Entertainment Books

Sunday 21 September 2014

Review: Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963 by Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher

Cambridge University Press, €24.99, Paperback

Published 09/04/2011 | 05:00

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Free love: A hippie at Knebworth rock festival in England in the 1970s

Recently, I encountered a student from the Indian sub-continent who informed me that he was an ardent feminist. His mother and sisters were highly educated and he was all for women's liberation. However, he added, it was an awful pity that women in the West made themselves so cheap -- dressing like tarts and flaunting their sexuality. Did they have no self-respect?

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There are more than likely quite a few feminists -- particularly of the older generation -- who would agree with this critique. Liberation is one thing, but does every aspect of people's private sex lives have to be quite so, as it were, in your face? Do we have to know everything about orgasms and foreplay and erectile dysfunction? Not so much, is nothing sacred, but is nothing secret, in this era of obsessive "openness"?

There were, according to this in-depth academic study of sex before the sex revolution, two major changes regarding human sexuality in the mid-20th century: one was the invention of the contraceptive Pill, which made it possible, for the first time ever, to control fertility with laboratory reliability.

Until the Pill came on the market in 1961, one of the central preoccupations of heterosexual sex was fear of unwanted pregnancy.

Unmarried women were terrified of getting pregnant if they had sex, and unmarried men were terrified of being "trapped" into marriage by conceiving a baby.

This, more than anything else, was what preserved the notion -- almost universal until the 1960s -- that couples should "save themselves" for marriage. Fear was the spur. A child out of wedlock was an almost unmentionable shame; a "shotgun marriage" was an acceptable remedy for "anticipating the honeymoon", but it was still a bit of a blot on the family reputation.

But the second big change was the way in which the private became public. Before the sex revolution, people didn't talk publicly about sexual matters. We might call this "repressed", but earlier generations just thought it indelicate to air the personal in the public realm.

In one case, even where a Jesuit priest, no doubt for enlightened purposes, broached the subject of "natural family planning" with an engaged couple, they found it offensive. None of his business.

No doubt the cult of privacy was linked with ignorance of sex education -- and many young people embarked on marriage without knowing anything of what was called "the facts of life". But where the marriages worked out successfully, they learned through "love and experimentation", as one working-class wife put it.

What mattered, for most women, was that husbands should be "considerate" and "patient", which was probably a euphemism for foreplay. One older wife expressed the notion of "two in one flesh" very articulately: what she enjoyed about married love was that "we became one another".

In Britain, barrier contraception was available from the 1930s onwards, but in keeping with the notion of "privacy", it was obtained through discreet sources. Condoms were not popular, however, and thought to "lessen pleasure".

Although not mentioned in this study, there is some evidence that since condoms were issued to soldiers as a precaution against gonorrhea and syphilis, they were linked with disease and prostitutes. And that didn't seem very romantic.

Unquestionably, women yearned for romance -- now, perhaps, as then. The majority wanted sex to be linked with "love". They also wanted to see themselves as respectable and self-respecting.

Then, as now, a "bad" husband meant either an alcoholic or a wife-beater.

Sexual history, like any other branch of social history, contains many paradoxes.

For example, the introduction of single beds into the marital boudoir was regarded as more romantic: it meant that you chose to have sex, not that it was "taken for granted". Some homosexuals, according to the research, have a certain nostalgia for the secret, underworld "queer life", of the 1930s and 40s. And although society was undoubtedly more puritanical, there was also a strain of ribaldry, especially in working-class life.

Szreter and Fisher carried out their research in Lancashire and the English Home Counties. As between England and Ireland, there would be a certain time-gap -- liberalisation was beginning in England in the later 1950s, and Ireland in the later 1960s. But I suspect there'd also be a difference between an industrialised and an agricultural society.

Most British young people before the mid-1950s apparently knew little about "the facts of life". But surely, in the Irish countryside, where they saw the stallion brought to the filly, and the bull brought to the heifer, even the dimmest youngster would have grasped the basics of reproduction? They might even have understood the point of "foreplay" by observing that the filly had to be aroused by the skills of animal husbandry before the stallion got his satisfaction.

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