Thinking of the last point/question in Yasmeen’s presentation, and of some of the comments made in class, I realised I am the only one in the group who was born in the 50s and was around while the radical changes of the post-68 where happening, so I’d like to share a personal direct experience.
Sexuality was indeed a very important part of our daily life and a determining factor in the process of change society was undergoing. However, contrary to some mythology regarding that period, it was far from the “get stoned and get laid” one night stand stereotype.
It was in fact, in a way that looks almost comical at some 35 years distance, a very politicized component of life. It was a subject of continuous debate and self/group analysis.
It was particularly relevant for the girls in the group of people I was part of, as they felt they were, historically, the first generation of women able to take control of their selves, of expressing their individuality, opinions and desires, of demanding their share of power and expecting their wishes to be considered as important as those of the men.
Just to place this in context, we were a mixed group of around 100 close friends, studying together and all involved in political/artistic/social activities. Some of us were from very wealthy families while the majority were from modest working class families. We were living in a dull, industrial, conservative city, in a stifling society very much defined by a mixture of bourgeois formality, catholic repression, social conflict (developing in the heavy years of the Red Brigades).
When I went out with my first real girlfriend at 14 we had her older brother following us at close distance to ensure that nothing untoward (such as a kiss) would happen. And that was ‘normal’.
It was also ‘normal’ that girls from working class families wouldn’t continue their education after the compulsory level at 14. The general concept was still that a woman didn’t need an education to make children and clean the house.
Every little scrap of freedom and autonomy girls were achieving was a hard won conquest.
Boys on the other end had made a conscious decision that things had to change, and that the place to start with was fighting to achieve total equality for our female counterpart. It was a political decision, it was planned and discussed, in endless group sessions that had the flavour of secret revolutionary gatherings. That was our adolescent way to translate in practice the theories we were reading, and that were probably far beyond our comprehension, from post-structuralist French philosophers to far left and anarchist manifestos.
We encountered many obstacles, and, looking back, the most difficult to overcome were not the external impositions placed upon us by family and society, the hardest part was the individual effort to find coherence, to put in practice what we were preaching, to free ourselves from the heavy psychosocial construct we were all carrying.
As men we could easily accept the principle that behaviours such as jealousy and possessiveness were unjustifiable, but acting accordingly wasn’t as easy. When one’s girlfriend decided she could manage two or three relationships simultaneously, and the other men involved were one’s friends, a whole new set of considerations, both practical and emotional, had to be examined. And this would often happen in group debates, where the border between personal and social, emotional and political, was very blurred and continuously shifting.
Foucault talks at length about how fundamental the discourse on sexuality is and how the talking about it became imperative from the 19th century, as part of the administration of sexuality with a clear definition between the “legitimate” = acceptable, healthy bourgeois values, and “illegitimate” = antisocial, destructive and deviant. Foucault maintains that the transgression is not, as we thought, revolutionary, but it’s functional to maintaining the necessary dialectic tension between the opposite poles and in fact results in a balance.
We were espousing wholeheartedly the idea that a free, enhanced, fully explored and experimental, transgressive sexuality was a sure sign of our collective liberation from the restrictions of a society we wanted to revolutionise. We were convinced that it would have led to equality and fairness in personal relationships as well as in the overall outlook of society.
When I look at my son today, at the way he, his friends and girlfriends, relate to each other and manage their first experiments, I ask myself many questions. Compared to my “post-modern” generation these young people have, from a practical point of view, a far greater freedom, achieved at an earlier age and with little effort. At the same time I see them struggle with the same doubts and uncertainties, and they don’t seem to engage in any debate on the meaning of their actions and emotions. The personal and the social don’t seem to be too closely linked for them. I, and my old friends, most of whom I am still in touch with, ask ourselves often what have we effectively given to our children, what difference our (revolutionary in our possibly naive intentions) efforts have resulted in as far as changing society. We often puzzle in seeing our children being much more “conservative” than we were.
There are many open questions and some large gaps between the theories and the resulting realities.
Looking at the personal histories of that group of around 100 people it may be interesting to observe that 5 live in long term successful relationships, with or without children, a dozen dropped out of society completely and live in remote locations, away from “civilization” and are fairly happy in their isolated bubble, a couple went into politics and decided that power is essential to change and can only be achieved from within the system, another three or four decided that the only thing that allows one to influence society is money and set out to make as much as possible by any means possible, quite a few ended up working in media and the arts, combined with academia, live comfortable lives, try to “make a difference” but complain bitterly about the inanity of contemporary society and the new generations.
15 died, the main causes being suicide and drugs.
How does this rate the success of our experiment is highly debatable, how much our focus on sexuality had an impact on society is probably negligible, while it was surely life-changing as individuals.