History News Network
28 Sep 2015
As blue jeans, beards, body adornments, natural foods, legal marijuana, gay marriage, and single parenthood have gained acceptance in mainstream American society in recent years, it is now clear that the hippies won the culture wars that were launched nearly fifty years ago. It was in the mid-1960s that one of America’s oddest social movements, the hippies, suddenly appeared. This counterculture of psychedelic drugs, rock music, and casual sex had its roots in the gargantuan size of the baby boomer generation, in youth’s churning hormones, and in the arrival of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD or “acid”). The Sixties counterculture, its beliefs and practices, its odyssey into the Seventies, and its many legacies as it became integrated into mainstream culture help explain the United States today.
Hippies, almost all of whom were white and middle-class, owed a lot to the Beat Generation. In the Fifties the writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg promoted an alternative lifestyle outside the middle-class “rat race.” Like the Beats, hippies smoked marijuana, grew beards, indulged in a lot of sex, and rejected mainstream values, but the new generation also marked itself as distinct. Taking LSD in prodigious quantities, freaks preferred rock to jazz and wore bright-colored clothes. Far more numerous than the Beats, hippies dominated entire urban neighborhoods, such as the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and the East Village in New York. Unlike the gloomy Beats, hippies were exuberant. Large numbers made these youthful rebels optimistic that the entire society would eventually join the counterculture, and in a way it did.
At the heart, the counterculture was about three things: a search for authenticity, an insistence upon individualism, and a desire for community. Although hippies disagreed about many things, they shared a desire to be authentic. Being true to one’s self meant rejecting middle-class culture in order to “do your own thing.” A spiritual search was often part of the quest. Deeply suspicious of both society and government, freaks embraced individualism as a true expression of authenticity. However, this attitude left hippies feeling isolated and lonely, which explains why the love generation sought community. In the mid-Sixties communes popped up in cities. By the early Seventies rising rents, racial tensions, and crime drove hippies “back to the land.” Self-sufficient agriculture was a hard transition for children of the suburban middle class. Most communes failed when trust funds, parental checks, or welfare payments ran out. Hippie women bore a lot of children. Rural communes did enable residents to sort out their lives.
Psychedelic drugs and rock music were accompanied by the explosion of easy sex. More casual sexual mores, however, had been going on in American society for a hundred years, as evidenced by the growing divorce rate. Hippies merely accelerated the process. They declared their parents to be hypocrites for preaching traditional values while having many affairs. Free love would not have happened without the birth control pill. First sold in 1960, it took several years before single young women gained access. Once the risk of an unwanted pregnancy plummeted, the double standard ended. Hippie men declared that everyone should have sex with whomever they wanted whenever they wanted. In practice, this turned out to mean that hippie men indulged themselves, while women ended up discarded, heart-broken, and depressed. Eventually, many hippie women came to see free love as a male sexual fantasy that did not meet women’s needs. Some hippie women became feminists.