how punk helped kickstart a sexual revolution

The upcoming book ‘Showboat: Punk / Sex / Bodies’ explores punk’s progressive message of sexual liberation through rare posters and contributions from the movement’s legendary pioneers. We speak to its editor, punk archivist Toby Mott.

by Paige Silveria
Aug 1 2016, 5:00pm

"My punk journey was spent consuming music, amphetamines, lager, sex, gigs, and art, not in any particular order," says Toby Mott, a London-born artist and designer who owns one of the largest punk archives in the world. This September, in collaboration with cult bookseller Dashwood Books, Mott is launching a massive new tome called Showboat: Punk / Sex / Bodies during Printed Matter's New York Art Book Fair. "The title, Showboat, conjures the image of a self-contained theatre of flamboyant exhibitionists, moving along the river of time; an appropriate image, considering the way in which punk facilitated an approach to sex and sexuality which was brash, outlandish, and theatrical," explains Mott.

Collecting ephemera, posters, and album covers from Mott's vast collection as well as contributions from some 60 people (including Richard Prince, The Sex Pistols' Paul Cook, and iconic rock photographer Bob Gruen), the book charts the relationship between punk and sex over the past four decades. "For many punks, sex could be used as a shock tactic against the orthodoxies that held sway. Punk was vehemently anti-love and anti-hippie, and its status as a subculture meant that it could freely explore sex without mainstream censorship," says Mott. "This sexual openness imbues the material with a unique rawness."

i-D caught up with Mott to discuss how punk helped push sexual liberation into the mainstream, and why today's uncertain political climate may usher in new reactionary subcultures.

What do you think is the enduring legacy of punk culture on sexuality?
It was the gateway to making things more progressive. It created an open dialogue. I don't think young people today are shocked by gender issues and stuff like that. People can be more secure. The terrible way that it was when you would be victimized for being gay, hopefully it's now a thing of the past. Punk was sort of the first culture to embrace different ideas about sexuality. Previously, there was the 60s' sexual liberation, but that was pretty heterosexual. It wasn't until the advent of punk that things started being a bit more diverse. That developed into queer culture and introduced that S&M element in the UK and the States. And women were also more empowered. I really wanted to start investigating this advent. That's how this project grew and became this monumental tome.

What's the difference between British and American punk?
They're two separate cultures that shared the same name and occurred around the same time. American punk was more of a reaction to a cultural situation. Whereas British punk is very political. Britain was very straight-laced and austere so the whole sexual aspect was really a big change. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's shop, SEX, in London, played around with bondage and S&M imagery. In New York, where American punk comes from, I don't know if that was as shocking.

Is there a subculture that's subverting the system today in a comparable way?
There's always going to be a reaction to what's commercially packaged. Now we have bands like One Direction and in those days it was The Osmonds or something. There's always going to be an underground and a reaction to the dominant culture. Now it's probably quicker because of the internet. People can communicate more quickly. The internet and blogs have replaced fan zines. In my day, we just had these kids in our area or town or city. Or you'd gravitate towards someplace like CBGB, where all of those disenfranchised kids would go. But now they probably find each other online. So it may be more powerful. It's always going to be there just in a different way, a fresh way. Like the Art Book Fair in New York is a beacon for those kids. They're the same kind of kid I was, but 40 years later.

Do you think it's still possible to shock people?
I don't know. The thing about punk is that there was an element of "shocking the straight people," but really it was for the punks themselves. Punk didn't really engage too much with the outside. It was very much a world within the broader world. It's just how people wanted to be. But sure, some people are shocked by trans for instance. Look at the Trump phenomena. All of those people are shocked and alienated by progress. Over [in the UK] we have Brexit and it's the same mentality; they're looking backwards as if the past was great and safe with morals. America and Britain share that. It's frightening times for us, the progressives.

It's great, too. For instance, major commercial brands are now championing transgender models.
Yeah, when things get, let's say, too right wing and the arts are pushed down, there's always great creativity. When people with a fascistic mentality take over, the underground will really flourish. It did in Nazi Germany and with Thatcher and Reagan; there were great creative movements. Not that we should celebrate Trump, but it's something to react against. It's good to push. I think that's what you'll see in this book. And I think it will come again because we're entering this dark [political] period.

"Showboat: Punk / Sex / Bodies" is released on September 1 through Dashwood Books. Pre-order your copy here.


Text Paige Silveria
Imagery courtesy Toby Mott

Toby Mott
Dashwood Books
music interviews
showboat: punk / sex / bodies
punk archive