The Price of Free Love

The barmaid at the local pub in Burnley once told me that she ‘knew’ that we “must be in and out of each others beds all the time”.¹ I have a sneaking suspicion that there were far more sexual shenanigans going on amongst the locals she was serving than were going on at People In Common. That’s not to say we were chaste or puritanical when it came to sex – far from it. Its just that serial monogamy was pretty much the norm and its hard to hide anything that is going on when you live in the pockets of a dozen other people all the time.

I didn’t really discover sex until I discovered communal living – or rather until I discovered older women who lived communally. I don’t know what it was about women my own age or younger – largely just their and my inexperience I guess – but I could never really get it together with anyone who wasn’t older than me. I had spent my teenage years reading about sex and everyone assuming I was getting some because I could talk about it in a relatively knowledgeable way. I somehow lost my virginity in stages whilst I was in London looking for love and finding loneliness in the metropolis. I realise now that there was nothing really wrong with coming fairly late to sex and once I got there I took to it like a duck to massage oil.

Perhaps the thing that was most influential to me about sex & relationships at the time was the book The Joy of Sex, by British scientist,  gerontologist, pacifist, conscientious objector and anarchist, Alex Comfort. It seemed that everyone I met in London had a copy by the side of (or under) their bed. It opened eyes and conversations.

The Joy of Sex 1972

There are only two guidelines in good sex, don’t do anything you don’t really enjoy and find out what are your partner needs and don’t balk them if you can help it.

Alex Comfort The Joy of sex

It wasn’t until much later that I learnt about Alex Comfort’s background – his pacifist and anarchist writings and his involvement with the Sandstone Retreat, a clothing-optional community in California that promoted “open sexuality”.At my 40th birthday party I cited The Joy of Sex as probably the most widely read, influential and liberating book written by an anarchist author.²

Communes can work as a sort of informal laid back dating agency. A place to meet like minded people get to know them, all without the pressure usually associated with dating. I met my now partner of 40 years Catriona due to a work swap that PIC did with Laurieston Hall –  Pete and Laura went and did some plastering at Laurieston and we got Catriona for a week in exchange just in time to help us set up for a Halloween party in the derelict Mill. (We had actually crossed paths before when Catriona had attended a Peace News readers meeting hosted at the Hampstead Lane squat – but as neither of us can remember meeting each other then we now count halloween as our anniversary.) Catriona came back to stay at PIC later that winter and returned to Laurieston the following spring in time for the summer conference season there. And so started a long distance relationship – I went up up to Laurieston to visit and Catriona returned to Burnley the following autumn to spend another winter doing building work with us.

Me & Catriona Laurieston Hall 1979

The was a lot of talk at the time about non-possessive relationships and sharing your love etc etc…easier to say than do most of the time and very easy to cynically misrepresent when it all goes wrong. For three years or so I was part of a multiple relationship. It happened due to the long distance nature of my relationship with Catriona and an on/off relationship with Barbara which had developed into to something more meaningful over time and had started before I met Catriona.

It wasn’t easy.but somehow we made it work for us for what looking back now seems like a decent length of time for a relationship. We had mini-meetings to talk about how it was going for each of us, adhoc rotas for spending time together, had holidays, babysat for each other. The relationships coped with David (Barbara’s son from another relationship.) Finn being born and brief encounters with others. In the end perhaps there were just not enough hours in the week or enough love or commitment to go round. It ended slowly and without fireworks. None of us left the group at the time. We are all still friends and I have fond memories of that time.

. … While the phrase free love is often associated with promiscuity in the popular imagination, especially in reference to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, historically the free-love movement has not advocated multiple sexual partners or short-term sexual relationships. Rather, it has argued that sexual relations that are freely entered into should not be regulated by law.

Free Love Wikipedia

I certainly wasn’t aware back then of the long standing historical association of intentional communities with Free Love – or that there was a whole school of thought about it. I wasn’t quite a child of the swinging sixties, a bit more of a 1970’s ‘new man’, if anything.. My view of promiscuity was tempered by feminist ideas I had come across (And feminists I had come across.) But I was a bit of a fundamental romantic at heart, who thought what had the state or church got to do with Love? From very early on I had an ambiguous view of marriage – I’m all for celebrating relationships, but what has the law got to do with it? and almost if you needed the sanction of the law to say you loved someone – then did you really? One of my best friends at school, Corrine, didn’t invite me to her wedding in case I refused to come and she didn’t want to fall out with me over it. I still find weddings, even ‘alternative’ ones, really uncomfortable.

Back in the 1980’s there was a organisation in Leeds called The Future Studies Centre which ran a course on Alternatives, funded by the Workers Education Association I think. We used to go and talk about communal living along with a few people from Lifespan. Someone would inevitably ask “Are you a Free Love commune?” The best answer I can remember anyone giving was a woman from Lifespan who, after explaining that she had been seen as somewhat unusual in that when she first joined she had sexual encounters with several of the men who lived there, answered “Do we have Free Love? No – It costs just as much as it does anywhere else.”

Ani DiFranco – Promiscuity


  1. This may have been an odd attempt at a chat up line by the barmaid. A week or so later after another drinking session in the pub. I was in bed and someone let the barmaid into the house I was in and she came upstairs, stripped off and climbed into bed with me – A combination of shock, alcohol, and the fact that she had to get back to her husband cut any sexual activity short.
  2. I also later became aware of critiques of The Joy of Sex – from feminist and gay perspectives. And eventually came across Our Bodies, Our Selves that goes a long way in redressing the male bias of The Joy of Sex.

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