Coarse sex and cheap lives

Saturday 29 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Courtyard Gallery

Has sexual permissiveness backfired? For many who once championed the ‘sexual revolution’, serious doubts have begun to surface that the permissiveness of the 1960s is responsible for today’s culture of pornography, vulgar sexual language and moral disorientation. For example, Joan Bakewell, a former symbol of sexual open-mindedness, wrote last year, ‘The liberal mood back in the ’60s was that sex was pleasurable and wholesome and shouldn’t be seen as dirty and wicked’. Her lament now is that sexual permissiveness has merged with commercialisation, leading to sexualised clothes for little girls, lurid TV programmes and sex magazines taking over newsagents’ shelves. Bakewell also noted that while the Pill and abortion gave women more choice, the belief that ‘girls would grow to handle the new freedoms wisely’ may have been naïve.

So has 1960s liberalism had unintended consequences? Melanie Phillips notes that while the framers of the original legislation to liberalise abortion were humane (responding to the dangerous back-street butchery of desperate women), ‘they never foresaw that abortion would turn into a routine form of contraception’. Every year, about 200,000 women in England and Wales will have an abortion; and one in three will have an abortion over her lifetime. With the development of the ‘abortion pill’, pregnancies at under nine weeks’ gestation can be terminated by women swallowing two pills, and abortion providers are arguing for women to be able to take the second of these pills at home, leading to the further ‘de-medicalisation’. Phillips is not alone in noting an increasing disquiet about the rate of abortions and ‘the coarsening of values that it has brought in its wake’. Beyond the traditional pro-choice, pro-life divide, there is a concern that Britain’s high abortion numbers reflect a culture where sex and intimate relationships are treated casually and human life is de-valued.

Has abortion become ‘too easy’, and so normal that moral questions about the value of fetal life are being ignored? Do Britain’s abortion statistics reflect a coarsening of our attitudes to sex and life? Should women be encouraged to think more before they choose? More broadly, is permissiveness a disavowal of moral values? Or might we evolve a new sexual morality reflecting genuinely-held feelings rather than prudery or prurience? Is today’s ‘pornification’ a result of excessive tolerance, or is society’s obsession with sex caused by other influences that trivialise human relationship? Or is the alleged ‘raunch culture’ simply a myth? Do those who espouse permissiveness, liberalism and experimentation have to take responsibility for decadence and moral relativism, or is there a way to advocate freedom and choice while still holding firm moral principles?

Listen to session audio:


Anne Atkins
novelist, columnist and broadcaster; prize-winning journalist; regular contributor, BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day

Ann Furedi
chief executive, British Pregnancy Advisory Service; author, The Moral Case for Abortion

Sue Matthias
editor, FT Weekend Magazine; former assistant editor, Independent on Sunday; former deputy editor, New Statesman

Yvonne Roberts
chief leader writer, the Observer

William Saletan
journalist, Slate; author, Bearing Right: how conservatives won the abortion war

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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Coarse sex and cheap lives

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