Longread — 26 Jul 2018 — Gert Hekma
Around 1968, a transition took place that is often referred to as the “sexual revolution.” Sociologists consider this movement an outgrowth of secularization, individualization, democratization, environmentalism, and burgeoning prosperity. Church attendance dropped, and people started to turn away from dogmatic forms of religious experience. The pillars that had long divided Dutch society according to religious or socioeconomic background began to erode. New political parties emerged, with no connections to the old order: PSP, Provo (the Dutch counterculture movement), D66, and the Boerenpartij (Farmers’ Party). As people came to be less reliant on things such as families, local ties, political parties, and religion, the individual assumed a central role. Thanks to the postwar baby boom, a large number of young people reached adulthood around 1965 and were active economically, politically, sexually, and culturally. This was accompanied by a period of structural growth and increasing prosperity.
Protest and resistance: 1968 as Gesamtkunstwerk
At the same time, this era was characterized by protest: people campaigned for self-determination and against the authority of churches, political parties, the military, and sciences such as psychiatry: women against men, children against parents, the faithful against ministers, citizens against politicians, the mentally ill against psychiatrists, soldiers against officers, and students against professors. Homosexuals assumed a more visible role, and artists demanded autonomy. Protests were staged against the atomic bomb and nuclear power plants, colonial wars and apartheid, and in opposition to dictatorial regimes such as those in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Squatters moved into unoccupied buildings, using them as homes, communes, and workplaces. Provos put forward emancipatory plans for bicycles, women, and homosexuals.
The cultural revolution of 1968 was a Gesamtkunstwerk that sought to integrate all of these elements. Authority figures occasionally joined the resistance as well. Teachers, anti-psychiatrists, and politicians handed out red leaflets with information on drugs, sex, and abortion to schoolchildren and soldiers. Priests became blue-collar workers. It was an unheard-of transformation.
After 1960 the Catholic Church and the Reformed Church—the more conservative pillars—became increasingly concerned about their congregations’ spiritual welfare when it came to sexuality: morals were apparently loosening, with people openly expressing their views on marriage, contraception, masturbation, and sexual preferences. Progressive psychiatrists such as Kees Trimbos had ample opportunities to air their opinions on radio and television. These farsighted insights left even liberals and socialists lagging behind.
The anarchistic Provo movement went even further: the first issue of the monthly PROVO magazine argued for “free love” and “complete amoral promiscuity.” Citizens were free to choose their own course of action, unfettered by dogmas and group thinking. Provo stood for counterculture, improvisation, and provocation. Reich and Marcuse were the philosophers of the sexual revolution; Roel van Duyn turned to Sade, the driving force behind this “enlightenment,” for inspiration. He did so, however, with none of Sade’s violence. After all, the motto was “make love, not war,” the rallying cry of hippies and pop music, emblematic of the late sixties.
The Provo movement emerged in 1965, following the happenings of artist and anti-smoking magician Robert Jasper Grootveld. Similar happenings also appeared on the art scene, often in the form of body art events: naked performances or nude performers covered in body paint, spontaneous and experimental. Happenings were alternative and artistic and cropped up everywhere, even during debates and demonstrations. The revolution was a Gesamtkunstwerk. The hippies who slept on Dam Square and in the Vondelpark and violated “public decency” were also part of this comprehensive artwork.
Provo magazines and the sexual revolution
Local Provo initiatives were staged throughout the Netherlands. The Amsterdam-based magazine Welstaat published its ideology: “In the future, anything goes… You can have sex anytime, anywhere, with whoever wants it.” Homosexuality is equivalent to heterosexuality, and there is no such thing as adultery. Sex education starts at a young age. Straight couples who have more than two children are referred to a social worker.
The Rotterdam-based Tijdschrift published a sadomasochistic cartoon and story about a sailor’s wife who had sex with a dog while her husband was at sea. In the “proletarian monthly” Gnot, printed in Dordrecht, Irene van de Weetering, who later became a Provo city councilor in Amsterdam, published the “White Woman Plan” reinstating the woman’s primordial status as enjoyer of sexual pleasure. Unwanted pregnancy was, she said, a huge stumbling block—and could be prevented by fitting every girl with a coil, the predecessor of the contraceptive pill.
More professional-looking magazines with better layouts, more appealing photographs, and experienced authors soon emerged on the scene. Simon Vinkenoog, Duco van Weerlee, and Wim Noordhoek worked on Knijp, (Pinch), with women doing the pinching and both sexes flaunting the transparent plastic “sailing fashion.” The authors lambasted racism and homophobia. Hip magazines like Gandalf, Hitweek, and Aloha wrote about music, drugs, and sex. In 1968 magazines like Sappho printed personal advertisements that also appeared later in publications like Vrij Nederland. Iconic sex magazines were also founded, such as Candy by Peter J. Muller and Chick by Joop Wilhelmus. However, after publishing various magazines on a variety of sexual practices, such as lesbian love, sadomasochism, bestiality, group sex, and pedophilia, Wilhelmus was imprisoned for engaging in physical relations with his youngest daughter.
As a predecessor to these sex magazines, Sextant, the monthly magazine of the Dutch Society for Sexual Reform (NVSH), served two groups: families who wanted information about contraceptives and family planning, and sexually permissive Provo youth who aspired to a different world of eroticism and relationships, complete with political and social ideals.
Sextant offered sexual education about coitus and fertility in the section “We want to know.” The magazine also featured articles on sex for women, about men so habituated to masturbation they were unable to engage in any other act, about young people who thought masturbation would cause spinal cord damage, about women who had no interest in sexual intercourse, and about homosexual and other sexual practices. There were also special issues on topics such as abortion, soft sex, and politics. Sexologist Jos van Ussel, who published his doctoral dissertation in 1968, titled Geschiedenis van het seksuele probleem (History of the sexual problem), became the spokesperson of the NVSH and the sexual revolution.
Provo, art, and sex
Provo freed the Netherlands from the repressive Judeo-Christian morality that had previously dominated the country’s pillars. Gradually, the fundaments of sexual and cultural morals shifted. Provo stood for autonomy, citizenship, and a permanent revolt against the status quo of the “hoi polloi.”
Radical art movements such as new realism and Zero emerged, and “nozems” (akin to greasers and Teddy Boys) and Provos took to the streets. The sexual revolution transformed the conservative Netherlands into one of the most progressive countries in Europe. This explosion of freedom, self-expression, and disruptiveness visibly shook long-established structures.
In addition to political activism, innovative trends also surfaced in the arts: in theatres with Aktie Tomaat, and in music with Aktie Notenkraker. Body art, pop art, conceptual art, Fluxus and Arte Povera swept through the art scene. Art created by women and homosexuals attracted greater attention. Gallery directors such as Riekje Swart, Felix Valk, Art & Project, and Rob Jurka exhibited new names and new art; it was all about the avant-garde and the experimental. In one performance, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama painted her trademark polka dots on the naked bodies of Jan Schoonhoven and Joop Schafthuizen.
In 1967 Phil Bloom was the first woman to appear nude on television, in the iconic program Hoepla. Yoko Ono and John Lennon staged their “Bed-In for Peace” at the Hilton Hotel to protest the Vietnam War. Writers like Gerard Reve, W. F. Hermans, Harry Mulisch, Remco Campert, and Jan Cremer endowed literature with new themes and words like ezelsproces, or “donkey trial.”
Cultural and sexual watering holes sprung up for Provos, artists, journalists, and mavericks. Designer Benno Premsela hosted gatherings of the COC (Culture and Recreation Center) in his home, and also housed Felix Valk’s Galerie 20. Dinner parties were held where disciplines blended and people connected. Similar venues were dotted throughout the city. Locals and visitors met at the COC dancehall, the DOK’s world-famous “cattle market,” the stylish Café Le Fiacre, and on the very streets of the capital, where sex and art intermingled. These gathering places were instrumental in securing Amsterdam’s fame.
Women’s liberation and gay liberation
A great many other things happened. Married women attained greater financial and sexual freedom. Women and teenage girls had access to the birth control pill and—after persistent battles—won the right to have an abortion. The birth rate dropped dramatically. Adopting the slogan “Baas in eigen buik” (“Boss of your own belly”), the Man-Vrouw-Maatschappij (Man-Woman-Society) and Dolle Mina represented a new wave of feminism; the gay movement came out of the closet and demonstrated for the right to be “Boss of your own ass.”
With over 200,000 members by the mid-sixties, the NVSH was the torchbearer of birth control and sexual revolution. At the annual members’ meeting in 1967, chairwoman Mary Zeldenrust-Noordanus proposed to abolish not only the majority of moral legislation, but to eliminate inequalities between men and women. Although her proposal was intended for the year 2000, the majority of her legislative reforms became law within a decade. After 1968, citizens were soon entitled to contraception; divorce became easier; prostitution was tolerated; pornography was no longer illicit; and the age of consent for homosexuality was lowered from twenty-one to sixteen years of age. After 1970, women were no longer second-class citizens, and homosexuality was no longer considered a sin, a crime, or a sickness. These were huge steps forward for all involved. Thanks to the sexual revolution, the Netherlands became a different world for women, gays, lesbians, other sexual minorities and, ultimately, for everyone.
From nude shows to sex magazines: the revolution reaches a climax
In 1968 the Kiets Konservatorium staged an ad hoc nude show, the “Depressief Erotisch Panorama” (“Depressed Erotic Panorama”). The show was a hit in the Amsterdam pop venues of the day: Paradiso, Fantasio, and Melkweg. A show entitled “Ritmiese Pornografie Sjoo” (“Rhythmic Pornography Show”) played at Appeal. Artist Hans Frisch presented his “Levende Opjekten Sjoo,” (“Living Objects Show”) in various venues, with striptease and a “stuttering choir.” Besides political jokes, the show was loaded with sexual themes: homo- and heterosexual, lesbian love, masturbation, and zoophilia. The spectacle of the well-endowed Frisch magnetized audiences, who were less enthusiastic about the bestiality (unless it involved plush toys). The municipality attempted to ban the show, but the sexual revolution simply brushed aside such authoritarian impulses.
Along with the student occupation of the Maagdenhuis, Suck can be seen as one of the high points of the era. It was full of personal ads, boldly featured explicit illustrations or themes like incest, bestiality, and pedophilia, stood up for female emancipation and sexual pleasure, offered a list of twenty-two sexualities, a gay guide to Europe, and wild styling. Suck published the drawing Fuck the World (depicting a young man copulating with the globe) by Theo van den Boogaard, as well as a frontal photo of Germaine Greer in the nude. The final issue described the wanderings of “The virgin sperm dancer,” an androgynous boy, through Amsterdam. Just as hippies had opted for androgynous and colorful clothes, the magazine championed mixing sexes and sexuality.
The legacy of the sexual revolution
By 1970 the sexual revolution seemed to have passed its peak. Yet this brief period of disrupting norms, of sexual liberation, and the freedom of the individual had altered the Netherlands forever.
The unity of social and political classes proved to be short-lived. Women turned against male chauvinism; left-wing men turned against consumerism and liberalism. The experimentation with sexes and sexuality, transgression, nudity, new lifestyles, new art, and the call for permanent revolution was over. The Gesamtkunstwerk in which everything merged, from arts to sexual diversity, fell apart once again.
People returned to their traditional networks, and were more averse to risks than seeking them. Straight people abandoned the NVSH because they could go “anywhere.” Special groups were established for the transgender community, BDSM practitioners, exhibitionists, fetishists, and pedophiles; gays went to the COC, and the rest disappeared into the woodwork. Sexologist Jos van Ussel distanced himself from a “circumscribed sexuality” that was driven by expectations of sexual performance. In the art scene, intermingling continued, although high and low art rarely mixed.
Nowadays increasing numbers of people see autonomy and self-expression as forms of liberalism and selfishness. Accused of being neocolonialist and clashing with identity politics, the conquest of the world foreseen by the avant-garde never came to pass. Despite all the alternatives offered, the traditional norms of sex and sexuality, such as the monogamous couple, mundane sexual intercourse, and privacy, were as alive as ever in the late sixties. The sexual revolution brought progress on many fronts, but at the same time age-old core values were left untouched.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gert Hekma was professor of homo- and gender studies at the University of Amsterdam from 1984 until 2017. He specializes in the sociology and history of (homo) sexuality and researched, among other things, the acceptance of homosexuality and the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. He also wrote about writers such as Louis Couperus, Jacob Israel de Haan and Gerard Reve.