The ghastly decade

In Designers, Pop stars, Punk rock, Rock 'n' roll on February 27, 2014 at 4:03 pm


In the 1990s Tom Ford performed at least two miracles. There was his public miracle of transforming the fortunes of an Italian luxury brand which had sunk into tacky naffness through a series of family feuds and bad licensing agreements and making Gucci once more a label associated with the highest jet set glamour and allure.

He also wrought a personal miracle on my head by making me think, with all his visual references to slinky Halston and necklines slashed open to the waist (the look we have recently been reminded of by American Hustle…), that the 1970s had been a decade of great fabulousness.


It wasn’t. The 1970s was the ghastly decade. It was absolutely hideous.

This has been brought back to me recently by the spate of repellent sexual abuse cases from that era which are currently being aired in the UK.

The foul J. Savile is the most notorious (I shudder even to type the name), but in the wake of those revelations hordes more women have felt able to come forward and report crimes that were visited on them around the same time by other celebrities who felt entitled, at the very least, to cop a good feel.

It seems to some an odd coincidence that so many well-known men could suddenly be revealed to be ruthless sexual predators. Not to me. In the 1970s that kind of revolting male behaviour was considered not just normal – but admirable. It’s not just the individuals who are on trial, it’s the whole hideous decade.


The most recent nauseating thing to emerge is that, in 1975, the National Council for Civil Liberties – a most excellent human rights advocacy organisation founded in the 1930s and operating now as Liberty – granted official affiliate status to a vile coterie of creeps called the Paedophile Information Exchange.

They claimed to be campaigning for the ‘rights’ of paedophiles and in the heat of the 1970s moment, when everybody’s rights to be recognised equal were up for grabs – women, homosexuals, people of colour (to use the US term) – they hopped aboard in the heady melee.

This revelation has been used this week by the British gutter press to smear by association the Labour MP and Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, Harriet Harman, who was working at the NCCL at the time.

Of course Ms Harman had nothing to do with giving that toxic group credence (much too busy working on equal pay for women), but the fact that such an organisation ever did, is another example of just how warped ideas about sexual ‘freedom’ had become in the 1970s.

The hangover of the sweetly naïve free love ideals of the 1960s, combined with the freedom from inconvenient unwanted pregnancy – without the need for any male responsibility for it – made possible by the contraceptive pill, created a ‘sexual revolution’ which at the time seemed like a marvellous step forward from the repression which had gripped since the Victorian era.

What it actually turned into was sexual open season for men. And all women under forty were prey.

I was a busty teenager in the 1970s and I remember it with horror. Just to walk along the street was to be ogled and catcalled. A visit to the local garage to collect the car with your mum, meant being confronted by walls of bare breasted women.

TV shows aired at peak family viewing times featured men aggressively pursuing women as a hilarious norm. Even the lauded Monty Python made me squirm with discomfort at the way women were depicted. The theme music from Benny Hill still makes me feel nauseous.


The celebrated sexual antics of the great rock bands of the time were another symptom of this epidemic of sexual exploitation under a false banner of freedom and I now understand that this was one of the reasons I fell upon punk rock with such a sense of relief in 1976.

Punk rock was completely asexual. Male and female punks dressed the same – thank you Vivienne Westwood for making bondage trousers that fitted me as well as for my boy pals. Men punk rock stars weren’t sexual warriors – Johnny Rotten? Joe Strummer? no way – and the women weren’t sex objects.

Sex Pistols

OK, the mesmerising, Debbie Harry was the object of many teenage boys’ fantasies, but I always felt she played up her looks on her own terms.

When I went backstage after gigs by the Boomtown Rats, the Jam, the Buzzocks etc, to get quotes for my fanzine, Punkture, none of the bands treated me as a groupie. We met on equal terms, eye to eye, united in our joy at the music which defined our generation – and separated us from the ghastly old pervy hippies.

punks, kings road 1980

It was part of the beginning of the next stage in sexual politics. As feminists like Harriet Harman began to create legislation which formally protected women’s rights, the wild dog phase of 1970s sexuality died down and soon began to look as outdated and ugly as the flares, chocolate brown leather jackets and centre-parted long hair and face pubes often sported by its perpetrators.

So while Tom Ford made us all believe for a while there that the 1970s was all glamour and silk jersey – and Amercian Hustle is starting it up again – let’s not forget what it was really like in the dark ages.


  1. Well made point, although there is still a long way to go for gender equality.

  2. Thanks Maggie, for an insightful piece of writing.
    Sometimes I feel that the sexual open season for men that started back then is still in force today – only worse. Now that men are expected to behave respectfully towards women it seems some feel aggrieved by this and area letting it be known by displaying aggression and a level of nastiness I haven’t witnessed before. For example the way Julia Gillard was stalked here and the muck raking against Ms Harman. In the other direction there seems to be more emphasis than ever on women being “hot” or that vile ideal of a yummy mummy where being a loving mum and an affectionate wife is secondary to being hot.
    I’d better leave it at that. As Claire says gender equality is still a way off.

  3. PS: I loathed Benny Hill. Even the pictures you posted give me the creeps.

  4. Oh Dear Maggie, and the trips to the newsagency! Outside walls covered with large posters for “mens” mags and inside the shop so many titles piled high with mostly sad looking girls, too much green eye shadow (I was sure – they don’t look happy, they must have to do it for the money?) The dichotamy/”early developer” – parents and the nuns at school so strict and then confronted with THAT in public/am I expected to condone/participate in this? I boycotted our local newsagency successfully from ages 12-15 (ie ’72-’75).
    Kathy Lette with her “Puberty Blues” captured some of this essence of the time/Australia 70’s. It wasn’t unusual to hear “its ok, you’re just a girl”, “gang bangs/town bike” (and somehow always the girl’s fault if she “got into trouble”).
    Of course you a right, PUNK supplied an option for liberation/platform for self expression for many/all the sexes/inclinations. Personally I wasn’t really into a lot of the punk music as such but I loved the rebellious sense of freedom it was fused with and remember thinking how great it must have been for British teenagers at such a difficult (Mrs T) time.
    The thought of anything to do with Benny Hill (esp. that dreadful theme music) still infuriates me.
    PS Hippydom was another option (esp. here in OZ) … fond memories of some beautiful cheescloth peasant tops and knockout denim flares with dolphins embroidered on the outside legs. BX

  5. Wonderfully spot on. I suspect anyone who looks fondly towards the 70’s didn’t actually live through them.

  6. Spot on. It was one big faded blur of creepy uncles.

  7. This is where I’m having a slight dilemma with some of the prosecutions taking place in the UK. Aside from the despicable J. Saville, who is beyond, well, beyond even thinking about, a lot of these elderly entertainment figures are being charged with sexual assault for behaviour that was commonplace (abhorrent and hideous, but happened a lot). At the time, you quickly learned to turn a blind eye or avoid potential troublesome creeps. If you had complained that someone touched your boob, or pinched your bum, you would have been told to “take it as a compliment” or “don’t make a fuss, just stay out of his way”. As none of these men were ever taken to task at the time, it was seen as somewhat “normal” behaviour. I’m trying to find and example that takes you back even further historically and can only come up with the fact that some years ago it was okay for men to marry girls of 14 -15 – it’s not okay now and we would prosecute anyone who did it. However, do we prosecute the 80 year old man who married his 15 year old sweetheart in the village in the hills somewhere in Europe? It was what happened. I don’t condone any of this behaviour, but it seems that these prosecutions serve little purpose. The 70’s was a shitty time for lots of things, let’s learn from it and start looking at the revolting behaviour of the cultural icons of now – Terry Richardson and his pervy photos, Jason Derulo and his sexually explicit lyrics, Miley Cyrus and her everything.

    • Janel – that is just about the most even minded and sensible thing I’ve read on this subject. I agree with you, except that some of the cases do involve actual rape, which obviously does need investigating, but unfortunately there also the ‘copped a good feel’ incidents which are being tried in a different universe. So so agree with you about the foul Mr Richardson who is a 1970s man right down to his facial hair. Also there are the rappers who produce those horrendous porno pop videos which are the Benny Hill shows of today. I try not to let my daughter see them. And of course, horrible Benny Hill is so tame compared to what can be seen on the internet… It’s all still out there, but at least day to day we aren’t forced to see it… xxx

  8. hi Maggie. An excellent reality check. Whilst I agree we still have a long way to go, and there are many things about our society which could and should be improved, the all pervasive and ‘normalised’ nature of the environment you mention simply does not exist any more. Whilst we need to constantly strive for improvement, we also need to celebrate the fact that in some respects we have come a long way. The other aspect of the 70s connected to the TV shows you mention was the terrible sexist advertising. I am so pleased my daughter is not subject to that TV, and those ads. And may she never be whistled at by a whole gang of construction workers.

  9. What an eye opening article! I was only born in 77 but the 70s always seemed tacky and sexist to me. I didn’t think American Hustle was a great movie (it was ok). But Lovelace was an amazing film and is probably far more realistic. For those who haven’t seen it, Lovelace is about the star of Deep Throat and it is a sad and amazing true story. And also a great film.
    P.S. I am quite shocked that a pedophile group being admitted to a human rights organisation. In Australia we are having a Royal Commission into the institutional responses to child sexual abuse. It’s about time!

  10. it was pretty bad in Aust…though I do look back at some things fondly …Sydney a city when people could afford to live here, less traffic and people, I do know though you re talking of social mores .

  11. What an interesting perspective and very thought provoking. I,too, was a teen in those dark old days and looking back there was a lot of creepiness. I wonder what my 20 something daughter will think of the ‘anything goes internet’ in a few decades time. I wonder if we will have some sort of eventual censorship either formally or informally due to the out of control content and commentary (trolling) now available. Thanks Maggie.

  12. Oh Maggie

    I couldn’t stand the music or Benny Hill chasing near naked girls around either. I thought it was just me being squeamish. Awful. Even parts of Paul Hogan’s shows remind me of it as well. Yuch! I hate even the thought that someone has kept these detestable shows and that there are some re-runs shown on tv.

  13. A few years ago I went to a revival of ‘Don’s Party’, by David Williamson. Technically it depicted election night in 1969, but near enough to the 70s. It was quite confronting to see just how sexist society was in those days. I was actually nauseated when I guy offered up his wife for his best friend to sleep with, like she was his goods and chattel. Which reminds me of those awful key parties: How much say did the women have in who they slept with? Ew! Bad old days indeed.

  14. I spent most of the nineties and noughties in the finance industry before returning to primary school teaching a few years ago and am reminded daily of the similarities between little boys and some of the “grown” men in moneyland who should have known better.

    Some of the behaviour was overt; most of it was very subtle, but in its own way, just as insidious. At least these days we are spared a lot of the behaviour which in the seventies was seen as a complimentary if you were female and post puberty.

    To a certain extent we are now in limbo: some men find it difficult to show appreciation and courtesy to women because they are fearful of being accused of harassment.

    • Totally agree – and a lot of the impulses to behave that way have gone covert and are now acted out on line…

      • I stopped contributing comments to Wendy Harmer’s The Hoopla because of one particularly nasty misogynist.

        I was thinking about the 70s the other night, while watching an episode of Video Killed the Radio Star – focusing on mainly 80s acts (this one was The Human League – Phil Oakey now has a hair free polished dome – who woulda thunk it? Still very sweet…) The 80s music scene certainly was an improvement in how women were depicted – a lot more strength in it. At least it looked like that from the outside.

      • A misogynist in the comments??? Did you tell them? xxx

  15. I agree with what you say. I remember as a pretty teenager that any unwanted attention was somehow ‘my fault’ and that men couldn’t help themselves! I was very nearly raped in a car park and all anyone could say was I shouldn’t have been alone! I spent so much time covering up and scrubbing off makeup so I couldn’t be accused of ‘asking for it’. Now I look at the freedoms that teenagers have now and am delighted. Benny Hill was the worst.

    • Ah – the burqa argument… men have to be saved from the temptation and it’s a woman’s responsibility to do it. I remember so clearly that feeling that I couldn’t just be me, with the body shape I happened to have. By walking around with biggish breasts I was ‘asking’ for it. I should ask young women what it’s like now, it may just be that I’m old not that it’s changed that much!

  16. I also remember being asked at job interviews as an 18 y/o do you have a boyfriend?, who do you live with ?etc. ..

    But at least there was no online bullying

    • Ugh, that’s so awful. When I first left uni and wanted to claim the equivalent of ‘job seeker’s allowance’ while I looked for a job, I was refused it because my flat mate was a man! The fact that he was gay fell on deaf ears – if I was living with a man, he had to pay for me. Unbelievable and not that long ago really.

  17. I remember Benny hill being on when I was young and I use to call it the rudey nudey show it made me feel SO UNCOMFORTABLE and I use to blush at the women running around in their undies, I was so confused by it. I grew up listening to Rolf Harris and had recently introduced his music to my girls but now I can’t play it, I won’t play it. I embraced grunge in the same way you embraced punk for the same reasons, great post Maggie.

    • Thanks Cath… it’s so great to find out that other people felt exactly as I did about that show. Also Carry On films and much more. I can’t play Michael Jackson for the same reason… x

  18. For anyone born in the 60’s (me) or 70’s and beyond who ever doubts feminism and what it achieved, Madmen the TV series is a complete eye-opener. The sexual harassment in the workplace was jaw droppingly disgusting. Still a long way to go for true equality sadly, but we have come a long way too. Thank you Germaine et al.

    • I so agree – and that’s why I also had some issues with that show, as I felt like , to some extent, it glamorised that behaviour. I watched it obsessively for a while and then had to can it.

  19. Tell it, sister!

  20. It made me the feminist I am today Maggie – I loathed it and still do…. thanks for writing, I’d kind of forgotten but reading this struck right at the pit of my tummy xx

    • Thanks for that, Lyn… it made me a feminist too. That and pinching The Female Eunuch from my sister when I was 13. Boy did light bulbs go off in my head!

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