A permissive society is a society in which social norms become increasingly liberal, especially with regards to sexual freedom. This usually accompanies a change in what is considered deviant. While typically preserving the rule "do not harm others" (harm principle/non-aggression principle), a permissive society would have few other moral or legal codes (no victimless crimes, for example).
Permissive society can be seen as a supplement for a free society. The free society is based on political and philosophical liberalism of the nineteenth century, while the permissive society extends the freedom beyond political and intellectual ones and includes social and moral freedom. Aspects that have changed recently in modern permissive societies:
- Sexual freedom has increased. This includes the freedom to take part in sexual activities which were previously considered unacceptable or even criminalized, such as BDSM, fetishes and homosexuality. Freedom to view violent and sexual material including movies, music, art and literature has increased, and censorship of these and other arts has decreased.
- The power of religious groups subsides, often accompanied by a rising secularism.
The most cited example is the social revolution and sexual revolution of the 1960s in Europe and America, giving rise to more liberal attitudes toward artistic freedom, homosexuality and drugs, which had its origins in the Bloomsbury Group. Also commonly mentioned is the general loosening of Britain's former adherence to Victorian values. The term permissive society was originally used as a hostile label by those who believed that sexual promiscuity was too high.
During the 1970s and 1980s, some British sociologists took a more sceptical approach to the question of the sixties 'permissive society', noting that it actually resulted in only partial and amended regulation of previously illegal and or stigmatised social activities. For example, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexuality, but at an unequal age of consent, twenty one (although it was subsequently reduced to eighteen (1994) and finally, age of consent equality at sixteen (2002), additionally, the 1967 act only decriminalised homosexuality under limited circumstances. Similarly, the Abortion Act 1967 did not allow free access to abortion for women who needed it, but required them to obtain medical permission and imposed time limits on terminations of pregnancy. Furthermore, as with the case of cannabis decriminalisation, some instances of liberalised social attitudes were not met with legislative change. It is therefore important to note that the extent of 'permissiveness' that occurred in the sixties may have been overstated. Some would argue that in the case of LGBT rights in the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Canada and New Zealand, the initial changes were only a prelude to further periods of legislative change: same sex marriage or civil unions and gay adoption have all occurred since the initial decriminalisation of homosexuality.
As well as this, there have been further periods of social reformist legislation that have not similarly been described as evidence of a permissive society. These include the passage of legislation that decriminalised prostitution in Australia and prostitution in New Zealand, as well as the decriminalisation of medical marijuana across many US states. The term appears to have been historicised.
Though some view permissiveness as a positive, social conservatives claim that it destroys the moral and sociocultural structures necessary for a civilized and valid society. For example, lower divorce rates, decreasing the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, and controlling crime are all desirable.
Others answer that these problems are themselves outcomes of the very repressiveness that seeks to eliminate them, where citizens thinking, speaking, and acting freely have contributed to a society where freethinkers thrive, without having to fear repression through intolerance.
- "The Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965" by Alan Petigny
- John Ayto (2006). Movers and Shakers: A Chronology of Words that Shaped Our Age. Oxford University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-19-861452-4.
- D. Germino; K. van Beijme (6 December 2012). The Open Society in Theory and Practice. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 57. ISBN 978-94-010-2056-5.
- National Deviancy Conference (ed) Permissiveness and Control: The Fate of the Sixties Legislation: London: Macmilan: 1980
- Tim Newburn: Permission and Regulation: Morals in Postwar Britain: London: Routledge: 1992
Alan Petigny, The Permissive Society, America, 1941–1965 (University of Florida, 2009; ISBN 978-0-521-88896-7)