There’s something rather perplexing to turn on a programme titled History of Sex and find yourself watching footage of hippies in San Francisco. After all, contrary to what the Americans may suggest, free love and kinky canoodling didn’t begin in California. Ancient Hindus did it, as our temples and temple traditions tell us, as did the Ancient Greeks, and all that is way more historical than 1969. The fact that Victorian England frowned upon sex and preferred to treat it like a dirty secret had far-reaching consequences for a vast number of cultures all over the world because imperial Britain imposed its Puritanical morality over its global empire. But History Channel’s History of Sex series ignores all this. In the first documentary of this series, which premiered last night, it all begins with Sex in ’69: The Sexual Revolution in America.
Abrupt a beginning as it might be, it is true that in the 20th century, 1969 was year that changed everything about the way we consider sex and sexuality. It was the year that sex came out of the bedroom and took to the streets, the television and the stage. Sex in ’69 offered viewers a quick guided tour through the year’s landmarks. The title makes it quite evident that this is not a documentary for the underaged. The word sex pops up very often and there are many naked bodies, with key bits blurred, no doubt so as to not offend our tender Indian sensibilities. There are images from Playboy, Penthouse as well as videos that hint at eroticism.
Sex in ’69 began with a nostalgic ode to the height of the hippiedom, which was a gentle but unyielding resistance to the conservative era that preceded it. How the district of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco became the nerve centre of hippie subculture, no one knows, but that’s what happened. Sex in ’69 asked a number of people who were in Haight-Ashbury in the mid-1960s about that time and it seems everything was idyllic, drug-addled and happy. LSD was easily available, property was cheap, and free love was in the air. “It was truly freedom,” recalled one of Haight-Ashbury’s regulars.
By 1969, however, that idyll was under siege. Articles like the one Hunter S Thompson had written about “Hashbury” put San Francisco in the spotlight and Haight-Ashbury attracted the attention of criminals and anti-social elements who wanted to exploit the free-for-all atmosphere. Quickly, the hippies drifted away from Haight-Ashbury, which became almost derelict. Thanks to the travelling hippies, however, their open, unashamed sexuality surfaced elsewhere in America.
In January 1969, Hugh Hefner showed up on American television with a show titled, Playboy After Dark, in which the viewer got to attend one of Hefner’s parties where he would chat with guests like Jerry Garcia of the band, The Grateful Dead. He would also occasionally canoodle with an obliging pretty young woman. Basically, imagine Koffee with Karan, with a lot of Playboy bunnies and some dancing, and you have Playboy After Dark.
In March, Jim Morrison created a storm when he was accused of flashing his penis during a concert in Florida. According to Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist of The Doors, there was evidence of Morrison swearing but not exposing himself. However, the local government charged Morrison with profanity and lewd behaviour. For Morrison, it became a fight about the principle of free expression, rather than the actuality of whether or not his penis had been on view. In an interview, Morrison said that he didn’t think that nudity or profanity were essential to art, but that if an artist wanted to make use of nudity or profanity, they should have the right to do so. Otherwise, one’s freedom of expression is limited. Interestingly for a country that takes such pride in its First Amendment, Morrison was found guilty and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. (His lawyers appealed this decision and Morrison died before the case reached a conclusion.)
There was no doubt about the flesh on display in the Broadway play Oh Calcutta, which opened in June 1969. Featuring a naked cast, the show was avant-garde theatre, created by British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. Oh Calcutta received dismal reviews but played to packed houses for years, travelled to London, had a Broadway revival and enjoyed 5,959 performances altogether. It’s such a shame they didn’t manage 1,000 more shows to reach a more metaphorically suited number.
Sex in ’69 leaves you with more questions than answers, not the least of which is why Tynan named his show Oh Calcutta. Still, it is a neat little introduction to those dramatic few years in modern history. If the way this documentary is made and written feels dated — Brian Bacino’s voiceover, for instance, sounds about as vintage as the flower children — it’s because Sex in ’69 was made back in 1999. Of course, the footage of naked people prancing about and couples having sex is still too risque for India in 2014, which is why all the nipples and genitalia are blurred. There’s some serious irony at play when you have to censor something in a documentary about freedom. Because that, as Sex in ’69 persuasively argues, is what hippie culture was about: to love freely was to think freely. And perhaps it’s the simplicity of that idea that makes it so fascinating to us even today. Still, kudos to History Channel for tapping into India’s repressed sexual curiosity and daring to introduce some undeniably adult content into its programming.
The parallel that Sex in ’69 sets up between being sexual repression and conservative thinking is a thought provoking one. It might seem like a stretch to suggest everything from feminism to rock music can be traced back to a bunch of kookie people doing yoga in the nude in a public park, but Sex in ’69 does a good job of arguing that the hippie subculture urged America to question the rules that were in place, which in turn led to change as well as social progress. That spirit of questioning which lies at the root of the hippie subculture is also the foundation for so many of the liberal, modern values that we cherish today.
As a first episode, Sex in ’69 is an abrupt beginning and one that ignores an enormous amount of history. Yet it’s also an interesting place to start because this period of American history offers an interesting perspective upon India today. We can’t have men and women go on Valentine dates in public spaces without being threatened with marriage, so lying around naked in the grass or performing a show like Oh Calcutta is inconceivable despite the fact that we’ve fast-forwarded almost 50 years. On the other hand, we’re grappling with a lot of the issues that America was debating in the 1960s, including the tussle between obscenity, offence and freedom of expression. Maybe all we need is free love?