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A permissive society is a society in which some social norms become increasingly liberal, especially with regard to sexual freedom. This usually accompanies a change in what is considered deviant. While typically preserving the rule "do not harm others" (harm principle), a permissive society would have few other moral, religious 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 late 1960s in Europe and America, giving rise to more liberal attitudes toward artistic freedom, homosexuality and drugs, which had its origins in blowback against repressive authoritarian regimes such as the Nazis, as described by 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., though that may be due to a blanket ban of proper sexual education—where abstinence-only rigours are the only 'proper' method of instruction—in earlier generations, which is a known factor in rates of unprotected sexual activity.
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, 21 (although it was subsequently reduced 18 (1994) and, finally, 16 (2002), additionally, the 1967 act decriminalised homosexuality only under limited circumstances. Similarly, the Abortion Act 1967 did not allow abortion on request but required obtaining medical permission, with time limits. 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 1960s 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 and partial legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada. The term appears to have been historicised.
Though liberals view permissiveness as a positive, social conservatives claim that it weakens 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 issues themselves are outcomes of the very repressiveness that seeks to eliminate them. It is believed that citizens enjoying free thinking, speaking, and acting without coercion or recusancy, have contributed to a society where freethinkers thrive, that is, without having to fear repression through intolerance and injustice.
Permissive society ultimately comes down to a question of if a given individual has enough capacity to make their own decisions, that is, intellectual independence; and also if the individual enjoys freedom of autonomy, that is, freedom of expression. If the individual does, then a permissive society is likely to exist. If they do not, then an alternative oppressive society instead, is the reality.
- "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