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The Permissive Society

Questions to prepare for seminar:

  1. To what extent did the 1960s see Britain transformed into a ‘Permissive’ society?
  2. What were the main causes of the changes that took place?
  3. Was the sexual revolution good or bad for women?

 Core Reading:

  • Hera Cook, ‘The English Sexual Revolution: Technology and Social Change’, History Workshop Journal, 59 (2005), 109-28.
  • Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher, ‘We weren’t the sort that wanted intimacy every night: Birth control and abstinence in England, c. 1930-1960’, History of the Family, 15 (2010), 139-60.
  • Frank Mort, ‘The Permissive Society Revisited’, 20th Century British History, 22 (2011), 269-98.


Further Reading:

  • Much of the debate on ‘permissiveness’ has focused on sexuality. For an excellent overview: Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 (1989), especially chapter 13 ‘The Permissive Moment’. For emphasis on the importance of the 1960s but set in a longer perspective: Hera Cook, The Long Sexual Revolution. Challenging to the degree to which attitudes in relation to sexuality changed before the sexual revolution: Kate Fisher and Simon Szreter, Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963. Also: Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England since 1830 (1987); Cate Haste, Rules of Desire. Sex in Britain: World War 1 to the Present (1992); Arthur Marwick, British Society since 1945, chapter 15 'Gimme a Man After Midnight'. For particular aspects: Marcus Collins, 'The Pornography of Permissiveness: Men's Sexuality and Women's Emancipation in Mid-20th Century Britain', History Workshop Journal, 47 (1999), 99-120; Chris Waters, 'Disorders of the Mind, Disorders of the Body Social: Peter Wildeblood and the Making of the Modern Homosexual', in B. Connekin, F. Mort & C. Waters (eds.), Moments of Modernity, pp. 134-151; Liz Stanley, Sex Surveyed, 1949-1994 (1995); Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out (1977); Barbara Brookes, Abortion in England 1900-1967 (1988); James Hampshire and Jan Lewis, ‘”The Ravages of Permissiveness”: Sex Education and the Permissive Society’, 20th Century British History, 15 (2004), 290-312. On earlier shifts: Claire Langhammer, ‘Adultery in Post-War Britain’, History Workshop Journal, 62 (2006), 86-115; J. Costello, Love, Sex and War: Changing Values 1939-45 (1985). For parliamentary debate on abortion reform: Hansard 732 (1966-7) 1067-1163; and on homosexuality Hansard 724 (1965-6) 782-870, and 738 (1966-7), 1067-1150.
  • For a recent major case study centred on London: Frank Mort, Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society (2010)
  • More generally on permissiveness: Christie Davies, Permissive Britain: Social Change in the Sixties and Seventies (1975). And for insights on the retreat of the state as a guardian of values: S.J.D. Green & R.C. Whiting (eds.), The Boundaries of the State in Modern Britain (1996).
  • On the enemies of permissiveness and their role in construction of the idea of the permissive society: Lawrence Black, ‘Whose Finger on the Button? British Television and the Politics of Cultural Control’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 25 (2005), 547-75; Raphael Samuel, ‘Mrs Thatcher’s Return to Victorian Values’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 78 (1992), 9-29
  • On women: Elizabeth Wilson, Only Halfway to Paradise: Women in Postwar Britain, 1945-1968 (1980); Pat Thane, ‘Towards Equal Opportunities? Women in Britain since 1945’, in A. O’Day T. Gourvish (eds.), Britain since 1945 (1991); A. Coote & B. Campbell, Sweet Freedom: The Struggle for Women’s Liberation (1982) [chapter 8 ‘Sex’]; L. Segal, Making Trouble: Life and Politics (2008), pp.34-36; S. Rowbotham, Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties (2000); Carol Dyhouse, Girl Trouble.
  • For an assessment of whether the period saw moral decline: Alan Sked, Britain's Decline (1987), chapter 3.