Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Philip Larkin’s lines must be the most quoted in postwar British poetry, but who can resist?

Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me) – /Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban /And the Beatles’ first LP.

Fifty years on, we’re finishing an almost equally momentous year for sex in the west.

The nonstop news reports about gay marriage, paedophiles and laws against prostitution are confusing when taken in isolation. But put together, they add up to something revolutionary. In 2013, the equal relationship has become the new western orthodoxy – and it’s even gaining in appeal elsewhere in the world.

Larkin was right: sex in the west changed circa 1963. Before then, a marriage was something of an economic transaction: a woman typically couldn’t earn a living alone and so she needed a wage-earning husband. Nobody pretended the relationship would be equal. The husband had leeway to seek sex outside marriage, if he did it discreetly. Love, too, was an optional extra. The family existed chiefly for honour and child rearing.

That’s why The Beatles’ first LP felt revolutionary. Seemingly banal lyrics such as Love, love me do / You know I love you / I’ll always be true … suggested a new kind of relationship: two relatively equal partners choosing each other as soulmates for both love and sex.

Into the fray jumped the feminists. Writers such as Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan called for equal relationships. Long arguments ensued. Indeed, Americans spent much of Bill Clinton’s presidency debating the sexual legacy of the 1960s. But eventually, a new western consensus on relationships emerged, and it was as The Beatles had foreshadowed.

The new relationship required intimacy and dialogue. If those were absent, the partners divorced. (Impressively, the British sociologist Anthony Giddens foresaw all this in his 1992 book The Transformation of Intimacy.)

Few people today actually have an equal relationship. However, it’s the ideal that most westerners now pursue, explains Gert Hekma, historian of homosexuality at the University of Amsterdam. Hekma adds that that is why gay marriage is becoming socially approved: it’s the ultimate equal relationship, more so than heterosexual marriage where men typically have more power and money than women.

With hindsight, 2013 was the year when most western societies sanctified the equal relationship. States from the UK to Uruguay legalised gay marriage. More than that, though: unequal relationships came under attack.

Paedophilia had thrived largely unchallenged for millennia – indeed, for much of history girls married at about age 13. But with the equal relationship as new ideal, paedophilia has become indisputably taboo. In Britain, for instance, David Cameron’s main social policy is a crackdown on child pornography. Even the Pope – the ultimate lagging indicator of social change – shifted tack this year from harassing gays to worrying about paedophile priests.

Another unequal relationship, prostitution, is in trouble too. France’s National Assembly voted last week to follow a Scandinavian lead and criminalise prostitutes’ clients. In the past, it was usually conservatives who condemned prostitution as a threat to the traditional family. Now leftists are condemning it as unequal.

Even unequal marriages are under attack. Once upon a time, when a rich older man married a young woman, they might both have expected congratulations from friends. Now they can expect mockery. This autumn the New York City Opera devoted what proved to be its last production to Anna Nicole Smith, the late Playboy playmate who married an 89-year-old billionaire. Her comment when he died a year later – “I don’t understand why God took him and didn’t take me” – has become a modern classic. Like the endlessly mocked British footballers’ wives, Smith stands for everything now considered wrong about unequal transactional marriage.

The ideal of the equal relationship hasn’t yet won over the world beyond the west. Russia and China aren’t about to introduce gay marriage, for instance. Nonetheless, the west still has the biggest megaphone, and its new rhetoric about equal relationships does get heard worldwide. For some non-westerners, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the talk sounds threatening; but for a young gay man in Uganda, or an aspiring feminist in Iran, it’s inspiring.

The west often gets accused of having no sexual morals. That’s inaccurate. Today’s western sexual morality is, in its own way, very strict, even tight-lipped. Adultery, for instance, has no place in the equal relationship. It’s considered a betrayal of your soulmate. That’s why in a survey by Gallup this year, 91 per cent of American adults called extramarital affairs morally wrong – more than condemned human cloning. In American surveys 40 years ago, only about half said affairs were always wrong.

However, for today’s moral majority, an affair is something for the two equal soulmates to sort out among themselves. They don’t need society’s interference. That’s why adultery (or even Anthony Weiner’s tweeted pictures of his penis) is no longer an automatic political hanging offence in the US. The one thing that’s beyond the bounds is any unequal relationship, which is why San Diego’s mayor Bob Filner had to resign after accusations of sexual harassment.

The shift to the equal relationship has confused many. Some conservatives think we’ve arrived at what they’ve been dreading since 1963: a sexual era of anything goes. Rush Limbaugh, the American shock jock, grumbled in January that gay marriage was part of “a movement to normalise paedophilia”.

That’s a complete misunderstanding. “Free love” isn’t the legacy of the 1960s. The equal relationship is. As the left has generally been quickest to understand this, sex may now finally be on the side of political liberals.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article