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Sex in the '60s: The more things change, the more they stay the same - The Pitt News

The Pitt News

Sex in the ’60s: The more things change, the more they stay the same

By Shawn Cooke / A&E Editor

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It’s natural to think of frank, unapologetic, casual sex as a modern creation. Since we’re always just a “right swipe” away from being matched with a potential partner, it may seem like we’ve reached the hook-up culture’s high-water mark.

But sexual liberation dates back to long before Generation Y — and even some of its parents — was born. The 1960s ushered in a clash between the stark sexual conservatism of the prior decade and a desire to shatter the norms of squeaky-clean, marital sex. College campuses, including Pitt’s, were testing labs for students who might not have received many previous opportunities to explore their sexuality.

“Other than what was the furtive coupling in parents’ cars while they were in high school, they have their first real opportunity to explore their own sexuality in a more open way than had been the case before,” said John Stoner, an undergraduate adviser and lecturer in Pitt’s history department.

Although modern perceptions of the ’60s often recall it as an era of drugged-out and promiscuous flower children, those stereotypes only speak to half of the decade. Old hands from the ’50s fought to preserve the establishment for as long as they could — before the establishment shifted.

“The decrying of the hook-up culture that happens a lot — with people who wring their hands today — is actually not all that new,” Stoner said.

On Pitt’s campus, Helen Pool Rush and Savina Skewis were two prominent hand-wringers over the notion of liberated sexuality. During the ’60s, as Dean of Women 1942-1965 and 1965-1968, respectively, Rush and Skewis enforced the longstanding curfew on female students, which required that they stay in their dorms after specified times on weeknights or weekend nights. 

At Pitt — and most other campuses across America — the University had a mandate to act in loco parentis, or “in place of a parent.” Along with the curfew policy, male students were not allowed to enter female dorm buildings, and female students could only visit male rooms if their door was propped open — severely limiting privacy or any sexual opportunity.

“There was simply no way they were going to relax rules that would create any possibility for sexual activities,” Tom Meisner, a 1968 Pitt graduate, said.

But for one alumna, the dean’s tactics became startlingly intrusive.

Rebecca Taksel — a 1965 graduate — was summoned to Rush’s office in 1960. Taksel,  a freshman, was unexpectedly questioned about her boyfriend, a 26-year-old student at what was then Carnegie   Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University).

“I remember being called into the dean’s office and quizzed about him, and I had absolutely no idea how these people in a school that big would know the details of my relationship,” Taksel said.

Female students with perceived “unsuitable boyfriends” were often brought to the dean’s office and questioned, according to Taksel, even if they hadn’t spoken to a faculty member before about their relationships. Taksel said that Rush openly used student spies to report on other women.

“It had to have been a fellow student who spied on me,” Taksel said.

Taskel met with Rush on “the 12th floor,” a posh space for the Office of Women that she likens to a university club, right in the middle of the Cathedral of Learning. Hardly an academic space, the 12th floor was a pristine collection of living rooms, dining rooms with ornate chandeliers, fine carpeting and elegant upholstery. It was a prim place for female students to sip tea and learn the manners, graces and roles that the University intended for them to have.

“The governing ideal of the 12th floor was that women had special needs and a special role to play in the University community,” Taksel said.

But the underlying message of such formal training had deeper implications in the University sex culture, according to Taskel.

“Whatever kind of fancy language they used, it was about protecting us sexually from the predations of male students — that was the underlying message,” Taskel said, “that we were vulnerable and needed to be protected.” 

Despite these vigilant policies, perception shifted midway through the ’60s, and the sexual revolution slowly reached its boiling point by the end of the decade — when Pitt’s curfew policy would be amended to allow female students out after 2:30 a.m., if they had parental permission and two full terms under their belts. 

Although students had fewer reservations about casual sex than in previous decades, it remains impossible to quantify just how free campuses were during the decade.

“The statistics about sexuality sadly are always flawed, because people can’t really be relied upon to accurately talk about their own sexual habits — even when anonymously doing so,” Stoner said.

Meisner was equally careful to point out the unreliability of how sex was often discussed among college students.

“It’s not like people were keeping statistics — you had rumors, you had stories, you had bragging,” Meisner said.

Regardless of how many people were engaging in no-strings-attached sexuality, Taksel noticed some major attitudinal shifts, especially once she transferred for a year after her freshman year to Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

“Even at an all-girls school, there were some girls who were beginning to behave like guys,” Taksel said. “They were having sex on purpose to sort of put notches in their belt — not the majority, but that was definitely real.”

Sexual liberation also provided women an outlet for rebellion and protest outside of a traditional political context.

“One of the major ways that I think women had — at that time and many times in history — to express that kind of rebelliousness was through sexual behavior, because it’s so forbidden,” Taksel said.

But despite the benefits of increased freedom and agency, Taksel suggests that the sexual revolution came with its share of hidden costs. 

“It often got us in a whole lot of trouble — of psychological trouble. It didn’t lead often to where we wanted it to,” Taksel said. “We thought it was free, and, emotionally, it wasn’t.”

Correction

In an article published Friday, The Pitt News reported that Rebecca Taskel’s boyfriend was a 26-year-old Carnegie Institute of Technology student. He was 21 years old at the time of her meeting with Rush. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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Sex in the ’60s: The more things change, the more they stay the same