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Free love: Was there a price to pay?

To hear the ex-hippies and Summer of Love enthusiasts tell it, the spring and summer of 1967 in San Francisco changed everything, especially sex.  The real story is more complex.
Face Painting
Many problems arising from the Summer of Love that originated in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, during 1967, have been glossed over, say critics. Ted Streshinsky / © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS
/ Source: contributor

To hear the ex-hippies and Summer of Love enthusiasts tell it, the spring and summer of 1967 in San Francisco changed everything, especially sex.

At first, this sounds like more of the same generational hagiography from baby boomers that we’ve been subjected to for several decades now. But there is no question that we are still living with the “free love” fallout. Everything from the rise of Viagra to “Girls Gone Wild” and feminist porn, to the sex education debate and the Christian fundamentalist backlash, bears the mark of that bohemian sexual revolution.

The lingering image of the Summer of Love has been one of bare-breasted flower children making love in patchouli-scented crash pads, sharing their food, their money and their partners.

The real story is more complex.

'From idealism to despair'
Many problems have been glossed over in the psychedelic, Jefferson Airplane, “make love, not war” sheen the era has received, not least of which was the soaring rate of sexually transmitted diseases. There was a price for all that free love. From 1964 through 1968, the rates of syphilis and gonorrhea in California rose 165 percent, according to published reports.

“There was a lot of drug use, group sex, communal sex,” says Dr. David Smith, who founded the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic with $500 of his own money. “It would be an understatement to say there was a spike in STDs. That’s like saying a hurricane is a strong wind.”

Clinic doctors would regularly visit local communes to track sexual partners of infected people.

“Well, Bill had sex with John, and John had sex with Cindy,” explains Smith. “So we often said, ‘Well, let’s just bring in a gallon of penicillin and inject everybody.’”

Smith sums up his feelings about how the scene degenerated from carefree experimentation into a disease-ridden mess: “We went from idealism to despair.”

Echoes of the sexual stew
The repercussions of women’s burgeoning sexual freedom and the rise of venereal diseases during the late 1960s still echo politically today.

When former speaker of the House of Representatives Tom DeLay stated in 2003 that, “For the last 40 years, the anti-Christian left in America has waged a sustained attack against ... traditional moral norms,” he was referring to the sexual stew that boiled over during the Summer of Love.

Today, abstinence-only sex education advocates blame the excesses of the 1960s for the rise of new kinds of STDs such as AIDS and herpes. They commonly assert that syphilis and gonorrhea were the only two STDs in existence until the 1960s, but that dozens have emerged since.

Of course, that wasn’t true. The hippies may have spread a lot of nasty bugs amongst themselves, but they didn’t create the STD epidemic. Other STDs, such as human papillomavirus, existed long before, but were as yet unidentified. Rates of syphilis and gonorrhea were so bad during World War I that the government had to mount a nationwide campaign against them or face a shortage of soldiers.

Abortion was another issue that erupted during Summer of Love. By the end of the summer, many women, some of them young teenagers, needed treatment for botched abortions. Though then-governor Ronald Reagan signed a liberalized abortion law in June of 1967, trips to Tijuana, Mexico, for back-alley procedures were common. Smith’s clinic even treated Big Brother and the Holding Company singer Janis Joplin for a mishandled Mexican abortion. She became a benefactor of the clinic.

Hippies Dancing at Love-In
June 1967 --- A crowd of hippies dance a love-in. Two hippie women are in the center, one in a bright orange skirt, the other in a silver dress. --- Image by © Henry Diltz/CORBISHenry Diltz

Such experiences with abortions gone bad helped lead some states to further liberalize their abortion laws until 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, a ruling that still divides Americans.

Not a smooth ride
The Summer of Love may be remembered for its rejection of middle-class morality, but the hippies trekking into San Francisco didn’t create the concept of free love. It’s an idea that traces back to the 19th-century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, up through the suffragettes and the American jazz age of the early 1900s. Post-World War II social changes further hastened the liberalization of sex in the United States, along with the Beat poets, the coffeehouse scene and the comedian Lenny Bruce, who helped heat up the sexual conversation in America.

Sexual culture was already in flux before the first tie-dyed teenage runaway hitched a ride to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Playboy’s first issue had arrived 14 years earlier in December of 1953. The birth control pill became widely available in 1960. Researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson published “Human Sexual Response,” the best-selling masterpiece of human physiology and anatomy, in 1966. In May of 1967, a Michigan youth commission recommended sex education be introduced into the schools. Throughout the year, formerly single-sex colleges announced they were going co-ed.

Nevertheless, many of the “love the one you’re with” enthusiasts of the 1960s were about to discover that the free-love train was not going to be a smooth ride.

It didn’t take long for many women to realize that the sexual freedoms associated with the hippie era didn't necessarily change their role in mainstream America — they just wore different costumes.

As black activist Stokely Carmichael famously put it, “The only position for women in the movement is prone.” He may have been talking about the civil rights struggle, but many of the scruffy Summer of Love scenesters viewed women in a similar way.

Money was looked down upon by many hippies, but women sometimes served as a replacement currency.

“Women were used as an inducement to get new members into a commune or crash pad,” Smith recalls. “If you joined, you got to have sex with the girls.”

The girls were young, cute and free, an irresistible combination for both hippies and non-hippies.

“We would go collect free food from the San Francisco produce market a couple of days per week,” recalls Susan Keese, who journeyed from Ohio to join up with The Diggers, the anarchist group comprised mainly of artists and actors who helped create the original Council for the Summer of Love. “The guys at the market would give us food because of how we looked. We traded on that.”

Hippie women were expected to be just as available to the men in their own crowd.

“There was this ethic that it was good for you to have as much sex as possible ... and you were uptight and hung up if you did not,” says Keese, who was 20 years old and living in San Francisco during the summer of ‘67, and later in the Black Bear commune further north. “Some women seemed to be comfortable with that, but I was not. Years later I found out many of the other women did not want to do it, either. We felt like we had to work on ourselves if we didn’t like it.”

‘Love without responsibility’
Nascent feminists in cities across the country saw how males dominated both the political “New Left” and hippie culture (the two were often at odds) and began to protest.

“Women discovered, to our surprise and dismay, that despite the New Left change in head, shape, hip action and buttons — most of all buttons — that the position of women was no less foul, no less repressive, no less unliberated, than it had ever been,” wrote three early Chicago-based feminists in a famous 1967 essay titled “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.”

For many of the guys, free love really meant free sex.

“I think there was a general feeling that the whole idea of free love was a very attractive idea to men because it meant love without responsibility,” Evelyn Goldfield, one of the essay’s authors, recalls.

So women decided they were going to have to mount their own revolution. Modern-day feminism took to the streets and helped raise a generation of assertive women who not only agitated for political parity, but erotic parity as well.

“The long-lasting reaction was to create the conditions for a vision of sexual liberation that includes women, and if anything, allows women to take the lead” in sex, suggests Ellen Du Bois, feminist history professor at University of California, Los Angeles.

The age’s radical feminist notion of eliminating marriage never materialized, but demand from 40 years ago to have “the freedom to love, to chose whom to love and how to love,” written by Goldfield and her essay collaborators Sue Munaker and Naomi Weisstein, is taken for granted by the young women — and men — of the MySpace generation.

Goldfield now is a prominent university chemistry professor with children and grandchildren. Though she now seems somewhat chagrined at some of her theatrical language, the key word in that essay is “freedom.”

Treasure Island's Tangerine Lounge First Anniversary
LAS VEGAS - JULY 01: Guests are silhouetted as they dance at the Tangerine Lounge & Nightclub's first-year anniversary party at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino July 1, 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)Ethan Miller / Getty Images North America

Freedom is the true legacy of the Summer of Love era, according to Eli Coleman, Director of the Program of Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota and editor of the International Journal of Sexual Health.

“They made sex a central focus of their lives,” and popularized the idea “of sex as fun” that has now become a mantra of the younger generation, Coleman says.

From the excesses of the free-love movement came a less self-destructive, yet more open-minded approach to relationships, both for the baby boomers and their children.

“Some [people] are monogamous, but they are choosing to be, rather than following some script. Maybe they are not having sex with 10 people at a time, but now they are following their own script,” says Coleman.

Studies support his assertion. Among women born between between 1933 and 1942, 93 percent had their first union with a man when they married, according to the University of Chicago's landmark 1994 study of American sex by professor of sociology Edward O. Laumann and his colleagues. Among those born between 1963 and 1974, only 36 percent did, meaning that 64 percent formed a non-marital cohabitation unit before marriage.

Though the Summer of Love collapsed on itself by Labor Day of 1967, leaving many damaged people in its wake, its lingering contribution has been the freedom to choose one’s own sexual path through life, with all the possible pitfalls and joys that freedom suggests.

Baby boomers are chucking down Viagra and sticking on hormone patches so they can still enjoy sex, Coleman says. And their children — in some cases, their grandchildren — are dirty dancing in school gyms, making pornography as a statement of feminist power, using condoms at increasing rates and most of all, talking about sex in ways that were virtually impossible before the 1960s.

Brian Alexander is's Sexploration columnist and a contributing editor to Glamour magazine. His latest book, America Unzipped: In  Search of Sex and Satisfaction, will be published by Harmony Books in January.