Kristin Hay discusses the moral panic around student populations after increased access to the contraceptive pill
In tackling a pandemic, few would perhaps consider sex to be very high on the list of the government’s priorities. Yet, as Covid-19 continues to permeate through every aspect of our lives, the meaning, definition, and function of casual sex has been thrown under the spotlight in many ways. On March 23, the so-called ‘sex ban’ came into effect in England and Wales, which prevented intercourse between two people living in separate households. In September, guidance was updated to allow those in an ‘established relationship’ to have sexual relations even if they lived separately. On the 24th of September, this resulted in an awkward exchange between newsreader Kay Burley and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who was pressed to define ‘established’ relationships as it was not explained in the guidance: leaving the legal status of casual sex ambiguous and uncertain.
Concurrently, the issue and value of casual sex was raised in debates surrounding the nature of university life in the context of Covid-19. Casual sex and socialising became synonymous with the ‘student experience’ which was often used as a key factor in making a commitment to return to face-to-face teaching this semester. ‘Fresher’s sex, or any casual sex at university, has always been part of the higher-educational landscape,’ stated an article in The Independent, calling it a ‘perfect storm’ of the mass migration of thousands of young people across the United Kingdom: free from the watchful eye of their parents and guardians, of legal drinking age, and looking for new experiences. This version of campus life, it seemed, was part of the package of university, essential to delivering on the ‘student experience’ and irreplicable through online learning. Yet, as we have seen, delivering campus life to students in 2020 is a double-edged sword which has led to a new spike in Covid-19 transmission.
The imagery of campus life as a subculture and the student experience as inherently promiscuous isn’t new, nor is the scapegoating of students for behaving in a way that perceptibly threatens wider society. Throughout the 1960s, Scotland’s student population dramatically increased as higher education became more accessible and social mobility more fluid. Coinciding with widening attitudes towards sex and sexuality and the technological marvel of oral contraceptives, historian Tom Devine autobiographically reflected that this generation, born between 1945 and 1965, ‘became the motors of social transformation.’ Rates of premarital sex increased and became purportedly normalised through this emergent youth movement as, contrastingly, rates of church membership and religious practice declined. In 1968, journalists began arguing that a ‘relentless social and sexual revolution’ had occurred in Britain, having an irreversible impact on society and culture.
Yet, just as students were seen as the catalyst of social change, so too were they scapegoated for the morally lax permissive society by being stereotyped as inherently promiscuous and sexually deviant. This was often expressed in debates surrounding the availability of birth control. Despite being on the NHS since 1961, it was not until the late 1960s that unmarried women over the age of 16 were able to access the oral contraceptive pill, through either a Family Planning Association clinic or private GP prescription, for social as well as medical reasons. The removal of marital status swiftly transformed the pill from at best a non-issue for moral hygienists – who had accepted the role of family planning within the sanctity of marriage – and into the epitome of moral degeneration and evidence of a secularising society.
The student population were at the epicentre of this fallout, despite the fact that premarital sex, whilst on the increase, was usually with only one or two sexual partners prior to marriage. Oral history testimonies also show that the length and seriousness of the relationship became significant in evaluating the acceptability of premarital sexual activity during this time. Nevertheless, as the use of contraceptives whilst unmarried remained highly contentious and synonymous with sexual deviance and promiscuity, when debates surrounding the introduction of family planning services on campus emerged towards the end of the 1960s and early 1970s the overriding narrative became casual sex among the student population.
Whilst some commentators expressed concern over the purported increase in promiscuous behaviour among young people, others presented students in the press as selfish and indulgent. As one anonymous columnist named ‘Alma Mater’ in 1968 stereotyped:
‘The student population appears to be a collection of social misfits, hippies, ill-dressed, ill-mannered louts, living off the charity provided by the working population, and intent only on spending a few promiscuous years at university, living on drink and The Pill.’
It is evident that as early as the late 1960s, public perception dictated that casual sex had become intertwined with the student experience. This statement also reflects the intersections of intergenerational tensions and opposition to oral contraceptives during this time. Broader resentments surrounding the affluence of young people throughout this period clearly added to the opposition surrounding contraception, as commentators saw birth control as a means of escaping the “punishment” of premarital promiscuity and condoning casual sex. This was further shown in another response to a petition for opening of a family planning clinic on an Edinburgh university campus in 1967:
‘This time they [students] have gone too far. Not the married ones…the “Pill” is for the unmarried couples on the campus who feel that it is needed because there have been so many illegitimate births among university students…May I suggest another way of curing the increase in illegitimacy? A good hard kick on the posterior for you and all your kind!
I am not going to pay good money so that you can spend four years of your life having sex with a few of your fellow students, with the blessing of the country and a free supply of contraceptives.’
These letters emphasise that the student population of the late 1960s was considered to be distinctive from the community at large: existing in an alternative society which purportedly separated them from broader societal attitudes towards sex, and thus to blame for increasing permissiveness in the aftermath of the sexual revolution in Scotland. However, in reality, there was little evidence to show that students were more sexually active than their older contemporaries. Rather, the surging population of the student populace created fertile ground for the moral panic surrounding permissiveness to spread, and students were scapegoated for the perceived ills of Scottish society towards the end of the decade.
The myth of the sexually-promiscuous student as an inherent part of the university experience has persisted for decades alongside a distinctive contempt for the student population itself. In some ways, the liberalising effect of campus life has become celebrated and valorised in 2020, a distinctive departure from the late 1960s. Yet viewing sex as a rite of passage for students can also be problematic: in 2018 the Revolt Campaign found that 62 per cent of university students had experienced sexual violence on campus. As has been shown from recent Covid-19 spikes, the student population en masse are often scapegoated due to the perception that they engage more frequently in high-risk behaviours which impact wider society. Yet, what is often omitted from the discussion is that students have never existed in a vacuum, and are a significant part of the wider workforce – particularly in public-facing jobs – which has led to an increase in disease transmission among this demographic. By looking historically at the relationship between sex and student life, we can see that this archetype emerged from heightened anxieties surrounding the increased permissiveness of late-twentieth century Scotland. The moral panic concerning the increased availability of contraception for unmarried students overlapped with the emergence of an affluent, socially mobile, youth movement which stood at odds with the generations before them. This had a significant impact on the popular image of the student as young, immature and sexually-active which continues to influence our understandings of campus life to this day.
Kristin Hay is a third year PhD student based in the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare and Scottish Oral History Centre at the University of Strathclyde. Her thesis is titled ‘an oral history of birth control practices in Scotland, c. 1960-1990’ and looks at attitudes towards changing access to birth control during this period, how everyday men and women learned about, accessed, and utilised family planning services, and the impact it had on their lives. Twitter: @Kristinwh0
 Daily Mirror, ‘Lockdown sex ban in England ends this weekend – but only for certain couples’ (10 June 2020)
 Evening Standard, ‘Matt Hancock and Kay Burley share awkward conversation over ‘casual sex’ rules’ (24 Sept 2020)
 Independent, ‘Sexual Distancing: Will coronavirus spell the end of casual university hook-ups?’ (23 Sept 2020)
 BBC, ‘Covid: About 40 Universities report Coronavirus cases’ (28 Sept 2020)
 T. Devine, ‘The Sixties in Scotland: A Historical Context’ in E. Bell and L. Gunn (eds.) The Scottish Sixties: Reading, Rebellion, Revolution? (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013) p. 21
 Aberdeen Evening Express, ‘The new sexual freedom’, (13 Dec 1967)
 See J. Weeks, The world we have won: The remaking of erotic and intimate life (London: Routledge, 2007)
 . O’Neill, ‘Education not fornication?’: Sexual Morality Among Students in Scotland, 1955-1975’ in J. Burkett (ed.), Students in twentieth-century Britain and Ireland (Cham: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018) p. 77
 Aberdeen Evening Express, ‘Reader’s letters: Hypocrisy, I detest!’ (21 Feb 1968)
 West Lothian Courier, ‘So you want the pill?’ (1 Dec 1967)