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:
novelist, columnist and broadcaster; prize-winning journalist; regular contributor, BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day
chief executive, British Pregnancy Advisory Service; author, The Moral Case for Abortion
editor, FT Weekend Magazine; former assistant editor, Independent on Sunday; former deputy editor, New Statesman
chief leader writer, the Observer
journalist, Slate; author, Bearing Right: how conservatives won the abortion war
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
There is a sense that more straightforward access to abortion, and in particular the advent of the abortion pill, with which a pregnancy can be ended without any surgical intervention, has given us all a much more lax attitude towards casual relationships and unprotected sex because the consequences can be so swiftly eliminated with a handful of medication.Clare Murphy, Independent, 23 October 2011
Every parent I know dislikes the fact that most pre-teens are regularly exposed to explicitly raunchy music videos. Yet I can’t help feel this obsession with sexualisation whiffs of panic and overreaction. It hides behind the shield of children to argue for the usual illiberal litany of bans, censorship and regulations. It finds easy scapegoats, exaggerates evidence and sensationalises reality.Claire Fox, Herald, 26 June 2011
David Cameron is right that our society is saturated with sexual imagery – but his proposals won’t solve the problem.Neil Davenport, spiked, 9 June 2011
Abortion is — or should be seen as — at best, a necessary evil.Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail, 1 March 2011
The church of England is encouraging Britons to get married - so they can enjoy a 'spectacular' sex life.Sarah Westcott, Daily Express, 24 October 2008
Children as young as 5 may be taught about relationshipsDavid Rose and Sam Coates, The Times, 20 June 2008