Summer of Love shapes modern ideas of sexuality

Hippies hugging each other in a field.

“The Summer of Love shook up conventional notions around how one should express one’s sexuality and in what spaces,” said Professor and Chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies Julietta Hua.

Sexuality was a vital part of the Summer of Love but experts say we still don’t have sexual freedom for all

Part 2 of six stories about the lasting legacy of the Summer of Love

The Summer of Love wasn’t just about love — it was also about sexuality. According to Professor and Chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies Julietta Hua, people were questioning what sexuality could be.

“The Summer of Love shook up conventional notions around how one should express one’s sexuality and in what spaces,” Hua said. During this era, San Francisco became known for sexual freedom and progressive sexual politics. The idea that women were to be wives and later mothers was questioned and people fought for accessible birth control.

New methods of birth control, like the pill, were introduced in the early part of the decade and made the lives of many women more livable, but Hua said it is important to remember that this sexual freedom only included a certain group of people. “Birth control also represented control of reproduction, not just reproductive freedom. The sexual freedom was mostly for married, middle class, white women, and birth control was used as a method of eugenic control for poor women of color and women with disabilities,” Hua said. “The pill is great but it has this murky history that a lot of people don’t think about.”

Professor of History Marc Stein said that the Summer of Love was partly about expressing one’s desires and feelings sexually. “Some of the constraints on sexual expression that existed before the Summer of Love don’t exist or exist in a weakened form today,” Stein said. “For instance, non-marital sexual expression, BDSM, polyamory and asexual cultures were all empowered because of the Summer of Love and the larger sexual revolution.”

Stein pointed out, however, that just because we seem to be more sexually open today, it doesn’t mean that we always are. “After a time what was seen by the counterculture as authentic and free was adopted by the masses, and what was regarded as authentic started to be scripted. The question is: ‘Have we just replaced one set of norms with another set of norms?’” Stein said.

Sexual liberation and sexual revolution were topics of debate in the late 1960s. Some, like Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner and a variety of pornographers thought commercialization was the key to sexual freedom. “This discussion is still happening today, for instance, in relation to sex work,” Stein explained. Others, including many associated with the Summer of Love, thought that commercialization was at odds with sexual liberation. He also noted that the LGBTQ movement has had distinct views on sexuality. “We often associate the Summer of Love with heterosexual liberation, but lots of gay people participated in it. For many gay liberationists the goal was not to classify people on the basis of sexual orientation, but rather to remove categories of sexual orientation, a little bit like the gender non-binary movement today,” he said.

Eric Noble, a 67-year-old SF State graduate student in history, moved to San Francisco in 1968 and has done research on the Summer of Love and the many influences that contributed to the movement, including Lenore Kandel’s “The Love Book.” This collection of four poems about a woman’s experience of sexuality was declared obscene and banned in San Francisco in 1966. “There was a protest here at San Francisco State and a number of professors read from her book in the hopes of getting arrested by the police as a protest against censorship,” Noble said.

Noble himself has good memories about the Summer of Love. “I fell in love, I came out as gay and dropped out of college,” he said.

There are still a lot of questions regarding sexuality today, and Stein believes in learning from the Summer of Love. “We should really recognize its importance without romanticizing or idealizing it because it did have a significant effect on society and sexuality,” he said.

Next Week, Part 3: The Summer of Love left an indelible imprint on today’s rock music