like wow, it was quite a moment," says John Astley, who was a young, married man when it was released in 1978. "I'd never seen anything so sexual on film."

Relaxing sexual attitudes and the growing availability of VCR machines combined to attract a significant audience. Some credit it with being key to the early take-up of video machines.

"Everybody saw Debbie Does Dallas," says Judy Astley. "We [Judy and husband John] watched it together with a couple of other people for a laugh one night. We had drinks and food.

"There were some very funny scenes in it. Feeling it was funny was quite useful in covering the slightly shocked element. I thought 'blimey, people really do make films like this'."

It was a time when sex was becoming more available on the High Street in many ways. The number of top-shelf magazines alone went from three to 50 in Britain during the decade. The first Ann Summers sex shop also opened in London.


Terrence Higgins was one of the first Britons to die of a disease that brought the dangers of sex crashing through everyone's front door.

COI's Don't Die of Ignorance Campaign
Every home got a leaflet

He died of AIDS on 4 July, 1982, and by the mid 1980s there were around 7,500 HIV cases in Britain. As numbers steadily mushroomed, the government was being warned that every household in Britain could be affected in some way by the disease.

It had to act and the result was a campaign that would grab the attention of the British public. Leaflets were delivered to every household in the country headlined: "AIDS: DON'T DIE OF IGNORANCE."

"It was a huge moment," says Stephen Knight, a young man at the time. "It was a real stop sign. There's still a lot of people having sex and people having irresponsible sex, but not in the way they did then. That's changed vividly."

Edwina Currie was brought in to work on the campaign by her then boss Norman Fowler.

"We were desperate to get a campaign going," she says. "Before long you found yourself thinking 'we've got to do this for the whole population'. Because at that moment in Britain it was among the gay community, but it could break out in the main community at any time."

Below is a selection of your comments.

The answer is so obvious it hardly needs discussion. The Pill. Coupled with (pardon the pun) better diet, housing etc meant earlier physical maturity etc. Without cheap and effective birth control, the western world would be little further forward than less developed countries.
Peter Bolt, Redditch, UK

This is all window dressing for men - what about the impact of the Hite report on female sexuality?
Stuart Wright, Havant, UK

I remember reading the novel Lace...gosh! That seems like centuries ago - 1989 and yes the book was passed around in brown bag, under shirts, in toilets. I was still in school and in the UAE. Such books meant MAJOR trouble for the students, particularly that our school is a convent school and run by very strict nuns. It was passed around the class - all 30 girls.
Zainab, Southampton

All the publication examples in the list pale into insignificance in comparison with the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960. The Obscene Publications Act (1959) allowed a defence of literary quality and the trial of Lady Chatterlay for obscenity ended in a "not guilty" verdict. It was this verdict that opened the way for all the more explicit books and photos that followed.
Chris Nuttall, London

I am astonished to think that the Page 3 Girl is seen as a positive thing for the sexual revolution. What is annoying about this article is the implication that we have achieved sexual enlightenment. Far from it, we now (thanks to page 3) have a very limited view of female sexuality. Women spend thousands of pounds making themselves look like porn stars with massive breasts, fake eyelashes, fake nails, and most recently, surgery on their fully waxed genitals. Please don't be fooled into thinking that this is a positive. The sexual revolution has only taught us to treat each other like meat.
Heather Stanbury, Exeter

No mainstream US newspaper would put a topless woman in it, even now in 2010. Say what you will about the Brits, but we Americans are way ahead of them in uptightness about sex.
K in OH, Columbus, Ohio

I would have thought the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover, the school kids' issue of Oz magazine, the Gay News trial and the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 would all have been milestones worthy of note, if one was charting the sexual revolution.
Jan Altus, London, UK

Marie Stopes' work deserves to be included in a list of key moments.
Nick, Cardiff

You missed #6 - the invention of Barcardi Breezer.
Richard, London

What about 1932 - the year that latex condom manufacture began in Britain?
Ben Turner, London, UK

Strewth. I must have been living on another planet. I was a teenager from '77 and I never even heard of Lace til I read this article. We never had the Sun in our house and I can assure that my parents had no copies of the Joy of Sex - just three kids. And I can categorically assure we had no Debbie Does Dallas - we had no VCR. So your use of "everyone" is shy of at least one person. I think you're suffering from a very common generational delusion - every generation thinks it "discovered" sex. In reality we are just the first generation with mass media. I'd refer you to pre-Victorian generations, like Charles II, and what Suetonius says they got up to in Roman days.
John McCormick, Northampton

As a student in the mid-70s I was able to enjoy the fruits of the sexual revolution with no need to bother with condoms, as girls who were sexually active were generally on the Pill. It was a liberated time both in actions and thinking, hippie free love was history and pretty much anything did indeed go. But come the 1980s Aids put a stop to all that, with the risk that finally there was something that couldn't be cured by a visit to the clap clinic, and could actually kill you. Condoms became more of a must, taking away a lot of the spontaneity that made the 70s so much fun and we were all told (amid much gleeful hand-rubbing by the moralists) that it was no longer OK to have many partners.
Des, Herts

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