There may no longer be weekly orgies held on Benvenue Avenue, but during the 1960s, the site was a hub of activity for members of a student organization known as the Sexual Freedom League.
The “Free Sex Movement,” also referred to jokingly by some former UC Berkeley students as the “Filthy Speech Movement,” came on the heels of the Free Speech Movement on UC Berkeley’s campus. Marked by nude demonstrations and the moral transformation of a generation, the movement inspired some student leaders to organize under the banner of removing the stigma from sexual activity.
The Sexual Freedom League, which was one of many student-led forays into the realm of sexual activism on campus, began at UC Berkeley in 1966. The group rapidly split into two student groups — one of which hosted discussions on issues of sex and sexuality, while the other held more than 40 events that they called “sex parties” under the leadership of student activist Sam Sloan, who served as the president of the league from 1966-67.
Sloan said more than 1,000 total people attended the parties he hosted for the group, which were held regularly for a little more than a year. At the time, birth control was newly widespread, and doctors had developed new methods of curing venereal diseases. Sloan believes that these factors helped to contribute to the popularity of the gatherings.
The Sexual Freedom League advocated fewer restrictions in sexual freedom and actively campaigned for legalized abortion, which Sloan says was its biggest issue.
During its time on campus, the Sexual Freedom League garnered national attention. The group was featured in Time magazine and Playboy. Sloan said that as the group became more well known, many people began to try to sneak into the weekly parties through windows, causing the group to relocate to Telegraph Avenue for security reasons.
John Searle, a professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley, has worked on campus since 1959 and does not deny that a sexual revolution occurred in the 1960s, although he believes that the most significant aspect of it was the growing acceptance of homosexuality. During his time in campus administration, he said that he was aware of the Sexual Freedom League but that it didn’t pose much of a concern.
“They weren’t attacking authority,” Searle said. “They were just attacking a tradition of sexual repression.”
Searle also noted that the conversation surrounding sexual behavior on campus has shifted from complete freedom to widespread fears of sexual harassment and assault.
“The sources of ideological passion in Berkeley during the 1960s and the current ones are indicative of a complete transformation of the way students are thinking,” Searle said.
One female Free Speech Movement activist and Sexual Freedom League member, who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about her job, said that liberal ideas about sex were particularly pervasive on campus during this time and that the league was one particularly organized form of this branch of counterculture. She called the sexual revolution a series of acts of “moral disobedience” on the part of students, accepting and embracing things such as homosexuality and multiple sex partners.
Jackie Goldberg, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965 and was a member of the steering committee for the Free Speech Movement, said she did not attend any Sexual Freedom League events. But Goldberg said she also remembers the changing attitudes toward sex on campus.
“The notion of not having sex until marriage was the notion girls were raised with, but that was changing,” Goldberg said. “The boys at Berkeley were very happy about that change.”
These changing morals were one small piece of a larger story of liberal ideas gaining traction on UC Berkeley’s campus. Sloan, who came from a town in Virginia where he said rigid sexual attitudes were the norm, said that he believes in sexual freedom as a “moral philosophy” and that the movement was reflective of people’s desire to inspire freedom in all things.
“There were all these laws that I felt should be abolished, and I thought people should be free,” Sloan said. “We had a philosophy that a lot of people agreed with, but there were still a lot of laws on the books that regulated sexual practices. Some people don’t realize how different things were back then.”
The legacy of the sexual freedom movement extended far beyond the reach of the group itself and continued after the group effectively disbanded in 1967. In the decades that immediately followed the Free Speech Movement, students continued to participate in various forms of nude activism, maintaining ideas of sexual freedom and political involvement.
Nudity was used throughout the later half of the 20th century at UC Berkeley to promote ideals of bodily exposure as a form of free speech and connections to nature and to protest power structures that students deemed problematic. Since 2000, students have chosen to bare all to protest sweatshop labor and, more recently, the cutting down of trees by Memorial Stadium.
Today, students participate in events such as the biannual “naked run” through Main Stacks before finals without considering the implications in a larger narrative of sexual freedom throughout campus history.
Since the beginning of the Free Speech Movement, attitudes toward sexuality have changed dramatically on UC Berkeley’s campus. From the acceptance of different forms of sexuality and sexual expression to the ever-evolving conversation surrounding sexual safety and consent, UC Berkeley students have taken it upon themselves to help transform the sexual ideals of their respective times.
“Maybe the sex revolution was there all along,” Sloan said.