Historians' Books


Sex Before the Sexual Revolution

Simon Szreter , Kate Fisher |

During the last two decades a good deal has been published by historians and sociologists on the history of sexualities in twentieth-century Britain, though very little of this has presented evidence on sex in marriage before the 1960s, while complementary studies of marriage have offered little first hand evidence on sex before the 1960s. Consequently the history of sex in marriage during the twentieth century has come to suffer from a profound and condescending Whig tendency to portray it in rather triumphalist terms as a story of the progressive elements within the educated middle classes leading a benighted people from the darkness of Victorian ignorance, brutal patriarchy and orgasm-starved, dutiful wives to a world of sexual enlightenment and knowledge, companionate equality, and expressive, mutually orgasmic sexual intimacy. Such a perspective certainly makes us today feel smugly superior, but the voices and views of those living through the twentieth century before the 1960s have not been consulted.

The oral history evidence presented and interpreted in Sex before The Sexual Revolution challenges such a Whig account on all fronts. Ignorance proved to be far from absolute, companionship was not how people talked of love and marriages, many women saw sex as both a duty and a pleasure, had orgasms but did not see this as of paramount importance. The voices and perspectives of a diverse range of ordinary people born during the first three decades of the century offer a quite different account of what sex, love and marriage meant to them and how its significance and their practices changed over the course of their lives. In fact most of them were well aware of the triumphalist account of modern sexual liberation and could be cogently critical of its norms and values, recognising some advantages in the availability of greater sexual knowledge, but unimpressed by the popular notion that sex today was 'better' in some general sense. For many interviewees sex had been a thrilling private adventure with their partners, not a form of social competition, as they feared it had become for some today. It was about expressing love and caring for a permanent partner, not achieving self-gratification with a potential range of partners.

We learned from our research that, while it is true that the interviewees grew up in a public culture of profound silence where sex was concerned, this was because they positively valued innocence as a respectably attractive trait, particularly in women. Attitudes to ignorance, by contrast, were gendered and classed, with all men seeing it as part of their expected path to manhood actively to puzzle their way through the public blanket of silence: acquiring knowledge of sex and reproduction was presented as a great game. Among women, middle-class daughters were discreetly provided with sufficient guidance, including manuals passed from mothers and sisters, so that many knew exactly how to indulge their fiancé in heavy petting without any fear they might accidentally become pregnant. Whereas working-class girls were deliberately encouraged to shun sexual knowledge for as long as possible and to rebuff outright their boyfriends' wandering hands until the point at which marriage was firmly agreed. At this point a working-class girl had no reason to refuse sex, but also little understanding of how to moderate it short of intercourse itself. Thus, while it is true that working-class interviewees were much more likely to have had sexual intercourse before marriage and to get pregnant before marriage, confirming trends found in surveys of the period, crucially this neither means that the working-classes were more sexually indulgent before marriage than the middle-classes, nor that they valued female innocence any less.

This very important difference between the classes in their typical strategies to help daughters preserve their valued innocence was closely related to the divergent educational provision in this period, with only middle-class girls benefiting from the secondary education which was necessary to make sense of the birth control and sex manuals available, which were deliberately written in a dry scientific manner to avoid the obscenity laws' concern to protect 'public morals'. Not until the 1944 Butler Education Act was free secondary education available for the four-fifths of the population who were at that time working-class. This class difference continued to have practical consequences for sexuality throughout marriages in this generation. Quite unlike today, among the working classes contraception was entirely assumed to be a male responsibility, whereas a majority of middle-class respondents recalled joint discussion and choices being made by both partners together at the outset of marriage. However, this sharing of responsibility for birth control methods was not necessarily a recipe for the sexually enlightened middle-classes to lead the way with marriages of companionate sexual harmony, as the Whig orthodoxy might lead us to assume. Our interviews clearly show that among a significant proportion of middle-class marriages it often subsequently generated disagreement and resentment, even to the point of a refusal to have sex or seeking a divorce,. By contrast, the issue of choice of birth control method, though presented as a source of sexual dissatisfaction at times, did not arise as a cause of open disharmony between partners in working-class marriages, where it was accepted as a male responsibility and duty.

The oral history approach has thus provided us with a substantial body of rich and nuanced first-hand evidence, previously absent, on the relationship between heterosexual attitudes and behaviour, marriage, birth control and the fertility decline in England and Wales in the early and mid-twentieth centuries. We have also learned a good deal about the abstinence thesis. These outcomes fulfil much of the original motivation for the research project on which this book is based. Simon Szreter's first book, Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain 1860-1940, published in 1996, had offered a revisionist interpretation of the fertility decline in England and Wales, which included the thesis that abstinence had played a much larger role as a method of birth control than had previously been considered. However, in coming to this conclusion he realised that it would be very hard to obtain any substantial direct evidence with which to test a theory that argued that something observable happened - the fertility decline - because something unobservable did not happen- married couples quietly abstained from intercourse. Facing up to this problem of absence of evidence made him realise that it was symptomatic of a more general problem, which was the absence of scholarly attention to sex and sexuality in marriage as a central issue requiring study. He concluded that the only way to deal with this problem was to create the necessary evidence through an oral history project, which ESRC funded. Meanwhile Kate Fisher had independently come to the same conclusion that the study of fertility decline had neglected the most intimate aspects of negotiation of birth control. On completing an Oxford D.Phil, which provided revolutionary new findings about birth control practices from working-class interviews, she joined forces with Simon Szreter for this project.

In our book the abstinence thesis has received not only substantial confirmation but significant elaboration. Almost half of the interviewees reported the use of abstinence in order to avoid conceptions during at least a part of their marriages. Although we still do not have first-hand evidence from the generations marrying in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the fact that abstinence was widely-practised among those marrying in the 1930s and 1940s, when alternative barrier methods were more available than previously, strongly suggests that, along with coitus interruptus, it could only have been an even more prevalent method before the interwar decades during the initial stages of the secular fertility decline. However, we have also learned much more about the complexities of contraceptive practices: in almost every case abstinence occurred before, after or alongside other contraceptives. In working-class marriages, husbands acknowledge they moderated their sexual approaches sometimes because they or their partners found withdrawal or condoms unsatisfactory, sometimes because of medical concerns requiring especially secure contraception, sometimes because they recognised that their wives enjoyed sex more if it occurred less often. In middle-class marriages, by contrast, there was a further unique reason for much of the abstinence reported, which has already been mentioned: serious disagreements over the contraceptive method to be used.

There are clear lessons of importance to policy-makers which can be drawn from our findings. One general lesson is the strong implication from the interviewees' testimony that the Whig story of gradual, linear progress towards a public culture of sexual enlightenment and more equal, companionate marriage, facilitated by the adoption of modern contraceptive methods, does not appear to be an adequate summary of how this profound social and cultural change in intimate life occurred. We are not disputing that common values and practices in relation to sex, love and marriage were very different by the last quarter of the twentieth century than they had been in the first. However, the oral evidence suggests that the decade of 'the Sixties' may have been more profoundly transformative both of public values and attitudes and of intimate behaviour than the picture portrayed by the Whig account, which implies gradual, cumulative change over the previous five decades as well. This might suggest to policy-makers that some processes of truly profound cultural change can only be carried by particular generations and that they may happen in a 'revolutionary' or sudden fashion.

There is also another more specific policy lesson for strategies to encourage the adoption of birth control and family planning in some less developed countries today. The idea that 'female education is the best contraceptive', through female empowerment and knowledge of contraceptives, has been a development and family planning policy mantra since the 1990s. The oral evidence indicates that in a society where there is no well-developed public discourse of sex (as in pre-sixties Britain and such as in many African and in many Islamic societies), there may be a crucial difference between providing girls only with elementary education (as the English working-class had before 1944 and as in much of sub-Saharan Africa and India today) and providing secondary education for all. In England it was only middle-class women with secondary education who had the confidence to negotiate with their husbands and even, where necessary, to take control of contraception in their marriages.

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