The sexual revolution will probably always remain something of a mystery to people (like me) who have come of age after it. Reading the obituary of John Williamson in the New York Times today, I was struck by how much the proponents of freeing society from its backward sexual mores sound like absurd charlatans rather than the visionaries they claimed to be.
Williamson and his wife, Barbara, were the founders of the Sandstone Foundation for Community Systems Research. (Now there's a euphemism.) The 15 acres in the Topanga Canyon area became starting in 1969 a kind of swingers' resort. Couples were welcome to come and swap spouses. Nude group activities were offered -- the Times piece is accompanied by a great nude-trampolining photo.
According to the article:
At the peak of its popularity, Sandstone had a handful of couples who were full-time residents and about 500 paying members ($240 to join, then $15 per month), with a wide range of prominent names among them, including Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and the singer Bobby Darin.
Sandstone was made famous by Gay Talese, who wrote about it in his book Thy Neighbor's Wife. It wasn't so much the activities at Sandstone that puzzle the modern reader. (Who wouldn't want to participate in group sex with the leaker of the Pentagon Papers?) It's the justification offered:
“We believe in the sexual self as being at the core of organized social behavior,” Mr. Williamson told The Los Angeles Times in 1972, three years after Sandstone was formed. “When sexuality is distorted, it leads to a distortion of the basic self.”
You might suspect from such language that the Williamsons were failed academics -- university researchers who decided to test out there silly sociological theories on real subjects. In fact, he was trained as an electrical engineer and she was an insurance salesman. One of the earliest visitors to Sandstone explained the kind of pseudo intellectual aura of the place:
“It was like the Algonquin,” Mr. Zitter said of the upper floor. “Then people would go downstairs and have sex, and then they’d come back up and talk some more.”
Ahh yes, just like the Algonquin.
Talese was also impressed with the approach.
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Talese said one of Mr. Williamson’s central ambitions was for people to be honest about their personal and sexual lives and not be embarrassed about it.
“It wasn’t really about sex, because they got beyond the sex to the stage where they didn’t have to lie about anything,” he said. “If you didn’t have to lie about sex, you almost didn’t have to lie about anything.”
Ehh. I suspect it really was about the sex. But eventually the Williamsons ultimately gave up on the whole thing. (There's no report on how Sandstone's guests -- or their spouses -- fared). By 1980, the couple had returned to mainstream society and even gave up on the idea of their own open marriage. In 1995, they moved to Nevada and devoted themselves to raising big cats. Mrs. Williamson explained, "They just really gave us a lot of satisfaction."