A Radical Break with a Puritanical Past: the Dutch case

The sexual revolution in the Netherlands took place, as elsewhere, over an extended period of time. Several dates can be indicated but the apex was undoubtedly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. AIDS definitively put an end to the era of hope and sexual optimism. Some historians point to its beginning in the immediate post-war years when the Dutch witnessed a short phase of erotic openness after the German occupation (1940-1945). Others place it in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the dark and oppressive cover of religious morality – both Protestant and Catholic – was removed and spectacularly so by the Christians themselves. Yet this opening was more than the removal of something negative; it was also an explosion of a liberating sexual energy into the public arena. In this revolution, the Netherlands arguably experienced the most radical change of all Western nations. It had been one of the more conservative European states before 1960 and after this time became well known as a tolerant and free country. Important changes of the 1960s included liberation of heterosexuality from bonds of wedding and reproduction, especially for women. A growing acceptance of extra-marital sex eroded marriage. Both hetero- and homosexuality radically changed in the way they were perceived and experienced.

Two remarks can be made on the changes created by the sexual revolution. On one hand, it may have been an extended period, but its central moment was in the second part of the 1960s when there was a short phase where much was possible, yet quickly came to an end due to the normalisation of the demands for radical change. On the other hand, although the revolution was a radical break with a dogmatic-religious past for most Dutch, a basic secular sexual ideology that had been developed since the Enlightenment remained by and large in place. A wide range of fields were affected by these social shifts that I will discuss separately: politics and religion, emancipation movements, media and arts, bar- and street culture, straight and gay sex and feminism.

Sexual politics: religion and state

In the 1960s, Dutch politics experienced a radical change due to the collapse of the pillar-based model of governance. In the 20th century, Dutch society had been divided into four main ‘pillars’ - Protestants, Catholics, Liberals and Social-Democrats - that each had their own media, political parties, schools, medical and social care, sport clubs, recreational organisations, and so on. This system started to break down from 1960 onward. One main reason was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) whose progressive outlook strongly affected the Dutch Catholic Church. The religious orders that controlled schools as well as medical and social work institutions faced a near total collapse in the late 1960s. New non-pillarized parties formed and the strict separations between the pillars disappeared. The maxim that ‘two religions on one cushion, in between sleeps the devil’ indicated that Catholic, Protestant and secular youngsters should not intermarry. This taboo was relaxed from the 1960s on, and nowadays refers rather to marriages between classes and ethnicities. The depillarisation of the 1960s made most institutions less dogmatic, but the orthodox Protestant group, consisting of some 6% of the population, has remained so. The same is true for the new and somewhat smaller group of Muslims. Due in large part to social mobility, the different pillars became less distinct although class and ethnicity remain strong divides.

The process of secularisation meant that many Dutch left their churches while those who stayed became less active. Nowadays 50% of Dutch people believe in a god and only 20% visit religious services on at least a monthly basis. One of the main factors in the dismantling of the Christian pillars, in particular the Catholic, was their strict moral views that became criticized from both outside and inside the church. It was an outdated system that demanded believers should not have sex outside marriage. Young people were no longer obeying such commands while at the same time many clericals themselves did not follow these rules. Unmarried women got pregnant and had to marry against their wishes, got abortions, had to give their babies up for adoption, or were simply thrown out of their family homes to live as single mothers. This period before the 1960s was the high time of ‘pedophile priests’ and of Catholic boys exploring sexual possibilities in (boarding) schools. At the same time, priests, doctors, and parents suggested young queers be subject to therapy or castration. Marrying was another solution for ‘pervert’ interests. The sexual revolution meant liberation – priests and doctors recognized there was more than marriage and reproduction for a fulfilling erotic life. After Catholic psychiatrists and social workers got to know the personal and sexual problems of believers in the 1950s, they started to counsel their clients and to discuss such issues in the media. Some of them, most famously psychiatrist Cees Trimbos and bishop W.H. Bekkers, spoke on radio and television and wrote openly about formerly taboo issues such as family planning, unmarried life, masturbation and homosexuality. Bekkers left questions of contraception to the believers’ conscience and Trimbos, who in 1951 compared homosexual relations with prostitution and shit, did so 10 years later with friendship and marriage. The attitude toward sex outside of marriage had changed from abject to acceptable. While Dutch Catholics experienced drastic changes in their attitudes toward sexual relations, the Vatican had made strides toward consolidating the faith by appointing conservative bishops, which only resulted in further dissolution of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. The ‘rich Catholic life’ found in monasteries, boarding schools, religious institutions, celebrations, and an abundance of vocations had definitively ended.

The developments among Protestants were not as radical or spectacular as the Catholics, but they also witnessed a change in attitude from faithful followers to critical believers and an associated greater openness for sex before and outside marriage, homosexuality, family planning, and birth control. Both Catholic and Protestant churches published leaflets with sexual information in the 1960s. In 1957, Protestant psychiatrist F.J. Tolsma discovered that homosexuality did not originate in seduction, a position he earlier held, and now believed that it was most likely innate. Like Trimbos, he changed the negative meaning he gave homosexuality in his first book from 1948 by offering a more positive definition in the newer version of 1964. Protestants also started to provide family planning information and slowly relaxed their strict morality. As in the Catholic pillar, the high numbers of children in families experienced a sharp decrease. In the 1960s, it appeared as if there was a competition as to which group was more tolerant regarding sexual issues with the secular groups – liberal and socialist – lagging behind the religious ones in those pivotal years.

The Christian parties always had the majority in parliament and participated in all governments since 1918, only being excluded from the cabinet coalition in 1994. Their change of position in the 1960s meant a change in the moral majority from conservative to progressive. The secular pillars that had not actively contested the Christian morality and had remained silent now followed suit. The Nederlandse Vereniging voor Sexuele Hervorming (NVSH, Dutch Society for Sexual Reform) represented the social-liberal views and became the leading advocate of sexual change. Secularisation meant reduced influence of religions in state matters, but their central position in the Dutch state lingered on. Half of the schools still have a religious affiliation and the same is true for many care institutions, media, political parties and so on. Like in all ‘secular’ countries, there remains a good deal of Christianity in the foundations of the nation.

In 1959, the leftist weekly Vrij Nederland published a survey on the social attitudes of the young Dutch on politics, society and family. The results revealed that these young people were still quite conformist and conservative. Of 2300 respondents, 93% believed in being faithful to their betrothed, but 81% were not opposed to unmarried couples going on vacation together because it was deemed important to get to know your future partner. Ten years later, the rule that unmarried couples were not allowed to sleep together on camping grounds or in hotels was seen as ridiculous by most young Dutch. In the survey, 74% found divorce acceptable, especially when the marriage had become a hell for the partners, but opined children should come first. The institution of marriage was not fundamentally questioned. Catholics were more conservative and 64% of them were opposed to divorce. A marriage between partners of different religious backgrounds was unacceptable for 56% of all respondents, and for 78% of Catholics. In the survey, nothing but heterosexuality was mentioned. The survey made clear that differences in sexual ideology were small between pillars and between religious and non-religious people. Liberals and socialists had by and large adapted to Christian ethics and needed a new generation to move ahead.

Provo: radical sexual politics

An important group that opened up Dutch society and fought authoritarian structures was the Provo movement (1965-1967). It had a strong influence on Dutch society and helped to undermine its pillarized conservative social structures. Leadership was informal with young people and students in leading roles and intellectuals and artists supporting them. The Provo’s liked to provoke authorities and the rigid police force. The program of rebellious Provo was broad with some of its main issues including promoting public transport and bicycles rather than dangerous and polluting cars, ecology, solving housing shortages by squatting empty buildings, communal living arrangements, and legalizing soft drugs. They had a ‘white bicycle plan’ for free bikes to use in the city. The white chicken plan meant that police officers should act as nice social workers instead of the commonly perceived bullies of the past.

The Provo’s had a philosophy of sexual freedom. In the first issue of their journal Provo they published an article on ‘free love’ in which ideas of nuclear family and monogamy were criticized. The only acceptable anarchist option was ‘complete amoral promiscuity’. Regarding political philosophy, the journal contained a feature article on the Marquis de Sade in which the author, Roel van Duyn, praised Sade’s moral anarchism and sexual radicalism while criticizing his reliance on violent imagery – in the spirit of the 1960s slogan ‘make love, not war’. The Provo’s developed a ‘white women plan’ that emphasized the availability of information regarding sexual education, contraception for girls, and decriminalizing erotic pleasures of youth. The problems of sexuality were attributed to an older generation; teenagers apparently did not suffer from them. Duco van Weerlee took up the cause of promoting the rights of young queers and proposed a ‘white homophiles plan’, homophile already being an old-fashioned term at the time. He opposed the unequal age of consent set for homosexuals, which at 21 was much higher than the age of 16 for heterosexuals. The group participated in Amsterdam’s local election of June 1966 in which they won one seat in the City Council. A year later they dissolved the movement, but retained the seat. The movement had been able to encourage and offer inspiration for other alternative movements of activists, squatters, leftists, feminists, queers and many more in The Netherlands. Their success gave the country a new, more progressive image.

Sexual movements

Since 1881 the Netherlands has had a Nieuw-Malthusiaanse Bond (NMB, Neo-Malthusian League) that provided information on family planning and was the first in the world to have clinics offering this. The names of Aletta Jacobs, the first Dutch female medical doctor, and Johan Rutgers, a physician and sexual reformer, remain connected to Dutch family planning and sexual information. The NMB changed its name after the Second World War into NVSH and its aim from family planning to sexual reform. Nonetheless, they kept their journal’s name Verstandig Ouderschap (Smart Parenthood) after the war. The NVSH became a major social force in the 1960s with over 200.000 members at its peak. In 1912, a homosexual rights movement started as a chapter of the German Scientific-humanitarian Committee (WHK) and became independent in 1914 after the outbreak of the Great War (NWHK). The NWHK was succeeded in 1946 by the COC (Centre for Recreation and Culture), which would become the smaller brother of the NVSH during the 1960s. Around 1900, the liberal Netherlands was at the forefront of sexual liberties, but due to pillarisation and new Christian politics, it lost this position and became increasingly traditional over the next half century.

NMB and NWHK before and NVSH and COC after the Second World War had to be prudent because of a conservative social climate. The new Christian parties gained a majority in parliament in the early 20th century and made a big mark on Dutch society. They did so where they differed most from their liberal predecessors: morality. In 1911, they introduced new sex laws that limited the sale of contraceptives and erotic materials, restricted abortion possibilities, and raised the age of consent for homosexual sex (21 years instead of 16 for heterosexual sex). Only in the 1960s could NVSH and COC operate more openly and pro-actively. The massive success of the NVSH was based on its ability as a ‘private’ membership foundation to sell contraceptives and erotic material which ’public’ pharmacies or other shops could not do. In 1968, their monthly journal changed its name from Smart Parenthood to Sextant, affirming their dedication to a platform supporting broad sexual change.

The journal was always an outlet where people could pose their questions in the rubric ‘We want to know’ and vent their opinions in ‘Letters to the editor’. These rubrics offer valuable insight into the quickly changing sexual attitudes of the time period. People faced many problems regarding their erotic life: women didn’t experience orgasms, felt jealous or neglected because of their husbands’ masturbation in the marital bed while men complained that their wives had no desire for sex or, in contrast, wives whined that their husbands were so habituated to self-pleasuring that they found no satisfaction in coital sex. Before the 1960s, the marital bed was the place for sex and sexual problems should be dealt with by the couple working together to enhance enjoyment. Masturbation was a taboo, but after 1970, it became the predominant method of learning about sex. Other questions regarded coming out as a homosexual and, less so, as a masochist. Early intimate expressions of children (masturbation, playing doctor) made parents feel insecure. The letters to the editor show the diversity of the readers´ ideas regarding the NVSH and Sextant. The perception of the journal was divided, with some describing it as filthy while others found it a good vehicle for sexual emancipation. Some people objected to the nude pictures and others complained they showed only women, not men. Some held to straight norms and opposed all attention given to erotic diversity claiming their family had no gays or lesbians.

A summary of what the sexual revolution should mean according to the NVSH was given by its chair Mary Zeldenrust-Noordanus in her presidential lecture of 1967. She wanted to reverse the sex laws and decriminalize homosexuality, pornography, prostitution, extend possibilities of abortion, make divorce easier, and to provide contraceptives to unmarried as well as married women. She hoped this would be done by the year 2000, but most of these proposals were subsequently realized in the 1970s. Already in 1968, abortion became partially legal through a change in jurisprudence. Prostitution was only fully authorized in 2000, but as with many social issues in The Netherlands (soft drugs, public indecency), it became tolerated – remaining in the criminal code, but the law not being enforced in practice. Zeldenrust-Noordanus also had more general points. She wanted to get rid of gender and sexual dichotomies and opined that men should explore their feminine and women their more masculine side, while homosexuals (m/f) should do the same with heterosexual tendencies and heterosexuals with their homosexual feelings. Gender and sexual restrictions should be abandoned. The hippie and flower generation of the late 1960s were in favour of this, but after 1970 this frankness completely dissipated with dichotomies of sex and gender becoming only stronger engrained in social life through bio-psychological theories.

The COC emerged from its homosexual underworld in the early 1960s. Most leaders of the past used pseudonyms but now they began using their own names. In 1964, the new chair of the COC, Benno Premsela, gave an interview on television and didn’t hide his face or name. In the same year, the COC changed its name to Dutch Society for Homophiles COC (the word homophile was meant to desexualize homosexuality). In 1965, the organisation started a new journal, Dialoog, indicating it was in favour of open discussions. Two years later, young gays and lesbians already found the organisation too tame and started to struggle for integration – not the assimilation politics they accused the COC of advocating. They organized the first street demonstrations in 1969 and 1970 and started organizing dance parties – meaning they invaded straight discos and began to dance in same-sex couples which sometimes resulted in violent reactions from the ‘offended’ straight men. These student groups joined the COC in 1971 and changed the name to Dutch Society for Integration of Homosexuality. The sexual was put back into the name, and the term integration was a new element implying that homosexuals should not only adapt to heterosexual society, but that society needed to be changed to create space for gays and lesbians. Homosexual politics quickly changed because only one year later lesbians criticized the COC for being sexist, as they did with feminism for being heterosexist. Purple September and Lesbian Nation were the new separatist movements. From 1974 on, ‘red faggot’ groups condemned the normalisation politics of the COC. In 10 years, homosexual politics changed direction four times to the left and queer, but since has always followed a trajectory of normalisation. The queer fire began in 1967 and ended in the early 1980s when gays and lesbians started ‘the long march through the institutions’ creating pink groups in various social institutions: political parties, education, care, trade unions, police, army, and so on. The gay medical group proved to be very important after the AIDS epidemics started. At that moment, the spirit of the sexual revolution was over, but its legacy of erotic freedom and tolerance lingered on.

Media and the arts

In the 1960s, television was new in the Netherlands and invaded Dutch living rooms becoming a third partner next to parents and children. The images and texts it offered were of a sexual nature that were unimaginable a decade before. News programs invited gay men to tell their story and amusement shows brought sex jokes, eroticized texts and sexual slang. Phil Bloom became a household name in Holland as she made the first fully nude appearance on Dutch television in the program Hoepla in 1967 and another in 1971 on a poster of the Pacifist-Socialist Party ‘Ontwapenend’ (meaning both disarming and charming). Due to taboos and obscenity laws, some shows, plays, and books were forbidden. New journals that discussed sex or offered contact ads started and became instantly popular. In addition to the increased sexualized nature of journals, true porn magazines began being published and distributed; many in the pivotal year of 1968 such as Candy and Chick. Gandalf and the English language Suck: First European Sex Paper were artsy while Aloha mixed pop music, drugs and sex. Suck offered erotic stories and images including everything from oral sex to SM and bestiality. It had strips, graphic design, close-up shots of female and male genitals and organized a ‘Wet Dream Festival’. These magazines were eagerly embraced by increasingly larger parts of the Dutch public while conservative groups protested but were eventually drowned by the erotic flood. These media brought sex in most households.

Erotic themes became prominent in Dutch literature from the 1950s onward. The series of novels Bob and Daphne (1955, 1957, 1959 and 1968) by Han Aalberse (pseudonym of Johan van Keulen) meant a radical turn. The books had an open outlook on adolescent sexuality and expressed a philosophy of pleasure, not of marriage, obligation or reproduction. Although some were forbidden, they sold well (the first volume at 60.000 copies) and filled a new niche in the market. A most shocking novel of the 1960s was I Jan Cremer (1964) by Jan Cremer. The more or less autobiographical story follows the life of a lower class art school student who likes girls but doesn’t shy away from gay contacts. The style is realist and rude, with the stories exaggerated for their shock-value. The novel contains a flurry of sexual escapades of the author who regularly gets into trouble with girlfriends, their bourgeois fathers, school, and the police. The author moves in the world of prostitution and criminality and goes ‘on the road’ to Paris, a favourite travel destination of many 1950s artists. Paris was a city that liberated Dutch youngsters of erotic and social inhibitions. In the 1960s, a following generation would make Amsterdam a major sex destination. With his work, Cremer contributed a more masculine version of the sexual revolution.

The primary figure that epitomized the homo/sexual liberation for the Dutch was Gerard Reve. His first novel De Avonden (The Evenings, 1947) summarized the nihilist feeling of post-war youth. In the 1950s, he married, had his first gay experiences, and came out publicly in the early 1960s: first in his work, then on television, and in 1965 through the ‘donkey’ court case. Coming from a communist family, he turned to Catholicism. In a story he contributed to the COC-journal Dialoog he imagined how God would return to the earth in the form of a donkey and how Reve would fuck him in the ass out of love and faith. An orthodox protestant MP brought him to court and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that he was not guilty of blasphemy. This scandal hit the news and made him legendary all over The Netherlands which strongly contributed to his fame as a gay writer – because homosexuality was the hot topic, not bestiality. His superior irony and use of a traditional style of writing and speaking Dutch strongly contributed to his popularity, but his explicit sexual insights provoked controversy. In his novels of the 1960s, Reve expanded his gay themes to SM, and his preferred social setting became a triangular relationship involving three lovers instead of only two. It is interesting to see the change in the appreciation of Reve as a public person and a writer: while decidedly negative at the beginning of the scandal in 1965, by its end in 1968, media portrayal had become generally positive and the critics who opposed him and his work were now seen as conservative.

Literature and the arts generated many more cracks in the conservative mirror of the Netherlands. Authors promoted an open erotic culture and in addition to more normative heterosexual relations also discussed more taboo issues such as child love, incest, prostitution and sadomasochism. The work of Sade witnessed a dramatic increase in popularity and was often seen as extreme porn rather than as philosophy. Authors such as Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Joe Orton were translated and played in the theatres.

Going out and after

During the 1950s, Amsterdam bars and discos were subject to strict regulations. Until the mid-1950s, the vice squad visited bars and discos to see whether regulations with regard to drinking, dancing, barmaids and the (unwanted) presence of prostitutes or homosexual visitors were followed. In the Red-Light District, mixed bars offered erotic options to gay men, lesbians, sluttish women, prostitutes and their clients. They were sometimes tended by lesbians who had worked in the sex industry and invested their earnings in such taverns. In the 1960s these bars disappeared or became historic spaces, remnants of a repressive past. New ones differentiated between homo and hetero. Straight pleasures could now be pursued in any neighbourhood café, not only in the Red-Light District which became more distinct hetero-commercial spaces for men. A separatet gay subculture developed elsewhere in town.

In an age of growing consumption after 1950, a wider variety of nightlife options became available. Amsterdam harboured two new large gay dance clubs and a leather bar, innovations that made the town into a gay capital. The Red-Light District and the gay scene became international attractions of Amsterdam in the 1960s. Paradiso and the Milky Way became places where hippies smoked pot, listened to the newest music and sex events took place. The Milky Way showed underground movies in the early 1970s, organized pro-sex women’s festivals from the 1970s into the 1980s, and a ‘flikker’ (faggot) festival in 1980. Alternative nude shows became hip in 1968 and were soon taken over by the sex industry. Vondelpark and Dam square were places where hippies slept and the police arrested them for possessing drugs and for public indecencies including ‘making sexual movements’ in their sleeping bags. Soon the city provided ‘Sleep-Ins’ for these low-budget tourists.

Streets became a meeting place for a new youth subculture. Since the 1950s, there were nozems (teddy boys) in Amsterdam. This name of unknown origin had become a term of abjection due to the trouble these youngsters caused and was subsequently changed by a leading criminologist into provo (short for provocateurs). This expression was again chosen as a word of pride by youngsters who started the Provo movement for its value to shock the ‘klootjesvolk’ (literally testicle people, petit-bourgeois). They continued the central city street life of the nozems that was an essential place for boys and girls to meet and date.

Provo’s created artistic street and gallery ‘happenings’ and hung out in public. They squatted houses where they went to live, meet and organize. Some of the remaining cultural highlights of Amsterdam started as squats, such as Paradiso in 1968, Milky Way in 1970 and Fantasio in 1968. The squatters’ movement that strongly developed in the 1970s enabled the establishment of a complex alternative infrastructure that included these hippie temples and also bars, restaurants, journals, cinemas, galleries, printing offices, bookshops, centres for various social organisations, and communal housing which included lesbians and queers. This alternative network supported Amsterdam’s reputation as a cultural, activist and sexual capital.

Straight sex

Before the 1960s, first intimate experiences were often painful for women. Many partners, whether ‘boyfriends’ or not, showed little respect and frequently pursued their own desires without taking note of the girl’s background and interest for example whether she was still a virgin. Female youngsters complied with these clumsy and unpleasant situations because they took it as a fact of nature or of male domination. The desire to be ‘adult’ and belong to an experienced and knowledgeable group contributed to their acceptance. Young women were moreover considered to be responsible for and suffered from possible consequences, especially that of pregnancy. If it was unwanted, they had few and often unpleasant choices such as abortion, giving the baby in adoption, becoming a single mother or marry the father. Young men, on the other hand, didn’t suffer as much the possible pains and felt less accountable for the results of their sexual activity. Their behaviour was frequently very irresponsible. Straight initiation was rarely a highway into pleasure due to underdeveloped cultures of erotic seduction, language and knowledge. This poor education had long-term consequences and parents who should have been more experienced did not fare much better than their children.

The sexual experience of youngsters had expanded since long but this accelerated in the 1960s. The following data are indicative of those changes. The number of girls 16-20 years old with coital experience increased from 19% in 1968 to 42% in 1974 and for boys from 24% to 38%. In 1965 70% of the Dutch opined a girl should remain a virgin until marriage and in 1975 this decreased to just 21%. At first, youngsters were more often forced into marriages, but the frequency of this occurrence quickly decreased with contraceptives such as the pill contributing to this change. From 1966 to 1970, the number of forced marriages raised from 13.6 to 14.3 per 1000 girls aged 15-19, but in 1977 this number declined to 3. The phenomenon was similar for women aged 20-24; the number of forced marriages increased from 36.9 to 38.2 per 1000 women from 1966 to 1970, but then dropped to just 8.6 in 1977. The idea is that young people were able to have more straight sex since the Second World War, yet only adapted their morality to match their practice in the late 1960s, thus becoming more tolerant. There were changes in sexual behaviour, but values changed more radically on virginity, homosexuality, prostitution, nudity, masturbation, marriage. In the past, young men who wanted to have sex, would have needed to visit a prostitute, but might not have had enough money. The second most common option was having sex with a male friend or going with a queer who might even pay for sex in cash or favours. This sexual border traffic between homo and hetero disappeared from the 1950s onward. Gay relations became unimaginable for straight men and the abhorrence associated with what queers of the past did became directed towards homophiles. What had been exciting for a drunken night of shared lust became something lewd. During the sexual revolution there was a short moment around 1970 that bisexuality and androgyny were celebrated, that hippies mixed feminine and masculine roles, but highly gendered perspectives soon returned and became deeply ingrained in Dutch culture.

At the same time, a traditional model of marriage that revolved around reproduction and a strict gender divide was replaced with love relations that ideally implied sexual equality. Men could no longer force sex on their female partners but instead depended on their consent. The sexual inequality of the past that relied on the idea that opposite erotic poles attract was replaced by a norm of equality. Similarity of partners and symmetry of physical acts became quintessential values. Having children became less important while the children that were being born in relations became more precious. Marriage itself lost its holy status and the marital norm was replaced by a straight couple norm.

Liberation of gay men

Parallel to the shifting norms of heterosexual life, homosexual life witnessed an even more radical change. Straight men abandoned queer encounters thereby forcing gay men into each other’s arms. Gay men changed their gender identification from ‘sissy’ or effeminate to more masculine variants and no longer looked for straight masculine men (sailors, adolescents, construction workers, soldiers), but rather for each other. Instead of walking the pavement and visiting tearooms to find partners, they opened their own discos, bars and saunas where they found like-minded men. The elegant French clothing that often dawned as a signifier of sexual preference was replaced by blue jeans and French chansons became English and American pop songs. Most radical was the leather scene where masculinity was boasted and the kinky games and toys were utterly virile. In the past, promiscuous sex had been looked down upon as a kind of prostitution, but now gay relations were upgraded and rather seen as fixed friendships that started to look like marriage. Gays now switched sexual positions. Fixed gender roles (male-female, active-passive) became something of the past. Lesbians saw a similar transformation from being masculine to being more normal and feminine. The idea that two dykes couldn’t have sex (‘wood on wood doesn’t work’ was a Dutch saying) changed to the perception that two feminine lesbians could mutually pleasure each other. The differences that existed in the past between gender-inverted male and female homosexuals on the one hand and heterosexuals on the other hand disappeared and gays and lesbians now became ‘just the same’: ‘gewoon hetzelfde’ as Wijnand Sengers, the psychiatrist who strongly contributed to this change, called it. With the demise of sexual border traffic between queer and trade or butch and femme, homo and hetero became more distinct groups. Public pleasures of pissoirs and pavement slowly disappeared out of the city and were privatized. Dark rooms and sauna’s became new semi-public sex places.

Homosexuality had been a sin for the church, a crime for the law and a disease for medicine. At the end of the 1960s all of these qualifications lost their credibility. Homosexuals were now like heterosexuals with the only difference being what partner they had in bed. Prejudices against gays however remained strong. They continued to be looked down upon as un-masculine, promiscuous and too visible. A common question for couples was ‘who is the male, who is the female?’ Just as with heterosexual couples, the norm for homosexuals became equality. Gays and lesbians would do very well in the long run because their relations would not have to deal with gender difference and inequality as straight relations do. Same-sex marriage became a possibility. Gays and lesbians profited very much from this new, radical change in ideology.

One of the most remarkable aspects of gay life was the radical spurt out of the closet. In the past homosexuals were forced into hiding because of a repressive social climate. They could rarely tell others about their erotic preference except for other homosexual friends. They ran the risk to lose family, friends, work, and housing when they came forward. They sought sexual contact with dangerous partners who could turn violent in perilous places such as parks and public toilets and could not go to the police if something went awry. For some men it was a golden age of street life with their ideal sex types, but for many these were fearsome and dangerous options from which they preferably abstained.

However, beginning in the late 1950s, gay men rushed out of the closet; most often into the new gay bars and discos, but also onto the streets. They didn’t want to hide any longer and live only in an underworld that was defined by gossip, masks, dangers, abusive and paid sexual relations. They didn’t want to be seen as criminals, sinners or sick people. This sudden frankness most likely made priests, clergymen, psychiatrists, social workers, police officers and others aware of the ‘problem’ of homosexuality. These openly gay men came from the liberal professions or were students. In the 1960s, they made gay art: ballet, plays, novels, television programs and so forth. Many homosexuals opened up less spectacularly in families, jobs, with friends. Gays also became more visible because straights showed growing awareness of signs of queerness. The norm of silence and gossip was replaced by speaking and authenticity.

The growing visibility of Amsterdam’s gay world attracted many Dutch, Europeans, and American soldiers and made the city into a gay capital from the 1950s onward. There were two more attractions that drew foreigners: its wider hippie/youth counter-culture and drugs. It became a party town that appealed to many tastes with bars, discos, saunas and the leather world next to its canals and museums. The foreign import strongly contributed to an urban cosmopolitan climate. This was particularly true for the gay, and less for the lesbian world that lagged behind.

Into the 1970s: rise of feminism

The sexual revolution was a short and radical phase. This is evidenced by the membership numbers of the NVSH. In the years after the war membership showed a steady increase of 10.000 additional members per year (1950: 50.000; 1955: 100.000; 1960: 150.000). After its peak in 1965 (205.715), it quickly dropped to 170.000 in 1970 and 75.000 in 1975. Nowadays its membership is minimal. In 1970, the board of the NVSH commissioned a report to determine this drop in membership and found several reasons. Members could get contraception in pharmacies and erotic information in the media, in particular on television. There was a more traditional group of members that only showed interest in topics of contraception, abortion and family planning while younger members had a broader agenda of sexual change. These different perspectives had exploded in the late 1960s inside the organisation and its journal, and the resulting antagonisms had negatively impacted the membership. Nowadays one could add another important reason: the NVSH collapsed due to its successes – most of its concrete aims were realized within 10 years after the 1967 lecture of Zeldenrust-Noordanus. Many members with heterosexual interests had left and gays and lesbians had their own organisations. In the 1970s sexual minorities were the reason the NVSH survived: transsexuals and transvestites, SM-aficionado’s, exhibitionists and pedophiles. Next to these minorities that profited from the liberal climate, other groups became politically active.

Man-Vrouw-Maatschappij (MVM, Man-Woman-Society, 1968-1988) was the major organisation of the second feminist wave. It followed in the footsteps of its leading intellectual Joke Smit (1933-1981) who had written the founding article ‘Het onbehagen van de vrouw’ (The discontent of the woman) in 1967. The discontent was explained through a long list of all the discriminations women faced. To counter these, Smit proposed a social-democrat policy that mainly discussed equality in labour and household tasks but no sexual issues. Although NVSH and Mary Zeldenrust should have liked to cooperate with MVM, the feminists disliked NVSH’s partner-swapping parties and many NVSH members found those of the MVM too bourgeois. Like most of her sister-feminists, Smit had a history of heterosexual relations, including two children from her marriage, but later had affairs with female lovers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1972 she mentioned her sexual dissidence on a book cover that presented her as a ‘degenerate mother (...) ex shop-lifter (...) practicing nudist (...) someone who is sometimes in love with a woman (...) very Calvinist’. These personal outpourings had little to do with politics: the MVM had no sexual agenda except for abortion rights. Lesbians were very angry with such straight women who escaped men, experimented with sex among women, finally returned to men and defined their intimate choices as non-political at the moment that lesbians defined their sexuality as a political decision. Personal and political rifts were in the air and although MVM continued until 1988, most leading women started the long march through the social institutions. MVM had successfully suggested initiating an Emancipation Committee inside the national government, which was subsequently realized in 1974 where Smit would work for the remainder of her career.

The radical Dolle Mina’s (Mad Mina’s) were the feminist descendants of Provo who from 1970 onward organized playful protests against sexist institutions and rallied to broaden abortion rights. They created massive media attention by whistling at men, decorating public urinals and asking for their own street toilets. They created the slogan ‘baas in eigen buik’ (boss in our own belly), but like NVSH and MVM the group soon succumbed to infighting; this time between feminist and ‘femsoc’ (feminist-socialist) wings. Other women went the separatist road and squatted a building to start a ‘Women’s House’ or created lesbian groups such as Purple September and Lesbian Nation. Slightly later, other groups came forward advocating for sex workers or black (lesbian) women. The original major movements dispersed in diversity. The main feminist issue of the 1970s was abortion. In 1981, a new law extended the time that abortion was allowed to 24 weeks after fertilisation. This law was not seen as a feminist victory because mainly male doctors decided on the operation and women had to wait five days to contemplate their decision.

The gains of the revolution can’t be attributed to feminist movements as they were ambivalent about sexuality which was often dismissed as a male pursuit. Feminists were part of the events, not leaders. Still, a lot changed in the realm of intimacy for women. Although there was a shift in norms regarding equality and consent, it remained all too common that it was the men who wanted sex, liked it, and remained the sexual initiators. Men now asked permission of their wives and girlfriends, but the reverse was much less the case. Males still represented sexuality and females love. The revolution may have contributed to a liberation of women, but predominant attitudes toward sex continue to deny them erotic subjectivity and agency.

This trend was been supported by a ‘vanilla’ feminism that rejected male sexuality as aggressive and public when compared to a more peaceful and private female eroticism. They confirmed rather than changed the sexual gender opposition. One feminist aim was to restrain certain aspects of male sex including some that had developed during the 1960s and 1970s. Their many targets were not always shared. Abuse of daughters by fathers was one of the first obvious targets, but a general condemnation of intergenerational relations while not regarding issues of consent produced narrow limits. Their opposition to pornography and prostitution was reviving an older morality that preceded the 1960s and was highly controversial in feminist circles. Such strategies made women more like victims rather than agents themselves. Other feminists opposed this perspective and defended various sexualities. They established lesbian associations, bars and journals and organized women’s festivals. They founded a labour union for prostitutes, a women’s SM-group and female sex shops. In the Netherlands pro-sex feminists were probably more visible and prominent, but at the same time a larger silent majority maintained traditional ideas.

In the late 1970s, the sexual revolution came to an end, but some aspects had lingered on. Most importantly, the mood had changed. While a state committee started to discuss renewal of the sex laws, gays, lesbians and feminists started the long march through the institutions. This was another way to integrate the results of the revolution. Final successes were an Equal Rights Law in 1993 that protected women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals against discrimination and in 2001 the opening of marriage for same-sex couples. In 2000, the law that forbade pimping was abolished. The end result of legal reform was a far cry from gender blending, promiscuity and abrogation of marriage as sex radicals had proposed. In fact, the trend was reversed and many new laws came into effect, in particular around issues of intergenerational sex and child pornography to ‘protect’ children (meaning youth until 16 years old). Children’s rights were defined as protecting them against sex, not promoting their agency and self-determination or enhancing information and pleasure.


The Netherlands saw a sexual revolution that lasted from the aftermath of the Second World War to the times of AIDS, from 1945 to 1985. Within this longer period, the peak occurred in the late 1960s when a smaller group of Dutch began enjoying new sexual liberties and the larger majority endorsed a more tolerant morality. Values started to switch after 1965 when the works of Jan Cremer and Gerard Reve were more positively received and the NVSH launched its radical program. Amsterdam became a city of sex, drugs and pop music where hippies, gays and other alternative people took to physical pleasures. Its Red-Light District became internationally renowned. Birth control pills and penicillin helped to make sex less burdensome. Papers that offered erotic info and relationship ads were booming.

After 1970, several developments caused sexual radicalism to lose its momentum. The Dutch returned to a more or less normal state. The NVSH collapsed after its legislative proposals for modernisation had become accepted by the majority. This took away some of the anger that fuelled sexual radicalism in various groups. Feminists began to criticize the revolution as an enterprise that favoured male privileges and had done little to overcome patriarchy and sexism in straight relations. Freudo-Marxists complained about consumerist and capitalist results. Indeed, a newly emerging sex industry offered porn, sex toys and prostitution and took over from idealists. Until the 1960s, the Red-Light District had mainly a local reputation where American soldiers would spend a weekend of pleasure. It got a sexually open and more international character. Before 1970 it catered to all erotic preferences with mixed bars where whores and johns, sluts, queens and dykes were welcome. Afterwards, the Red-Light District catered to a more hardcore-straight oriented audience. Apart from the leather scene, gays and lesbians moved to other parts of town and mixed bars disappeared.

The Gesamt-Kunstwerk of the 1960s combined physical experimentation and sexual politics, made gender bending and sexual transgression food for thought, turning sex into art and vice-versa. In the 1970s, it broke down into its constituent parts, lost its collective character and became more of a specialized individual affair. The energy that was released made the idea of Dutch sexual tolerance a widely shared ideology that slowly evaporated in the following decades. In the new century, it became a fig leaf hiding persistent puritanism.

The main question was whether the revolution brought advancements and in some ways it did and other ways it didn’t, for both the Netherlands and the Western world. Yes, because the improvements for women and gay men have been enormous. The heterosexual and marital miseries that were the destiny of most women such as bad straight sex, no orgasms, unwanted marriages and children, abortions, and violence of all sorts, were reduced. Masturbation changed from a disease into something accepted yet silenced. Homosexuality was no longer a sin, crime or disease and became independent of dangerous places and partners. The enormous growth of erotic imagery was advantageous for many people because they served as examples that sex education didn’t offer.

However, not all people profited in equal measure. The drive for erotic equality that had been promoted by socialism and feminism certainly helped pave the way for women’s and gay emancipation but many others were left out. Traditional straight relations, intergenerational sex even in cases where the youngest partner was adult, zoöphilia, BDSM and prostitution became marginalized. It took some time before such sexual relations involving perceived inequalities went downhill, pedophilia in the 1980s, bestiality and sex work in the new century. Such relations had never been well received, but homosexual emancipation had given other minorities hope that they could follow suit. Those variations never became part of the LGBT alphabet soup. In terms of ideals, self-determination of adolescents lost out against children’s ‘innocence’, fear of risk and desire to protect, while erotic creativity gave way to sexual consumerism. Law and order became the new rule.

The sexual revolution had major successes and ended much physical misery, but these changes resulted in very few new sexual perspectives. The basic ideology of gender and sexual dichotomy that Zeldenrust-Noordanus had attacked remained firmly in place. Men and women wouldn’t become intimate equals as men remain promiscuous, while women resist being seen as sluts. Homosexuals may have become more accepted, but the straight norm remains the framework of society. The revolution created a public sexual culture, but nowadays we have returned to a biological perspective of drives, instincts, genes and chromosomes while cultural issues have evaporated. The obligation of privacy – sitting behind a computer masturbating – has become more ingrained. Public sexual culture moved to media and internet that now offer insights into various erotic predilections that rarely translate into personal lives and experiences. There is a strong and shared belief that love and sex should be combined and consumed in twosomes notwithstanding many – often gay - examples that show the advantages of the opposite. The new norm of equality transposes a political value into the erotic field where many people rather enjoy inequalities: SM, sex work, differences of gender, age and race, of passive and active. The sexual revolution has brought many advances but has gotten stuck in an enlightened and secular ideology. Because sexuality is relegated to the private and the natural, barely a public language has been developed to discuss it in political and scholarly arenas, private encounters or intimate situations.