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Scotland and the Heterosexual Revolution

Dr Charlie Lynch, explains how the sexual revolution was experienced in the West End of Glasgow in Scotland.
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CHARLIE LYNCH: The sexual revolution, a series of changes to sexual cultures and behaviours which took place during and after the 1960s, is a well-documented and studied global phenomenon. However, academic scholarship has tended to cluster around particular metropolitan centres, including London, Paris, New York, and San Francisco. My research focuses on Scotland, a country with a long Presbyterian heritage, and until recently, a predominantly socially conservative national identity. My oral histories of Scottish women and men who lived through the ’60s illuminate how a nation’s public sense of itself as morally uptight can in turn affect the way its citizens understand and later talk about their own experiences of changes in sexual attitudes and behaviours.
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Throughout this video, I will use the term “heterosexual revolution” to emphasise that the changes I discuss here related primarily to straight women and men. Scotland during this time can be understood as having been a stateless nation. By this, I mean that while it retained distinctive national institutions, such as the Church of Scotland and a separate legal system, Scotland was subsumed within the British Union state. One effect of this was that Scotland had a limited independent public sphere sustained by a delicate ecology of newspapers and regional television channels. Most of this reflected the dominant socially conservative character of Scottish society, and consequently amplified conservative opinions. For example, it meant that sexual discourses concerning liberation and emancipation struggled to gain traction.
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Whilst these did appear on the fringes of the media and student newspapers and the underground press, they could be dismissed as imports, and somehow un-Scottish. In turn, a legacy of this condition was that in the 21st century, there was no widely-accepted public story within Scottish culture about the sexual revolution which people could reference when asked about it during an interview. The dominant public story about the ’60s as a time of radical cultural ferment and experiment left little room for accommodation with most people’s more prosaic experiences of everyday life.
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In what follows, I will examine some oral history from a location in Scotland where the progress of the popular heterosexual revolution was more pronounced in the early 1970s than elsewhere, the West End of Glasgow. By popular sexual revolution, I mean that change was driven from below by mass individual agency, people altering the way in which they lived their lives. Around this time, the character of the West End changed. Social and economic change, including a huge expansion of higher education, fueled the reinvention of the district from being a place of Bourgeois values and stuffy Victorianism to that of a distinctive, socially-liberal zone of Glasgow. Here, innovations in lifestyle were being keyholed into Scottish society.
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Oral history interviewing revealed that young adults from elsewhere in Scotland congregated in the West End because it was a more relaxed, sophisticated, free and easy place for them to live. The tenement flats of the district and its network of pubs and eateries fostered a more liberal culture, and one that permitted experiment with casual sexual relationships, serial monogamy, and cohabitation. The stories that West Enders told about sexual revolution can be contextualised in relation to their previous alienation from conventional religion as teenagers in the late ’60s. Culturally-Protestant informants often told of church going in negative terms, and associated it with an older culture of conformity as well as the oppressive qualities of middle class lifestyles.
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From the early ’60s, the National Church of Scotland, or Kirk, had begun to experience problems retaining the allegiance of a then-novel category of person, the teenager. By the late ’60s, this youth crisis was apparent in locations across lowland Scotland. Closely related to this was the rapidly-declining prestige of conservative Christian discourses about heterosexuality. Notably, chastity, the idea that sex prior to marriage was intrinsically morally wrong, collapsed in popularity, and by the turn of the ’70s was becoming a niche theological obsession. West Enders told me of how they had become alienated from conventional religion or has been raised in families where the influence of churches was weak.
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For example, James explained how he and his brother had been forced by their parents to attend services at the very boring United Free Church in Milngavie. Anne told me of how, when growing up in Bishopbriggs, she had rebelled against churchgoing as a teenager, and in any case, her parents were fairly indifferent to religion. Experiences like this meant that these people were not restrained by conservative Christian ideas about heterosexuality, and when free from their parents and communities, embarked on experiments in sexual behaviour and in lifestyle. Some of the most striking stories I heard were supplied by women who had been influenced by the counter-culture.
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For example, Debbie told of how she had lost her virginity after a night out at the student union, while Anne moved to the West End in 1974 and experienced a personal sexual revolution amid a West End scene. As well as premarital sex and casual sexual encounters, a major structural change to how young people lived their lives was cohabitation before or outwith of marriage. While it subsequently emerged as a social norm, in the early ’70s, this remained a transgressive behaviour. A flavour of the views of the older generation can be supplied by L. David Levison, a senior Church of Scotland clergyman who imagined that cohabitation was psychologically harmful as well as socially undesirable.
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Meanwhile, for cohabitors, moving in together was a demonstration that they rejected older social conventions. Illustrating this, art student Gavin told me that he had moved in with his girlfriend because they “wanted to live as free creatures, and to hell with the conventions.” Meanwhile, for Alistair, sharing a flat with his girlfriend was fascinatingly remembered in terms of personal liberation and self-discovery. It also led to a minor domino effect as other people’s partners moved in, too. The example of oral history narrative from the West End illustrates the popular heterosexual revolution as well as understanding it in terms of broader cultural and religious transformations at work in Scottish society.
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But it was notable that there was no accessible public story within Scottish popular culture within which these people could key their memories. Finally, there are some aspects of the sexual culture of the period which we may now find curious, the popularity of early marriage as well as rigid gender roles and a suspicion of same-sex desire. But it is also clear that the early ’70s were a time of transformations which, although likely to have been much more pronounced in some areas of society than others, laid the foundation for continued change over the following decades, and the eventual dominance of a socially-liberal sexual culture.

Scholarship on the sexual revolution has tended to focus on cities such as London, Paris, New York and San Francisco. These were places with visible youth subcultures and where changes in sexual behaviours and attitudes were visible and pronounced. But what happens to our understanding of sexual change in this period when we switch focus to smaller, more religiously-conservative regions?

In this video, Dr Charlie Lynch, a researcher in the history of heterosexuality and religion at the University of Glasgow, explains how the sexual revolution was experienced in the West End of Glasgow in Scotland. Based on oral history interviews with Scottish women and men who lived throughout the 1960s, he reveals a contradictory picture of transformative change for some, including experimentation with casual sexual encounters and cohabitation outside marriage, coupled with the continuation of rigid gender roles and suspicion of same-sex desire.

He also shows how a nation’s sense of itself as morally upright can influence how people recall their own sexual experiences, with the dominant public story about ‘the Sixties’ far removed from most people’s more prosaic experiences of everyday life. Throughout, Charlie uses the term ‘popular sexual revolution’ to refer to change that was driven from below, by the agency of individual people.

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