Bookcover for ‘Sex before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963’

Sex before the sexual revolution

What did sex mean for ordinary people before the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s? is a question that University of Exeter historian Dr Kate Fisher and Professor Simon Szreter from the University of Cambridge set out to answer in their new book.

‘Sex before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963’ provides the first rounded, first hand account of sexuality in marriage in the early and mid twentieth century. This book looks beyond the conventions of silence among the respectable majority overturning stereotypes of ignorance and inhibition, challenging the common perception that they were repressed, unfulfilled and full of moral anxiety 

Dr Fisher said, ‘While the era’s emphasis on silence and strict moral codes could for some be a source of inhibition and dissatisfaction, for many the culture of privacy and innocence was central to fulfilling and pleasurable intimate lives.’

She added, ‘Sexual shyness and ignorance did not always lead to repressed and unhappy sexual experiences in marriage. For some individuals ignorance and sexual shyness made marriage a sexual adventure in which husband and wife gradually discovered how to please each other.’

The research is based on vivid, compelling and frank testimonies from a socially and geographically diverse range of individuals.  It explores a spectrum of sexual experiences, from learning about sex and sexual practice in courtship, to attitudes to the body, marital ideals and birth control.

One interviewee, Colin, was born in 1923 and grew up in care where he “never got told now’t” about sex. He joined the Navy when he was 18 where he received some information about sex in the form of anti-VD advice. In 1947 Colin married a woman he got pregnant, and although he had not envisaged marrying her, the union was a happy.  He said of their sex life, “Were there ‘owt kinky? No…It were just straightforward unadulterated sex…wife were enjoying it and I were enjoying it so why change a good thing?”

The book was published by Cambridge University Press.

Dr Kate Fisher is being interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on Wednesday 20 October.

Date: 20 October 2010

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