By Amanda Smith Barusch
I was 12 years old during the Summer of Love, with a pixie haircut, a best friend, and a horse that I rode in the hills. My parents, my brother, and I watched the 6 p.m. news on television. Flower children kissed and danced in the streets of San Francisco, while Walter Cronkite’s deep voice explained what it all meant. Five decades later, we still wonder what it all meant—and whether the Summer of Love changed anything. (Author’s personal reflections)
In the midst of unprecedented prosperity, fertility, and upheaval, young adults who called themselves “hippies” argued that innovation was not only possible, but also necessary. During the summer of 1967, they declared war on conformity. The San Francisco Oracle, one of the movement’s media mouthpieces, offered some heady goals: “A new concept of celebrations beneath the human underground must emerge, become conscious, and be shared, so a revolution can be formed with a renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love, and the revelation of unity for all mankind” (Sandford, 2017).
And Timothy Leary opined, “The morals of this country have changed, the kids just don’t buy that old uptight, keep your legs crossed Puritan ethic” (PBS, 2005).
Expanding Our Possibilities
Six years later, I went to college in Portland, Oregon. I joined a food cooperative, learned to ride the bus, bought my clothes at a thrift store, tasted wine for the first time, and had several sexual encounters before falling in love with the man I would live with for two years. I worried about catching herpes, but not about getting pregnant. The pill took care of that. Each night at 6 p.m., I went to the commons and watched the news with my classmates.
Hippies challenged tradition on many fronts: political, technological, social, sexual and (yes) romantic. They rejected the conventional norms and boundaries that had governed relationships for generations and judged their own interactions on the basis of happiness and gratification. In one emblematic moment, Janis Joplin, an icon for the movement, exulted, “I get stoned from happiness” (Moretta, 2017). In that brief window between the invention of the birth control pill and the advent of AIDS, the young people of Haight-Ashbury dropped acid and made love. The greatest risk of promiscuous sex was not a life-threatening STD, but pregnancy (as abortion was illegal in 1967), and the pill dramatically reduced this hazard.
By October, it was all over. Stragglers gathered in Buena Vista Park in the upper Haight for the mock funeral of Hippie, the “devoted son of Mass Media” (Moretta, 2017). But mass media had already extended the reach of the event well beyond its revolutionary participants. All summer long, people in middle America watched—some in awe and some with disgust—while unconventional young folk explored their sensuality and their psyches, danced in the streets, and loved one another. Love may sound trite these days, and we may never know the precise impact of this moment in time. But a generation was marked by the events of that summer.
The impact of historic events often is greatest for people who experience them as adolescents and young adults. Elder and Caspi (1990) coined the term “Life Stage Principle” to capture this observation. The principle has considerable support. For instance, in his seminal study of children raised during the Great Depression, Glenn Elder reported that those who were adolescents during the upheaval were more strongly influenced than those who were younger children (Elder, 1974; Elder, Caspi, and van Nguyen, 1986). Similar findings have been reported in relation to World War II (Stewart and Healy, 1989), and to the second-wave feminist movement (Stewart, 1994). While it has not been studied, it seems fair to apply the Life Stage Principle to the Summer of Love. Arguably, those ages 15 to 30 were most heavily influenced.
Today, those young people range from ages 65 to 80. No doubt their reactions to the Summer of Love varied. As Christine Anthis (2006) pointed out, “. . . although the cohort an individual belongs to may be a factor in the extent to which a social event influences one’s personality, the individual’s unique interpretation of the event also greatly contributes to the impact it will have.” But each member of this cohort was exposed to new “conceptions of possibility,” new “possible selves” (Markus and Nurius, 1986).
Sometimes referred to as “identity schema,” possible selves represent our imagined futures: both what we desire and what we fear. In 1890, William James wrote, “In each kind of self, material, social and spiritual, men distinguish between the immediate and the actual and the remote and the potential” (James, 1890).
Drawing upon this foundation, Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius introduced the notion of possible selves in a 1986 issue of the American Psychologist. They argued that “possible selves represent individuals’ ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming . . . ” (1986). Within this framework, each of us has a “repertoire” of possible selves, by which we judge our “present selves,” direct our behavior, and manage our identities (Bandura, 1997). Our possible selves are influenced by history and by changes in life circumstances, such as illness, widowhood, or divorce (Smith and Freund, 2002).
Along with the second wave of feminism and with the Civil Rights Movement, the Summer of Love expanded the repertoire of possible selves available to the young adults (and some older adults) of that era. Among other things, the public was exposed to an expanded range of romantic possibilities, including same-sex relationships, cohabitation without marriage, and other non-traditional alternatives discussed below. Regardless of whether any given individual chose to pursue these alternatives, knowledge of their possibility can generate an expanded awareness and, perhaps, a sense of greater freedom. Of course, individual possibilities are informed, and in some cases limited, by deep-seated philosophical positions on what is morally acceptable.
Dueling Metaphysics of Love
My grandfather married for the fourth time while I was in college. He was shocked when Dad [his son] asked why he couldn’t just live with the woman. “I would never propose such a thing! She’s an honest woman!” he said.
As the hippies quickly learned, reaction to their expansive view of human sexuality ranged from hostility to enthusiastic acceptance. These contrasting judgments reflect two distinct philosophical approaches: sexual pessimism and sexual optimism (Sober, 2009).
Adherents of sexual pessimism view fornication as demeaning to human nature and the sex drive as a threat to morality. Under this view, our sexual urges make us seek neither love nor communion, but a jerking act of acrobatics in which we ignore the person and focus on their genitals. As Bernard Baumrin (1975) wrote in “Sexual Immorality Delineated,” “Sexual interaction is essentially manipulative—physically, psychologically, emotionally, and even intellectually.” Kant agreed (1963). In his Lectures on Ethics, he argued that “only her sex is the object of his desires.” Given this antipathy, it is not surprising that sexual pessimists often believe that celibacy is an ideal state and sex is only morally acceptable to achieve procreation within the bounds of marriage.
Sexual optimists counter these arguments directly. In The Nature of Love, Irving Singer (1984) wrote, “There is nothing in the nature of sexuality as such that necessarily . . . reduces persons to things. On the contrary, sex may be seen as an instinctual agency by which persons respond to one another through their bodies.” Under this view, sex is a natural bonding process that has the side effect of making us happy. Pleasure, including sexual pleasure, is valuable in its own right. Some, like Russell Vannoy (1980), went so far as to argue that sexual pleasure does not require justification (of love or of marriage). It is good per se. Not all sexual optimists agree with his view, as some prefer to distinguish between true love and animal lust.
The mad burst of sexual optimism in the 1960s and 1970s gave affirmative sexual philosophies new voice and vitality. The Summer of Love and its sequelae have put the optimistic discourse on equal footing with the pessimistic. The sexual optimists’ view may now dominate our understanding of successful aging. For instance, Wada, Clarke, and Rozanova (2015) studied how the Canadian media portrayed late-life sexuality. Based on their review of 144 articles, they concluded that the media no longer ascribed to the notion of later life as asexual. Instead, sexual activity was broadly presented as an important (almost necessary) component of aging well.
In the same vein, the sex-positive attitudes of older adults in America were evident in interviews my students and I conducted with ninety-one Americans between the ages of 50 and 91 (Barusch, 2008). With the exception of 93-yearold Louise, who said, “There is no sex in later life. I want you to write that down!”, the vast majority reported that sex was an important part of their lives and their conceptions of positive aging.
Love in Later Life
My husband and I have been married for thirty-four years now. Our bodies are softer and more fragile than when we met, as is our sex. My understanding of love is based on the deep joy that stems from commitment, companionship, shared memories, and our children. The specter of widowhood for one or the other of us presents itself from time to time.
Love is different in later life—both emotionally and physically—and many in the cohort that brought on the sexual revolution are adapting in expansive and creative ways. I think the Summer of Love expanded the realm of possibilities for sexual fulfillment, which, for some, redefined the very nature of romantic relationships.
Most gerontologists can recite it in their sleep: the fundamental demographic disparity that results from women’s longer life expectancies. Quite simply: older women outnumber older men. Among those ages 65 and older, there are roughly 132 women for every 100 men, and the ratio increases with every passing year until, at ages 85 and older, there are 203 women for every 100 men (Vincent and Velkoff, 2010). Among those ages 65 and older, women are more likely to be single than married (42 percent), while men are more likely to be married (72 percent) (West et al., 2014).
While a man can most likely remain comfortably ensconced in his marital relationship, growing numbers of heterosexual women find themselves without a partner in later life. Bianca Fileborn and colleagues (2015) explored the experiences of single Australian women ages 55 to 81. Their findings revealed widespread sex-positive attitudes in this cohort, and pointed to a variety of individual strategies, including masturbation, celibacy, and same-sex relationships. Other authors have explored older women’s experiences with extra-dyadic affairs and “friends-with-benefits” (Kirkman, 2015), cybersex and Internet romance (Malta, 2007), and polyamory (Khazan, 2014; Fleckenstein and Cox, 2015; Moors, Matsick and Schechinger, 2017).
Meanwhile, some older heterosexual women rewrite their sexual scripts by turning to younger men. This final strategy entered popular awareness in 2002 when Valerie Gibson published Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men. Some trace the term to a comment that older women picking up young men in a bar looked like cougars ready to snatch their defenseless prey. Later, a reality dating show, a film, and a sitcom would use (some would say exploit) the term. While public attitudes toward cougars remain ambivalent (Montemurro and Siefken, 2014), the term and the practice are fast becoming part of our popular lexicon.
Writing before the term cougar was invented, Brings and Winter (2000) identified older women who prefer younger men as “a newly emerging archetype,” and provided a rationale for these arrangements: younger men are more open-minded and adventurous, less committed to stereotypical gender norms, and less likely to present a need for caregiving. One self-identified cougar provided another rationale. Fileborn and colleagues (2015) described a 71-year-old respondent and explained, “Georgia quite actively sought out the sexual company of young men . . . [she said] ‘a young man’s body is firm and just feels nice, and that’s what I am used to.’”
Implications for Practitioners
In this post-modern era, identities and norms that earlier generations took for granted are up for renegotiation. This certainly applies to older adults. As Simon Biggs (2005)said, “The freedoms and risks associated with contemporary aging mean that older adults might increasingly experience multiple pressures on identities that were previously considered stable and predictable.”
Gerontological practitioners working with older adults are likely to encounter issues and situations that simply didn’t come up in the 1950s. Examples from my experience include: providing support to a mother who is both celebrating and grieving the gender transition of her adult child; helping newly single baby boomers navigate the online dating scene; initiating discussion about the impact of medications on an older man’s sex life; describing the potential impact of anti-depressive medications on orgasm; supporting a woman in her 60s whose husband has just told her he identifies as gay; describing the adaptive use of sex toys, videos, and other approaches for older couples who seek to remain sexually active; and assuring a woman infatuated with a man twenty years her junior that while some might call her a “cougar” this did not necessarily make her “a sex predator.”
Standing in front of students in their 20s and 30s, I realize that I can’t anticipate the specific situations they will encounter in their careers. In this rapidly changing world, today’s strategies can become tomorrow’s embarrassments. So I seek to instill habits that will prepare these future practitioners for whatever may come their way.
Sexual content is inherently charged, so a non-judgmental stance is vital—if at times challenging—to maintain. The stance is not without boundaries, and at times practitioners need to gauge practices against the norm that healthy sex is “safe, sane, and consensual.”
At the same time that we seek to support the intimate and sexual needs of clients, we must give them permission both to abstain from or avoid sex and to explore adaptive approaches that might enhance their experiences. The choice must be theirs. Supporting this requires sensitivity to the power dynamics inherent in any helping relationship, as well as knowing when confrontation should yield to a gentle nudge and vice versa.
Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that neither sex nor intimacy is a panacea. Those seeking sex as a means of escaping worry, self-loathing, or loneliness will be sorely disappointed. Likewise, those who rely on intimate partners to meet their every need will experience an all-too-familiar frustration. Rachel Carstenson (1999) argues that one of the great benefits of age is socio-emotional selectivity. Nonetheless, from time to time older adults need to be reminded of these basic tenets.
Finally, practitioners are urged to keep two practical considerations in mind: First, despite their apparent sophistication, many baby boomers did not receive education on how to avoid HIV/AIDS infection. Sexually transmitted diseases are a significant concern, particularly for older adults who are newly single. Second, long-term-care facilities in the United States are only beginning to come to grips with the need for sex-affirmative policies to protect the rights and the well-being of their residents. Older adults who identify as LGBT (and Q) are particularly vulnerable to punitive attitudes and restrictive practices toward late-life sexuality.
My husband grew up in the San Francisco area, but he never identified with the hippies. When I told him I was writing about the Summer of Love, he remembered tourists visiting the Haight to take pictures of the hippies. He saw the events as empty publicity stunts with no lasting impact. One of the great challenges of our relationship has been learning to respect each other’s views, even when they are diametrically opposed to our own.
Today’s older adults were adolescents in 1968; a life stage when individuals may be especially sensitive to the historic events. Through mass media, the Summer of Love introduced baby boomers to new ways of thinking and being—new possible selves that continue to (or, in some cases begin) to manifest in later life. Those who seek to enhance the wellbeing of older adults must be alert to the promise and the potential consequences of these expanded possibilities.
Amanda Smith Barusch, M.S.W., M.F.A., Ph.D., is a professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and she holds an appointment at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.
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Editor’s Note: This article is taken from the Summer 2017 issue of ASA’s quarterly journal, Generations, an issue devoted to the topic “Aging and Oral Health.” ASA members receive Generations as a membership benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions or single copies of issues at our online store. Full digital access to current and back issues of Generations is also available (and free of charge to ASA members and Generations subscribers) at Ingenta Connect.