The Age of Aquarius

I was fortunate enough to be of an age to enjoy that extraordinary period of human history, the 1960s and 1970s.

I recall those years as “the halcyon days”, (as one tends to recall one’s teens and twenties), but in fact it was not a period of calm or security at all. The Vietnam war was being waged and we lived under the threat of a global nuclear holocaust. Racial discrimination and homophobia remained prevalent. Still, it was a marvellous time to be alive.

There was perhaps an element of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, but it wasn’t a matter of despairing licentiousness, it was more a case of unbridled optimism. We really felt that we could change the world. John Lennon was singing “Give Peace a Chance”, the hippies were chanting “Peace, love, freedom, happiness” and “Make love, not war!” Flower power and free love were in the air, as well as a strong reek of marijuana.

There was a massive global peace movement, anti-Vietnam war protests, Ban the Bomb rallies. A catch-phrase was “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came!”  Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman founded a more political movement, the Yippies (Youth International Party) in the US, which was strikingly effective.

There were also, of course, more violent radical groups, like the Black Panthers and the Red Brigade, but the overwhelming mood of my generation was for peaceful change.

This era also saw the emergence of the women’s liberation movement. The emblematic burning of bras was foreshadowed, of course, by the toplessness and nudity associated with the hippy philosophy, but the women’s libbers had a serious political agenda and accomplished significant change. Women today owe a great debt to Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem and the other feminist warriors of the time.

At my university and on campuses around the world, as well as in mainstream literature and theatre, there were vehement campaigns against censorship. It’s perhaps difficult for young people in the internet age to imagine the control that government and religious censors once wielded. Our university newspaper every week contained outrageous pornography, and the editors (notably Wendy Bacon) were charged, had their day in court and willingly went to jail for their principles.

We also had a wizard on our campus, Ian Channell. His salary was paid partly by the student’s union and partly by the university itself. His job was simply to create happenings and to entertain, to remind us not to take life too seriously. I’ve just googled him, and I’m delighted to discover that he is now the Wizard of New Zealand!

When I started university in 1969, virtually all students, other than overseas students, were on scholarships or bursaries, which had the effect of compelling universities to compete for the best students by offering the best courses, a far cry from the situation in Australia today, where the crass commercialism of the present self-funding model for tertiary education has led to dumbing down of courses, fudging of pass rates and academic mediocrity.

When the Labor Party, under Gough Whitlam, returned to power in 1972, after 23 years of conservative Liberal / National Party coalition government, massive social change was brought about.

University became free for all Australian students in January 1974, a golden era for education in Australia, ended by the Hawke (Labor) government when it introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). This has evolved to the present situation whereby Australian university students now accumulate massive debt over the course of their study, and the government has threatened to pursue repayment even unto the grave, by recovering the debt from their estates.

In the 1970s though, university education was freely available to any Australian high school graduate (or mature student) who satisfied the entry criteria. Standards remained high and, for a decade and a half, higher education became a right, rather than a privilege.

Masters and Johnson’s research and the Hite Report supplanted Kinsey. Alex Comfort’s “The Joy of Sex” (1972) was the popular coffee table book. Ignorance of the clitoris or the G-spot were no longer an excuse for male sexual ineptitude. A man had a duty to satisfy a woman! Erica Jong’s book “Fear of Flying” (1973) brought to the world the concept of the “zipless fuck”.

Along with the atmosphere of “free love” of course, came the ready availability of safe and reliable oral contraceptives for the first time in history. Suddenly unwanted pregnancy became a thing of the past, barring accidents. Women became able to be sexually assertive and, if they so desired, to be promiscuous (free!) It was an act of liberation for a woman to instigate sex. Open relationships were common. Sexual experimentation was rife. Couples lived together, but chose not to marry. I have fond memories of having my anatomy fondled by attractive young ladies, anxious to have their wicked way with me. When you walked into a party you were directed to the booze, the dope and to a spare bedroom should the need arise. It is a matter of mild regret to me that I didn’t take fuller advantage of the sexual leeway granted to a young man such as I was!

Moreover, sex was relatively unencumbered by the threat of venereal disease, for the first time in history. Antibiotics had made syphilis a rarity, confined to the sexual fringe dwellers. For your average university student, surfer, disco habitué or indeed basically anyone single and unattached, STDs were a minor inconvenience, rather than life-threatening. The worst that was likely to occur as a result of an injudicious root was a bout of gonorrhoea, which one of my university colleagues, notoriously successful with the women, referred to as “common cold of the donger”, readily cured with a dose of penicillin. Indeed, another friend, who had access to such things, used to keep penicillin injections in his refrigerator for morning-after prophylaxis, should he have chanced to encounter a young lady of uncertain reputation on the previous night. AIDS was unheard of (though it was already in Africa and among homosexuals in New York). Hepatitis B was relatively unknown, and pretty much confined to IV drug users. Even herpes and chlamydia were yet to emerge. With little risk of pregnancy or disease, joy was, as they say, unconfined! We were naive, of course, and all that rampant sexual activity undoubtedly served to incubate the infective scourges which came later.

Rock music, long hair, tight pants, mini skirts, topless swimsuits, ban the bra, free love, free thinking. They were extraordinary times! Small wonder I dallied at university for 11 years!


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