A groovy kind of love: from sex in the 60s, to sex in your 60s

What happened when the generation of free love grew up? A socialist feminist looks back on a life of protest and passion

I grew up in one of those secretly unhappy post-war Australian families. (There were many.) My mother’s bitter resentment of women’s lot, and the humiliations women put up with in those deceptively stable 1950s families, were expressed in the background noise, or the menacing silence, of depression and discontent. There were few hugs in my first home. In the end she was almost constantly absent, leaving us in favour of her busy gynaecological practice. Our large suburban house doubled as my father’s surgery, and his assumption that he was entitled to have sex with some of his patients was probably not uncommon at the time. It was my mother who told me that on one occasion a patient spray-painted PAY BY INTERCOURSE high on the wall of our home. (When she asked what happened to the woman, he told her he’d had her certified, “of course”.)

When I left school at 17, I fled the lies and hypocrisies of my childhood as fast as I could, in search of something quite different, yet without any sense of what this might be. Entering Sydney University that same year, I quickly bonded with the small group of anarchists I met there, known as the Sydney Libertarians and linked with an older, flagrantly dissident group, the Push. It was the early 1960s, a time when the wider world still disapproved of women having sex before marriage – and Australia was one of the most sexually censorious countries in the developed world. But the anti-utopian, pessimistic anarchists I stumbled across were firm believers in free love. For several years around my early 20s, I was never alone if I didn’t want to be. I had a series of relationships, which usually ended when the men moved on to study abroad, or one of us changed direction. I had experienced sexual pressure in more respectable settings when I was younger (at parties while still at school), but I never felt sexually coerced or exploited. Even now I sympathise with my younger, needier self, always able to find intimacy if a solitary evening loomed.

Later, approaching my mid-20s, I distanced myself from the unadorned living, hard drinking and anarchist politics of the Push, with its firm belief in personal autonomy, dissent and contempt for authoritarian institutions of every stripe. I was charmed by the artistic counterculture then growing up in Sydney, inspired by the utopian writing of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller‘s ideas about using technology as a tool for radical social change. In this space of subversive happenings and ephemeral publications, I met a few of the most dynamic young artists of the time, including the one I would end up having to marry.

I met James Clifford when he came up to me at a Sydney gallery and said, “That’s a kinky dress.” He was different from all the other tough young men I’d been surrounded by: he was elegant, careful about his appearance. The relationship lasted for more than three years, with much mutual love and admiration, yet it was more unstable than any I had known. This was not just because he was fragile, temperamentally incapable of earning a living or keeping himself out of trouble, but because his deepest inclinations were homosexual. In 1968 I became pregnant accidentally, and after our son was born, he became more and more distressed, displaying an intense possessiveness and throwing tantrums. Although he no longer felt able to sleep with me, he would get hysterical if a male friend came to visit, and tried to keep me all to himself. Yet he cherished our relationship because he had internalised the homophobic culture of the times, and also because he did in his way love us both.

What had I done? At the close of the 60s I once more found myself in a tiny family suffused with deception and suffering, just like the home I grew up in. I had finished university but had as yet no means of supporting myself, my partner or our child. For all our sexual freedom, we women had few female guides or gurus, as we listened to Odetta or Janis Joplin belting out their blues. The anguished suffering of heroines created by the few contemporary female novelists – from Simone de Beauvoir and Doris Lessing to Margaret Drabble or Shelagh Delaney – was just as discouraging for any woman seeking inspiration on how to lead a freer, more authentic life.

By 1969 I still knew no woman who could face the world and speak boldly in her own right, with the ambiguous exception of de Beauvoir, who had explicitly rejected the possibility of having children. No wonder we were growing confused. I had yet to meet a woman who did not feel, in some buried and resentful way – or quite explicitly, as my mother had – that it was pitiable to exist as a woman, without a man.

In 1970, I fled from my marriage to London with my infant son, Zimri. (James followed us to England, and I ended up paying for him to go back.) I found that the sense of being lost, lonely and bewildered, which I thought I had brought upon myself in fleeing respectability, turned out to be far from unusual. With better education, more of us were noticing the domestic isolation and contempt that shadowed women’s lives. Encountering the anti-war or student politics of the late 60s also opened our eyes to its blatant machismo, with women’s voices frequently ignored, if not greeted with aggressive derision.

Something had to give, and very quickly. Women began to organise for themselves, meeting and campaigning, seeking new lives and relationships to encompass our diverse but distinctive concerns. It was the state of family life, and women’s frequently isolated, undervalued and subordinate place within it, that first captured the attention of radical women.

This meant that in many ways the 70s would prove the friendliest decade ever for young mothers eager for change. With a little help from our friends, it was single mothers who could now escape the traditional labels of “fallen” or “abandoned” women to become the immediate beneficiaries of women’s liberation. “Women with children,” as my friend Sheila Rowbotham later observed, “were our equivalent to the Marxist proletariat… the vanguard of the women’s movement.” This did not mean that it would be easy to solve the perennial problem of forming loving relationships and finding ways of supporting ourselves – of combining intimacy, motherhood and paid work – while also adding on our community and political involvements.

On arriving in London, I got a teaching job and by 1973 I was living in a large, rambling, dilapidated house in Islington, which I had bought with my sister and in which I still live today. For a few years it was home to three single mothers, Alison, Noreen and me, with our children. No rent was paid, and the three or four other women or men who at different times moved in and out of the house shared all household tasks. (Contrary to later mythology, men were entangled with feminism from the start, as straight women struggled with them, often successfully, over housework, childcare and much else.)

We had few problems with domestic rotas. But there were no political solutions to individual heartaches and frustration, even among women who tried, and all too often failed, to avoid causing them. This left a shared household of mainly female friends, not unlike siblings, vulnerable to jealousies and sexual tension, especially if sexually entangled with the same men (or occasionally women). I was never without a sexual partner during these years and, for brief periods, fearful either of rejection or causing pain myself, I rather surreptitiously had two. However, I was so busy anchoring myself in this left feminist milieu – long nights at the kitchen table, drinking red wine and smoking roll-ups, planning our next campaign – trying to feel secure in my somewhat fraught and never completely stable household, that the comings and goings of lovers merged into the domestic and political routines.

Although I despaired when they failed, I was never exclusively dependent on a man. As couples, we were never isolated; always surrounded by other people, engaged in various forms of activism. I was happy because my son seemed happy, thrived and was popular at school. Despite its shifting nature and somewhat spartan comforts, communal living suited me well, especially the relaxed atmosphere that prevailed in my son’s teenage years. After the two single mothers had fallen out and departed, I lived with three male friends, one of whom had been briefly my boyfriend, and another who remained my lover for nine years; all of us members of the small left feminist group Big Flame. My lover was a wonderful homemaker, and did most of the cooking and household renovations. He was also completely committed to sharing the care of my son. With Zim now the only child in the house, he had three big brothers. I seemed to have accidentally abolished fathers, though this was not, for me, an ideological stance.

By the time I was in my early 40s, I had started a relationship with Peter, who was 16 years younger than me and rejected the communal setup for a more traditional model. One of my lodgers moved into the attic, another into the basement and the third into his own flat, as I began living in tightly bonded coupledom. As ever, I’d managed to get conventions the wrong way around again, loving and looking up to a man so much my junior. In the years we lived as a couple, I felt that we gave each other incalculable intellectual and emotional support. The relationship lasted for 14 years, until he, around 40, fell in love with someone else. When we first moved in together, he was only 28 and not ready for fatherhood, although I would have had a child with him if I had got pregnant after we settled down together. Now in his 40s, he was becoming broody. In my late 50s, I was left aching and grieving for him and the life we had shared. It was the year 2000, the new millennium had arrived, with everything once more seeming askew.

For some years I joined that ever-growing number of middle-aged women facing life on their own. As another, highly successful acquaintance of mine commented soon after the departure of her own long-time partner for a younger woman: “I went to the theatre the other night and saw in the queue ahead so many women I knew, all now single, and I said to myself, ‘This is a group I never wanted to join.'” Definitely a group most of us never wanted to join, though one that older women will find it very hard to leave, given that the odds against them coupling up again could hardly be longer. I sense this is despite (and perhaps partly because of) their status, charms and, by all standards other than youth, their physical attractiveness.

The negative stereotypes of old age remain distinct, and far more damaging, in relation to women. The very autonomy and independence we fought for has been one reason it became easier for a man to leave a partner who could now survive alone. Today, by the age of 60, more than twice as many women as men are single; older men are often living with younger women, which is why twice as many young men as young women live alone.

The question is, whatever the reason for joining that group, can older single women embrace life without feeling diminished? Is the sense of lack we might experience made all the harder by being identified as pitiable? I certainly found (perhaps because my mother’s voice still resonates in my head) that it can be hard to stifle a certain sense of shame. “Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved”: we sang this as young women on the first International Women’s Day procession in London, in March 1971. I was there, but few of us singing along on that bright day could appreciate what many of us would later experience as the bitter gravity of the message.

In our 20s and 30s, feminists like me felt we understood the male-defined, ephemeral nature of “beauty”, and we disdained cosmetic embellishments. Yet this did little to prepare us for most of the challenges of ageing, as we are rendered increasingly invisible by middle age. For certain, all those friends we cultivated make a difference. I could not have recovered from the heartache of losing Peter without their support. Yet, valuable as friends are, there are limits to what we can expect from them. Inside the sanctified region of the couple, whatever its joys, sorrows or fragilities, one knows one is allowed to love, even if one-sidedly. But there are few agreed codes for friendship. One of the most distressing letters I ever received was from a new friend, expressing anger that I had assumed an unwarranted sense of entitlement. I have noticed older single people avoiding new close friendships, to protect themselves from the possibility of hurt, whether from hoping for too much, or giving too little. Nevertheless, old friendships do endure, allaying the loneliness that often threatens to engulf us.

I have the strong impression that many, if not most, older single women barely dare express what may be their frustrated sexual longings, complex as these are. How can they not fear arousing the distinct cultural abhorrence reserved for ageing female flesh, in all its mythic monstrosity? The humiliations an old woman can expect when she seeks a partner in a straight world mean that it is often better, far better, to act as though she no longer desires at all. I suspect this lies behind many older women, quite unlike men, declaring they’re no longer interested in sex. It provides protection from the crippling fear of rejection, or worse, if an older woman acknowledges her erotic desire. Still, after all these years, I refuse to give up on desire, trying to grasp its intricate continuities and discontinuities over a long life.

Agnes was head of a gender programme at Trondheim University and asked me to open a conference she was organising on sexuality. I had agreed, though as the date approached, I was working on a new book, and told her I wanted to pull out. She was furious, and I ended up going along, and talking about ageing. At a dinner at her place that evening it was clear she fancied me, which made me very happy (although on that first cheerful, somewhat drunken evening together, I was probably slightly flirting with everyone). When Agnes came to London two weeks later, she stayed with me and, very casually at first, we slept together. That was eight years ago, and we remain a couple, living “together apart”.

I am far from the only older woman to have found love and renewed physical pleasure in physical intimacy with another woman. Sadly, in my case, my partner lives and works much of the time in Norway. Yet even though we see each other only every six weeks, she has enabled me to experience more sexual pleasure than I have known before, and to see myself as desirable in different ways. The desire to be desired is always a key aspect of sexuality, and certainly of mine. And when you feel desired, at any age, you are back in touch with all those younger selves you have been across a lifetime.

Despite all the pitfalls of life and love, I find that most of the political commitments I made as a young woman still sustain me in old age. Feminism has given me a language for recognising rather than disavowing the vulnerabilities we all experience, whatever our age. Hope can live with apprehension, in love and in politics, as together we shrink those generational divisions erected all around us.

• Out Of Time: The Pleasures And The Perils Of Ageing, by Lynne Segal, is published by Verso at £16.99. To order a copy for £13.59, including free UK mainland p&p, go to theguardian.com/bookshop. Segal is speaking at the Bristol Festival of Ideas on 27 November

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