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Growing Up by Peter Doggett review – the seamy underbelly of free love | Society books

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In 1964, Germaine Greer arrived in Cambridge from Australia to study for a PhD in English Literature. The subject of her thesis was love and marriage in Shakespeare’s early comedies, but in truth, Petruchio and co were not her only preoccupations. Cambridge, with its large population of men in what she described as “the full flower of their potency”, seemed to Greer to be “an ideal spot for the dedicated practitioner of the arts of love”. By her own admission, she was elated at what she saw as “the vastness” of the opportunity for “proselytising”.

But, alas, the male fleshpots of Cambridge – otherwise known, I assume, as pubs – turned out to be a disappointment: “For six months after I arrived, the only sex I experienced directly, apart from endlessly repeated discussions in which I found it necessary to explain that there had been improvements upon coitus interruptus as a contraceptive method … was the sight of three grubby, scrawny men in their 40s, who derived some satisfaction from exposing to me their genitals, pallid and bluish in the frosty air.”

If she were to “infiltrate the wilds of Bohemia”, she realised, she would have to travel to London, where the sexual menu was altogether more “promising” – and where, having chosen from it freely, she would eventually publish an article in Richard Neville’s underground magazine, Oz, called In Bed With the English.

A strip club in Old Compton Street, London, August 1964
A strip club in Old Compton Street, London, August 1964. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

It probably goes without saying that Greer was a swashbuckler; her bravado, which would endure long after the 60s ended, should always be taken with a pinch of salt. But still, this story of corduroy trousers, unyielding even in the face of so much antipodean determination, illustrates rather neatly the difference between perceptions of the 60s and reality – a yawning gap that Peter Doggett makes the most of in Growing Up: Sex in the Sixties, his fascinating but deeply strange new book about the decade.

As he notes, the montages so beloved of TV documentary-makers – the fuzzy clips of gyrating hippies with flowers in their hair – don’t tell even half the story. Decades are not neat. Just as the 60s would not really get going for most people until some time in 1975 (at least), the 50s hung about like a bad smell long after 1960. The so-called revolution walked hand in hand with something altogether more repressive: a backwards tug that enabled the old double standards so far as men and women go not just to survive, but to thrive.

In the same year that Greer found herself explaining birth control to bearded men in polo necks, the designer Rudi Gernreich unveiled his “monokini”, a swimsuit that left the breasts uncovered. Bare breasts were, seemingly, all the rage; in the Daily Mirror, Marjorie Proops informed her readers that – good news! – Carnegie Models’ topless crepe dress had already been ordered by more than one London store.

But really, who was ever going to wear such things? As a reader of Tit-Bits (not as naughty as it sounds) put it: “I wouldn’t show my figure to anyone – not even my husband.” Swerving the obvious territory of the Chatterley trial and the Profumo scandal, Doggett sets out to show that in 60s Britain, most radical concepts were only notional, the revealing of too much flesh to the world among them.

He doesn’t buy, or not wholeheartedly, the liberation that came, for women, with the pill, legalised abortion and (yes) tights. The sexual revolution was, he believes, a smokescreen for a more problematic and enduring change, one that objectified women’s bodies like never before, establishing underage girls in particular as legitimate subjects of adult desire (he traces this back, in part, to Nabokov’s Lolita, Stanley Kubrick’s film of which was released in 1962). If “filth” of the kind that Mary Whitehouse made it her mission to outlaw seems quaint now – an innocent BBC comedy drama called Swizzlewick, set in a fictional Midlands town, shrivelled and died when she objected to it – life for many women in the 60s must still have felt, at moments, pretty unbearable.

Doggett’s speciality in Growing Up is to provide detailed accounts of court cases involving sexual assault and murder where the male offender inevitably gets off with little more than rapped knuckles, though, as he also makes clear, such attitudes were hardly restricted to stodgy judges and juries. The liberal intelligentsia was just as bad. In films such as Alfie, A Kind of Loving and Room at the Top, sex inevitably spells doom – for women at least. The philosophy espoused by Emmanuel Petrakis, which had it that men are pre-eminent, and women there to serve them, was particularly prevalent in the 60s underground.

It has to be said that the reader of Growing Up must plough through some quite peculiar and gratuitous stuff: on our behalf, he has (making like Kate Millet, only without the theory) reread John Updike’s 1968 novel Couples, with its lavish descriptions of “ivory rods”, and even Leslie Thomas’s ghastly bestseller, The Virgin Soldiers. But I think, in the end, that I’m prepared to forgive its author these strange interludes.

He understands, better than many, that half of the human race is still paying the price for the insurgency that started, and then stalled, in this period. “If it were possible at this moment for women to take their masochism and radicalise it, there would be the bloodiest revolution ever,” said Jane Arden, whose play, Vagina Rex, was staged in London in 1969. In Growing Up, women’s suffering can be found on almost every page, the new, guilt-free lives they’ve read about only ever, for them, a chimera.

Growing Up: Sex in the Sixties by Peter Doggett is published by Vintage (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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