One day in 1981 I noticed that a woman I had passed in the street and tried to greet, the friend of a friend, had studiously ignored me. A couple of weeks later she appeared to cross the road to avoid me, chin jutting determinedly away from my direction. So far as I knew I had never been “cut” like this in my life and I made inquiries. Apparently Antony Sher was to blame, with the aid of Malcolm Bradbury because my acquaintance had been so appalled by BBC Television’s version of Bradbury’s The History Man starring Sher as the libidinous lecturer Howard Kirk that she had decided to eschew all persons in academic employment. There is quite a lot of irony in all this: Sir Antony, as he now is, is something of a hero of mine, but he is gay and chiefly known for epic performances on the classical stage. But back in 1981 he was doing a good job of giving a universities a bad name with his portrayal of a predatory heterosexual on the small screen. But it wasn’t just the telly; the lady in question also knew that as soon as her friend’s husband had disappeared on a business trip a real history man had turned up on the doorstep expecting things he had no right to expect. That was enough to establish that the university was a moral cesspit.
My not-friend was right, though probably slightly out of date and possibly for the wrong reasons. The mores of the university were different from those of the town, though less so than they had been: Bradbury’s novel was first published in 1975 so it was essentially about the early seventies which I think were the peak for the campus as a den of iniquity. Ex-policemen of a certain age will tell you that in that period the University of Warwick campus was the epicentre of illegal drug distribution in the area though the situation changed quite rapidly thereafter. But the sexual freedom of the university was real as well. There were quite wide social circles in which sexual behaviour duplicated that previously seen only among privileged classes like aristocracies and film stars and certainly not in a university. In the terms of a previous generation there was quite a large and eclectic “fast set” which you could join simply by turning up early evening in a particular bar. An observer could tick off the permutations: staff/student went unremarked, but catering manager/English lecturer was noted as was retired soldier/sportsgirl. In this period girls with regular boyfriends or financees (whether on the campus or not) did not seem to assume that their relationships precluded their right to “flings”.
And it was a revolution in the normal sense of rapid, fundamental change. Only half a decade earlier I had been an undergraduate in an Oxford which still seemed essentially Victorian in its assumptions. You could be “rusticated” from a men’s college for having a woman in your room during proscribed hours, notwithstanding the head porter’s frequent remark that it was possible to have an erection at any time of day. It was said that in Lady Margaret Hall that if an inmate entertained a man in her rooms the bed had to be removed to the corridor. Cue head porter’s remarks on the viability of the floor as an option. But I think we can ignore the worldly cynicism of the head porter, a former military man, and conclude that there was actually relatively little sex going on in the Oxford of the 1960s. Opportunities were brief and limited. Young women had every reason to fear the consequences in terms of disease and incompetent contraception: they could ruin lives. My guess is that a substantial minority of my contemporaries, if not a majority, graduated as virgins though this must be qualified by the acknowledgment of a general intellectual difficulty, that any kind of facts and figures about sex are almost entirely unreliable, even worse than those about crime.
There is always an available theory, expounded mostly in pubs, that nothing really changes. This theory suggests that the amount of sex going on is constant, but people keep quiet about it during puritanical periods and boast and exaggerate when permissiveness is the self-image of the age. The massive anecdotal evidence which I inadvertently accumulated contradicts this theory. Things really did change. I must acknowledge that I am talking about place as well as time. Warwick – and probably all the new universities if you go by the fiction set in them – was a good deal more libertine than older institutions. I was around Oxford and Stanford in California also during this period and the differences were considerable. When a television fiction was set at Warwick, in the form of Andrew Davies’ A Very Peculiar Practice (though it was not filmed on the campus) it included an episode in which the medical team had to deal with a revived strain of venereal disease: everybody gets it, including the vice-chancellor, played by John Bird.
If you are the sort of determinist who thinks morals largely follow functional necessity, then this period is easily explicable. Conditions had changed. The pill was a reliable form of contraception and anti-biotics almost eradicated sexually transmitted diseases as well as massively reducing the harm they did if you were infected. The far more complex factor is the decline of shame. There were perhaps deep intellectual roots to sexual permissiveness, ranging from Freud to the Utilitarians, but at a low and immediate level it was a change in fashion. Leaders of opinion were liberated. Promiscuity and progress went hand in hand, symbolised by the dreaded Howard Kirk.
Naturally, as revolutionaries do, we thought this change was permanent. Conditions changed and so did mores. Venereal diseases fought back against anti-biotics and the pill turned out to be more complex medically than had been blithely assumed. So far as the campus was concerned the most immediate change was demographic. In the early 1970s nearly everyone was under thirty and there were new appointments every year. But from 1976 to 1989 my own department appointed one person, specifically a “new blood” appointment. We all grew old together: along came the grey hairs and the paunches and the children and all that libidinous activity seemed crushingly inappropriate – to most of us, anyway. And anyone who was appointed had worked hard for their job and was likely to be serious in their ambitions. I, like some others of my generation, had picked up an academic job as a kind of birthright and treated it as a radical alternative to work. (I had a permanent post at the age of twenty two.)
Feminism changed. The first feminists I came across were clear eyed types who were likely to look you straight in the eye and proposition you because it was their free and equal right to do so. This made a refreshing change from the forms of coyness which young women thought they had to assume in more ordinary circumstances. Then they were replaced – largely, though not entirely, by doctrines which portrayed most sexual activity as highly ambivalent if not clearly repressive. Libertinism had become conservative and some conservatives were libertines. I find it an interesting little straw in the wind that at the end of the final episode of the television version of The History Man there was a caption to the effect that in the 1979 General Election Howard Kirk, previously thought of a a trendy lefty, had voted Conservative.
The sexual revolution both widened and narrowed. It widened insofar as the mores of the campus spread to other sectors of society – though I’m not convinced that, in spreading, it retained the kind of cocksure libertinism which proscribed jealousy. But it also narrowed spiritually, becoming tainted by concerns of coercion and appropriateness. In all sorts of ways the idea of the autonomous individual was undermined. The best illustration of this was what happened to homosexuality. It was, of course, de rigeur in the circles in which I moved in the early seventies to regard homosexual relations as being of equal worth with heterosexual, an evaluation which differed from that made by most of society. Such relations existed overtly, including between staff and students. I remember one distinguished professor bemoaning to me over a drink that he had no homosexual feelings; generally, he favoured variety of experience and his narrowness of taste deprived him, he said, of a major range of variety in what was in other respects a context with an unusually high potential for variety of experience. The widespread acceptance of homosexuality is one of the more lasting benefits of the sexual revolution.
But the change has been complicated. When I was an undergraduate in a university which consisted of single sex colleges and which was well over 80% male homosexuality was the classic elephant in the room to be muttered and snickered about rather than discussed properly. There were at least three heads of colleges and numerous fellows whose attempts to seduce male undergraduates were prolific and notorious. Nobody ever complained; it would have seemed very poor form to do so and would have involved the police as homosexual acts even between consenting males were not legally permitted until the year I graduated. Yet more recently the head of an Oxford college was pressured into resigning because of remarks he had made about the attractiveness of the first (rowing) eight, remarks which would have passed unnoticed back in the day.
A similar contrast can be made citing the case of Professor Nicholas Goddard (“Old Nick” in films, apparently). He was forced to resign in 2016 because of his not very secret involvement with erotica. When I arrived at Warwick one English lecturer posed as a “page three” girl and another, Germaine Greer, could be seen revolving her tasseled breasts in opposite directions on Granada’s Nice Time, whose principal host was Kenny Everett. I did relish the story told by an undergraduate who watched the show with his father. The latter sat open-mouthed, forcing out the words, “AND-THAT-IS-YOUR-SHAKESPEARE-TUTOR?” It was all treated as good fun and showed how far on we had moved from the stuffy milieu of Lucky Jim.
Everything nowadays seems less fun by a huge margin. I used to glory in the relaxed atmosphere of the campus and how staff and students socialised together; apart from anything else I think people learned a lot. It later all seemed to become more American with people worried about grades and coercive relationships. And it brings in the disease of excessive regulation. You can’t ultimately define the difference between flirting and sexual harassment because it depends on deep subtleties of interacting personalities. I am well aware that in making this comparison between past and present I am putting a view which is both personal and specifically male. So I must address the question of what happened to the (fairly) naughty girls of the 1970s. I remember that Barbara Cartland was still around in those days and she would say that promiscuous women invariably became “coarse, hardened and bitter”, a view strangely echoed by some feminists. In my experience this view is hopelessly wrong: some of the (fairly) naughty girls are among the most successful, happy and generous of people. But this is mere anecdote and conjecture: someone else can do the research and write the book. Personally I can only be grateful for having spent a decade as a libertine and four as a family man, living in ways that my father and his father wouldn’t have dreamed about, including the knowledge that you can love a little and for a short time as well as a lot and for a long time. I will not be joining the line of libertines who turned puritan like St. Augustine and Malcolm Muggeridge.
A version of this article first appeared in Times Higher Education.