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The Long Sexual RevolutionEnglish Women, Sex, and Contraception 1800-1975$

Hera Cook

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199252183

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199252183.001.0001

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‘Physical “Open Secrets”’: Hygiene, Masturbation, Bowel Control, and Abstinence

‘Physical “Open Secrets”’: Hygiene, Masturbation, Bowel Control, and Abstinence

(p.143) 6 ‘Physical “Open Secrets”’: Hygiene, Masturbation, Bowel Control, and Abstinence
The Long Sexual Revolution

Hera Cook (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the changes in attitudes to the body and sexual attitudes that were necessary to achieve a fall in birth rates using the limited available methods of contraception. Repressive attitudes to children's bodies, including rigid standards of hygiene, toilet training, bowel control, and the labelling of all genital contact as masturbation, are discussed. Adults who had been frequently subjected to such a regime viwed their genitals and physical sexual desire as disturbing, even disgusting. In this context of sexual prudery, the practice of partial sexual abstinence or low frequencies of intercourse was normalized. The chapter concludes with a discussion of a study of female vaginismus in the 1950s, which suggests levels of extreme anxiety would have been high in the interwar period.

Keywords:   toilet training, genitals, birth control, sexuality, vaginismus, prudery

Levels of birth control use were starting to rise sharply by the 1930s, yet contraceptive failure rates remained high in spite of many women's intense fear of pregnancy and many couples' shared desire for a small family. The reasons that lay behind people's difficulties were complex and not easy to overcome. In order to use contraception effectively in the inter-war period, people had to think about what they were doing, they had to be aware of and consider their sexual acts, not just perform them. In 1931, van de Velde commented:

Doctors succeed as a rule in the application of contraception in their individual lives because they understand the main factors … a few—very few—out of the hundreds of thousands of sperms, shed at the vaginal orifice, may be enough to cause pregnancy … [the doctor] has the habit of vigilance … this is … why he practices contraception with more success than the layman … The ‘secret’ of success here is—extreme care, precision and vigilance in executing whatever method has been chosen, and due allowance for apparently trivial matters. (italics in original)1

Outside the context of sex, the constant self-discipline, attention to minor details, and regulation of personal conduct required to achieve control of fertility had been central to middle-class Victorian thinking, and these attitudes became considerably more widespread throughout the population during the inter-war period. From the 1870s to the end of the 1930s, (p.144) this attitude was more crucial to the decline in fertility than birth control information or appliances as such. H. G. Wells wrote that birth control meant that ‘one thing at least will become impossible—the bestial and almost involuntary fumblings of an ignorant animal urgency’.2 But there was resistance to this discipline from some progressive men. The publisher Victor Gollancz felt that ‘contraceptives mean wilfulness, planning, preparation: they shackle freedom.’ Abstinence was the only method available to his wife Ruth until the opening of the Marie Stopes Clinic in 1927. She then tried a spermicide, but that method failed in 1928 and she again insisted on abstention.3 The physical sexual control needed to use contraception included, indeed required, a new emotional control.4 Rising rates of birth control use show that the desire, whether that of men or of women, to control fertility usually won out over spontaneity.


This new discipline combined with attitudes to the genitals to reshape many aspects of adult sexuality. Three areas offer some insight into such attitudes: hygiene, masturbation, and bowel control. No historical works cover genital hygiene, and even general improvements in personal hygiene are little written about. The genitals are a source of bodily secretions and excreta, and all societies have beliefs that ensure the separation of these from food in order to prevent disease. Avoidance of (p.145) touching the genitals was probably a sensible and functional aspect of pre-modern control of disease. Improvements in personal hygiene during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries necessitated huge amounts of labour in the absence of running water in the home. Intense guilt and shame about being ‘dirty’ and rising disgust at others who were perceived to be unclean helped motivate this effort. These attitudes did operate as symbolic boundaries and as a means to impose definitions of class, but improved hygiene had substantial material consequences.5 Measures such as the discouraging of spitting and the washing of hands and bodies have been accepted as a major causal factor in improvements in morbidity and mortality, amidst a general dismissal by historians of the extravagant claims made for the achievements of modern medicine.6

Sexual activity is the only human activity in which close association with the bodily secretions of the self or another person is deemed desirable. It is hardly surprising that people, especially girls kept ignorant of sexuality, confused the pleasurable mess of sex with the dirt of excreta. A woman recalled that, as a girl around 1915, she had been ‘horrified at such intimacy with part of the body associated with “dirt”’.7 Vera Brittain said, ‘I thought I ought to know [about sexual matters], though the information is always intensely distasteful to me … I suppose it is the spiritual— intellectual—development part of me that feels repugnance at being brought too closely into contact with physical “open secrets”.’8 The history of visible dirt, the kind that is removed with soap and water, is also relevant. Historically, concern for cleanliness had begun with the outer clothes, where it was visible, where it counted and gave some return for the effort, then moved to linen, and only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did a concern with cleaning the skin emerge.9 In (p.146) the 1940s, this process was still ongoing. A young woman working in a factory during the Second World War repeated the adage: ‘My mother always used to say, suppose you were run over, in the street, and they took you to hospital, you wouldn't want to feel ashamed, would you?’10 Cleanliness was still for show, as much to impress others as for the benefit of the self.

Genital hygiene is discussed in the sources on contraceptive methods. Van de Velde told his readers, especially the women, that they were insufficiently aware of genital hygiene. As a gynaecologist and obstetrician he would have had little exposure to male genitals.11 Haire, who did, commented graphically that:

Every doctor who has to examine the genital organs of either sex must be struck frequently with … the dirty condition of the sexual organs … in a considerable proportion of cases. This is due, not to any innate perversity, but rather to ignorance and convention. Women who spend hours every day over their toilet, who take a complete bath once or more every day, who are manicured and pedicured … often display to their gynaecologist sexual organs bathed with foul discharges. Men who pride themselves that under the most trying conditions, they insist on their ‘morning tub,’ often think it quite superfluous to retract the foreskin and clean the glans, and are quite satisfied to go about with a sloppy, wet, evil smelling penis the head of which is smeared with a disgusting combination of stale smegma and stale urine.12

The extreme language used in this quotation, ‘foul’, ‘evil smelling’, ‘disgusting’, reflects the moral loading carried by the concept of cleanliness in this period. However, the probability is that approaches to genital hygiene were not those usually considered ‘natural’ or comfortable today. Van de Velde gave detailed advice beginning with explaining that men and women should clean their genitals both morning and evening, using filtered or boiled water and a fresh piece of surgical lint each time. The description emphasized that this cleansing was ‘[I]n addition to the usual (p.147) baths and ablutions’.13 This somewhat obsessive approach was reinforced by commercial advertising of douches and other cleaning products. One medical textbook gave an example of a ‘young woman in her twenties [who] presented with a severe vaginal and vulval condition as the result of douching four times daily with Lysol, in an excess of zeal for cleanliness’.14 This woman was aware of her genitals and of the need to clean them but her perception of her genitals as dirty was apparently so strong that she was unable to assess an appropriate level of care.

Measures taken to prevent children masturbating and to ensure regular bowel movements shaped their response to their genitals as adults. Prohibitions against masturbation endured well beyond the Second World War. As late as 1990, the authors of the Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles survey reported with regret that ‘questions on masturbation were excluded from the survey, because discussion of this practice had met with both distaste and embarrassment from respondents involved in the qualitative work on question design’.15 Even middle-class, progressive parents were deeply upset by ‘masturbation’ in the 1930s. A mother who decided that her nine-month-old daughter was masturbating asked for advice at the hospital: ‘Matron alarmed me by saying it was a form of self-abuse and she [the nine-month-old girl] would eventually go out of her mind unless the habit was broken. She advised smacking very hard.’16 The mother instead wrote to Susan Issacs, a Freudian educationalist, who probably replied to her by citing Freud's theory that masturbation was universal in infancy. In his study of English nannies, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy found (p.148) that responses by nannies to suspected or actual masturbation had become physically less harsh and the religious overtones were less prominent in the inter-war period, but fears about masturbation hardly seemed to lessen at all. For example:

[Simon T. (b. 1925)] can remember being slapped every time his hand so much as strayed in the direction of his genitals and once, when he and his sister were aged four and six, they were caught examining each other and soundly thrashed … [Alexander Weymouth] can remember he and his brother Christopher Thynne fiddling with each other's penises in the bath, perhaps the ‘cleanest’ place to do it. Nanny Marks said sharply, ‘You're not being dirty are you?’17

Washing the genitals would not be sufficient to make them ‘clean’ for children brought up in this fashion and anything more thorough than a quick going over, even of their own genitals, would have attracted negative comment. Unsurprisingly, this behaviour was similar to that of many working-class mothers in this period, as the nannies were almost inevitably working class.18 In 1965, a retired female doctor described the pre-First World War behaviour of an ‘indomitable Lancashire lass’ who had become the family's nanny following their mother's death. ‘[B]elieving, as she told me years later, that “self abuse was the evil rotting the world”, [the nanny] insisted on supervision in the lavatory, and put us to bed with our hands tied, sometimes too tightly. I remember my piano teacher commenting on my scarred wrists.’19 Gathorne-Hardy implies that that the lack of resources available to supervise working-class children would have resulted in a more relaxed environment for them to grow up in. But oral histories of working-class women reveal that their attitudes to sexuality were no less prudish, and it is probable the immensely more cramped housing made surveillance inevitable much of the time.20 Robert Roberts explained that in pre-First World War working-class Salford, ‘the water closet [was] the only place where a member of the household could be assured of a few minutes’ privacy—a boon in an (p.149) overcrowded kitchen. With some boys, however, even this privilege was not allowed: there were parents with a phobia about masturbation who insisted that young sons should use the privy only with the door wide open.'21

The evidence on adult masturbation is very limited. Chesser reported in 1949 that he had asked 600 female general patients and 300 men whom he examined as an army medical officer if they had masturbated. Fewer than 30 per cent of the women admitted to having done so, whereas 100 per cent of the men claimed they had.22 Chesser had considerable experience of asking patients about stigmatized activities and is more likely to have obtained accurate answers than other investigators, but there is no way of confirming his results. Nearly forty years later a questionnaire survey undertaken by Woman magazine asked, ‘Do you ever masturbate?’ Only two-thirds of unmarried women and 56 per cent of wives said yes. Even in the 1980s, nearly two-fifths of the unmarried women reported that they felt guilty doing so.23 There is a trickle of accounts by men about discovering masturbation but only one account by a British woman found in the course of this research. Molly Parkin (b. 1932) became notorious for her wild sexual behaviour. Yet, her account encapsulates the contradictions that might be expected from the other evidence on women's approach to their genitals. She felt sexual pleasure was animal, ‘like a dog’, and touching herself would have been rude and forbidden, so she rubbed her vulva against the arm of a chair.24 In a study of child rearing in Nottingham, undertaken in the 1960s, John and Elizabeth Newson found that ‘the class trend in the mother's behaviour in response to masturbation is very marked indeed. Nearly all class V mothers try to stop the (p.150) [1-year-old] child touching or playing with his genitals at this age; only a quarter of professional men's wives do so.’25 They attribute this in part to greater working-class ‘modesty’, or prudery, and in part to advice from baby books, which, in a reversal of the inter-war period, were united in advising that ‘genital play’ was natural by 1960. However, by the time the children were 4 years old, 90 per cent of all mothers stopped such behaviour. Many of the 10 per cent who ignored it were doing so only because they believed this was ‘bringing it out into the open’ and would encourage the child to lose interest and stop.26 There was a tremendous ambivalence implicit in the attempt to neutralize sex interest.

Toilet training was another area in which parents' attitudes to the genitals as well as to the shaping of the child's feelings are revealed. The educationalist Susan Issacs believed that ‘the practice of very early and very rigid training in bowel and bladder routine’ was growing in the inter-war period.27 In a questionnaire-based survey undertaken in 1951, sociologist Geoffrey Gorer found that there was ‘a large consensus of opinion … that cleanliness training should be started before the baby is a year old (more than two-thirds of mothers say before it is six months old) … and that children need more discipline than they get nowadays’.28 Both Gorer and Gathorne-Hardy pointed out that toilet training below the age of six months is a waste of time, and the latter explained that this is because the sphincters that enable control of the bowels have not physically developed. Both the nannies and, in Gorer's sample, the parents of more than one child rarely appeared to have learned from experience and they continued trying to ‘pot’ later children before this age.29 Older children were expected to be ‘regular’. The nanny of Simon T. allowed him ‘two “tries” separated by half an hour’, and if he failed to produce he (p.151) was then given a thorough smacking and Gregory's powder.30 The limited diet, which led to chronic constipation in many adults, must have done the same for children, exacerbating the anxieties this regimen created.


Women often felt considerable degrees of discomfort at touching their sexual organs. Margaret Mead has pointed out that, compared to boys, the ‘female child's genitals are less exposed, [less] subject to maternal manipulation and self manipulation’.31 There was no socially sanctioned reason for women to touch their genitals in the early 1920s. Even when washing her genitals, the female child would almost invariably have been taught to use a flannel, not to ‘touch herself’.32 This is in contrast to the male child who had to be given permission by those in authority to hold his penis in order that he could urinate. Female children would have little or no experience that would provide them with any pleasurable, or even neutral, sensations to refute the construction of their genitals as dirty, ugly, and fear inducing. Mothers very frequently did not tell their daughters about menstruation. There are numerous mentions of distress when girls discovered they were bleeding and thought they were seriously ill. One women recalled, ‘When I was fourteen, I had the shock of my life—I couldn't think—I just screamed.’33 Women in all classes report that they were given no explanation for the event. Beliefs that women should avoid washing during menstruation, that it must be concealed, (p.152) and problems with maintaining adequate sanitary protection added to negative feelings about the genitals—and femininity.34 In the first decades of the century, ordinary protection consisted of washable towels made from turkish towelling. They were ‘unpleasant to store and to wash either at home or in a laundry’.35 The poor probably lacked even this provision: ‘when the Suffrage Campaign brought women of education into Holloway Gaol, they found that no provision of any kind was made for women prisoners in this respect. If this means anything beyond abominable administration, it means that women of the class commonly committed to the gaol were not expected at that date to require such refinements.’36

By the 1930s, disposable sanitary pads were usual for those who could afford them, and the tampon, a commercial innovation, had begun to erode women's resistance to touching their genitals.37 Some GPs and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists resisted women's use of tampons. This reveals the extent of discomfiture about the sexual body and the extent to which the medical profession endorsed and, where they had influence, reinforced apparently irrational female attitudes to their genitals. In a 1943 textbook, Diseases Affecting the Vulva, E. Hunt asserted that:

The insertion of a contaminated carton, without any attempt at cleansing the external surfaces of the genitalia, may be the source of actual danger to the woman who pushes the tampon upwards into the vagina, damaging the epithelium en route and introducing organisms which are retained in the vagina. The prolonged retention of the tampon by the woman who is careless in her habits leads to a suppurative condition, such as occurs with any foreign body. The psychical effect of the daily insertion of tampons in the vagina must also be considered, and the possibility that this practice may lead to masturbation.38

In interpreting this quotation in the absence of extensive historical research into sanitary hygiene products we must accept the possibility that the tampons of the 1940s promoted infection upon introduction. It remains (p.153) difficult to believe they could have damaged the epithelium, or lining of the vagina. The reference to masturbation makes it evident there was a strong social component to the doctor's discomfort, which would have existed prior to the discovery of any physiological basis for unease. The suggestion that a woman who left her tampon in for prolonged periods was being careless ignores the confusion surrounding the issue. Around 1930, medical debates on the placing of contraceptive devices in the vagina reveal that some doctors were then happy to advise patients to leave devices in for long periods.39 Van de Velde's suggestion that a fresh piece of surgical lint is essential each time the external genitals are cleaned comes from an opposing perspective, but both discussions suggest a lack of customary knowledge of the vagina. Even in the late 1950s, a gynaecology textbook advised that tampons were suitable only for ‘married women’, and were ‘liable to set up vaginitis through inadequate drainage’.40 No distinction was made between what would be seen now as separate social and medical rationales. Accepting the advice of the majority of the medical profession, even in the late 1950s, would often not have helped women to understand and interpret their own physical experience more positively. People's attitudes towards their genitals, whether this deviated from standards current today in terms of, for women, a lesser or a greater willingness to place objects in the vagina, or, for both sexes, a lesser or a greater concern with hygiene, should not be interpreted as irrational. There is no natural body, no natural range of sensations, pre-existing and free from the social context.

Working-class people were very much slower to begin using contraception, especially appliance methods, than were middle-class couples.41 Looking back over the first half of the century, E. Lewis-Faning did not find pregnancy rates varied amongst method users by social class, which suggests that where working-class people were able and willing to use artificial methods they did so as effectively as middle-class couples.42 But (p.154) for those who lived in poverty, maintaining the standards of hygiene sufficient to use contraception without promoting infection required efforts far greater than those that the same standards demanded of middle-class users of contraception. In the late Victorian period, lower-middle-class people still might not have running water in the home, and even in the inter-war period it was exceptional for working-class women to have unlimited water ready at hand, A private toilet also remained unusual in many areas.43 It is probable that where there were inadequate facilities women frequently felt their genitals were dirty because they were; their feelings were not unreasonable and a reluctance to touch their genitals was not irrational. The use of birth control devices, including condoms or caps, may have required them to alter deep-seated and, within their context, functional ideas about their bodies. These women were unlikely to have had the attention to spare for the effort of preventing a future pregnancy by use of the recommended combined methods, nor is it likely that these would have seemed a sensible use of limited resources. Many of the women described in Working-Class Wives (1939) were ignoring existing painful diseases, and given that obtaining treatment for these was not possible, they certainly would not have had resources to spare for hypothetical gains in the future.44 The label ‘working-class’ covers a range of incomes and housing conditions, and during the inter-war period much new housing was produced. There was an annual average of 150,000 new houses built in the 1920s, rising to over 300,000 annually during the 1930s.45 Increasingly, working-class people did have internal running water, a privy that did not have to be shared with other tenants, and some degree of privacy in the home. But during the Second World War, 15 per cent of Britain's housing stock was destroyed and this loss was only slowly repaired. As late as the 1960s, Hannah Gavron (p.155) found that bad housing ‘dominated the lives’ of over 60 per cent of her sample of working-class London mothers.46


Many women and men's apparent inability to use contraception properly in the first half of the twentieth century was due in part to feelings of distaste about their bodies. The feelings that discouraged women and men from being sexually adventurous or expressing tenderness through genital sexual activity were crucial in underpinning the acceptance of partial sexual abstinence. In 1886, Dr Henry A. Albutt published The Wife's Handbook, which covered the care of the wife and new baby and included information about contraceptive methods. He also explained that ‘many young people injure their health considerably by indulging in intercourse too freely during the first months of marriage’, and that ‘Moderation should be observed.’47 The early sex and birth control manual authors assumed abstaining from sexual activity was a widely recommended approach to controlling births which their readers needed to be dissuaded from using.48 The manual authors are more flexible, even ambivalent, about the appropriate frequency of intercourse. In Married Love (1918) Stopes mentioned that this was one of the topics about which questions were most frequently asked. In Enduring Passion (1928) she devoted a chapter to the topic. In this she commented that ‘some couples find after periods of mutual strength and enrichment, they can live without the physical act of union, deriving from each other all their natures require from the subtler mental, physical and spiritual (p.156) radiations’.49 She also gave examples of high frequencies of intercourse. The evidence suggests this was a sexual culture in which there was a very much higher proportion of people at the low frequency end of a continuum, not that a full range of sexual behaviour was not taking place. Nor did a low frequency of intercourse necessarily mean a lack of enjoyment of sexual activity. However, in looking at the evidence from the late nineteenth century up to the Second World War, it is easy to forget or underestimate the obvious fact that those who were by today's standards inhibited in their sexual behaviour were also strongly inhibited in discussing sex. So reports of sexual behaviour largely come from those who were by the standards of their age uninhibited and atypical.

One of the indications that sexual restraint played an important role in bringing down the birth rate is the association of large families with sexual indulgence by working-class people. When people are using effective contraception there is no connection between the extent of sexual activity and reproduction. Where pregnancy is still seen as a sign of sexual indulgence then it is probable that birth control is not the sole and perhaps not even the primary means by which attempts to limit births are made. One woman described arguing with her father in 1914; ‘My father was too easy going. I said, “No sooner do we get one baby grown up than another one comes.” “Oh you brazen little madam,” he said.’50 The word brazen indicates the sexual content of what she had said. Embarrassment at being seen in public while pregnant was also common in the inter-war period.51 Mass-Observation commented in 1945 that ‘large families today are considered old-fashioned at best, at worst somehow indecent’. Comments made by respondents to the survey included a mother of four, who said, ‘We have been called lustful and irresponsible producers.’ A telephone engineer aged 30 described the ‘Vague social feeling almost of immorality in having a lot of children’. A mother of three said, ‘I was so ashamed when the third was expected, I wouldn't go out if I could help it.’52 Terms such as (p.157) ‘lustful’ or ‘immorality’ reveal the continuing sexual connotation of reproduction.

There is evidence of sensitivity and concern on the part of some husbands. Where men were aware of their wives' feelings and a woman disliked sexual activity, it is reasonable to assume that there was often a lower frequency of intercourse. In 1964, a 32-year-old man, who described his wife as ‘an alert and intelligent woman’, described how both he and she had been brought up ‘in an atmosphere of anti-sex education and thought’. He explained that his own and his wife's inhibitions led him to frequent prostitutes. Her ‘initial efforts were a very brave attempt on her part to do what she thought was expected. Within a year of our marriage the old walls of inhibition and disgust had sprung up again; and because I don't like the indignity of rejection … we rapidly drifted apart, at least physically.’53 Clearly a man's sensitivity to his wife could be limited and might not direct him into paths likely to improve their mutual sexual experience. One in four men told the Mass-Observation sex survey that they had visited prostitutes, although they did not state how often.54

In 1949, this Mass-Observation sex survey found that two out of five respondents insisted that it was possible to be happy without any form of sex life. Those who felt this tended to be older and there was a higher proportion of women.55 Biographical evidence of partial or complete abstinence reinforces the impression that women were more likely to be accepting of this than men. For example, Herbert Morrison's wife was said to have refused to copulate with him for twenty years and his ‘roaming hands’ were blamed on her.56 Nonetheless, writers of all kinds assumed that in the absence of sexual opportunity many people did not miss sexual fulfilment. One doctor argued that ‘[a]bstinence does no harm in the absence of sexual stimulus, as, for example, when a husband and wife occupy separate bedrooms; but if they lie in contact with one another there is sexual stimulus. Perhaps the stimulus may be unconscious and (p.158) unrecognised, but it does occur and it is not recognised.’57 Separate sleeping arrangements appear to have been an acceptable solution to many people, not just middle-class couples. There are mentions of working-class women who chose to sleep in another room with their children or in separate beds in the same room as their husband.58 This level of avoidance could, and probably frequently did, go beyond the desire to control births into an active rejection of genital sexual activity by both sexes.

In The Peckham Experiment (1943), a report on a health clinic set up in the 1930s in Peckham, a working-class suburb of London, the authors noted that in ‘the course of our work we found what we believe to be a high percentage of … non-consummation and of rarity of connection, as well as of the deliberate avoidance of childbearing by birth control methods … In these people what is usually presumed to be the pressing urgency of the sexual appetite remains unstirred to a surprising extent.’59 Mentions of non-consummated marriages are particularly striking. Sexual Disorders in the Male (1939) was written by the Viennese E. B. Strauss and Kenneth Walker, whose career as a genito-urinary surgeon had begun before the First World War. They give a number of case studies that include abstinence over a long period. One married couple decided not to have children due to insanity in the immediate family. After their doctor recommended they not use birth control they remained abstinent for twenty-three years, at which point the wife wanted sexual experience and a child. They were described as having a ‘moderately successful marriage’. In general, the authors said, ‘feebly sexed patients are not uncommon’.60 The absence of sexual activity did not mean (p.159) couples were unloving. Agnes Hughes, a close friend of Kier Hardie, and her husband Hedley Dennis remained abstinent throughout their married life but were close and very supportive of one another.61 The historian Lesley Hall commented on the ‘surprising number of correspondents [who] wrote to Stopes about unconsummated marriages, some of which had existed in this state for an extremely long period’.62 Dr Joan Malleson, a well-respected female consultant on sexual problems, published her first article on non-consummated marriages in the British Medical Journal in 1942, and two further articles in the Practitioner in 1952 and 1954.63 These were based upon hundreds of cases.

A detailed study was published in 1962 of non-consummated marriages treated by doctors over the three years that they participated in a Family Planning Association series of seminars. Only the wives were treated. They were given a medical examination and were then seen for a limited number of sessions. The author explained that such cases were not rare in the participating doctors' practices. It was estimated that each doctor saw an average of twenty-five to thirty ‘virgin wives’ a year, with the lowest estimate eight to ten women, and the highest fifty to sixty. Altogether, these ten doctors probably saw about 700 cases of non-consummated marriages, most of which patients were probably middle class, during the two and a half years of the study.64 Of the 100 cases discussed in the seminar, 35 per cent, just over a third, had been married for the relatively short period of under one year, 37 per cent, again over a third, for one to four years, and 25 per cent for five to ten years. Three per cent had been married for over ten years.65 There were few doctors willing or (p.160) able to help their patients with sexual problems in this period. The large number of couples with these extreme sexual difficulties that found their way to the seminar participants is indicative of a much larger number who must have been unable to obtain professional advice.

Unsurprisingly, given that this was the late 1950s, these couples were not abstaining for contraceptive purposes but because they had profound difficulties with the expression of sexuality. The doctors found that:

Some women who have not consummated their marriages are in a sense asleep; they restrict conscious awareness of sexual feeling. They use the defence of ‘not knowing’ about their sexual organs to ward off anxiety… Such women tend to think of their vaginas as too small for the penis and fear injury from intercourse.66

This explanation that the women were restricting conscious awareness of sexual feelings that nonetheless did exist reflects the broad acceptance within Western culture of the Freudian refusal to admit that a lack of sexual feelings is possible. This was the basis of the doctors' assumption that they knew more about these women than the women knew themselves. This validated their denial of the women's own testimony, which often spoke of an absence of sexual feelings. Many of the patients experienced vaginismus, where the vaginal muscles clamp tightly. The treatment offered consisted of talking with the woman and then inserting glass dilators into her vagina to enable her to overcome her fears about penetration of the vagina. Several of the doctors ‘were anxious that using dilators might be seen as encouraging the patients to masturbate’, a fear which now appears as ‘irrational’ as the Patients' fear of intercourse.67

The aim of the treatment was to reconcile women to sexual intercourse and the seminar concluded that a patient's ‘[m]arked disgust for her genitals [has] been taken as bad prognostic signs but fear and anxiety have not’.68 Some men also suffered from perceptions that sex was ‘messy and disgusting’. Kenneth Walker explained that: (p.161)

Many men marry not only in ignorance of the art of love-making but with entirely wrong attitudes to sexuality. Take, for example, a man who has grown up with the idea that sex is of a comic nature. From the start all manifestations of sexuality have been regarded by him as excellent material for ribald stories and obscene drawings… Is it surprising that when he marries his attitude remains the same?… the more he is in love with and admires his wife, the less likely he is to be able to associate her with such obscene behaviour as love-making. As a result he may even find himself impotent with his wife and capable only of love-making with prostitutes.69

Male participation in sexual badinage is not sufficient to indicate that they were any more comfortable and less anxious about genital sexual activity than their more obviously prudish wives. The problems these men and women faced were not usual by the 1950s. But their attitudes were assumed to be common in the manuals of the 1920s and before. The existence of so large a number of women with serious difficulties in the late 1950s reinforces the impression given by other sources that the proportion of couples in which one or both partners did not enjoy sexual expression, and thus did not find abstinence a sacrifice, was considerable in earlier decades.70

However, marital abstinence is not merely a method of birth control any more than is infanticide. Abstinence within marriage was a course of desperation that could be sustained only by imposition of a repressive sexual and emotional culture, initially by individuals of their own accord, and then, as they internalized those dictates, upon succeeding generations. The fertility decline that took place in Britain was of a wholly different nature from those that have taken place in the developing world since the arrival of effective methods of contraception in the 1960s.71 The point that was reached in the 1930s was not a stable, low-growth population equilibrium, instead it was a highly unstable low-fertility regime (p.162) maintained by sexual control. As contraception and living conditions improved during the inter-war period, the internalized sexual repression which had maintained this regime was gradually eroded, and fertility began to rise again.


(1) Th. H. van de Velde, Fertility and Sterility in Marriage: Their Voluntary Promotion and Limitation (1931), 286–9.

(2) H. G. Wells, preface in M. Fielding, Parenthood: Design or Accident? A Manual of Birth Control (1928), 10.

(3) R. D. Edwards, Victor Gollancz: A Biography (1987), 155–6, 200. See also R. Brandon, The New Women and the Old Men (1990), 167–8. Eric Gill believed female control of contraception was ‘essentially matriarchy’. B. Evans, Freedom to Choose: The Life and Work of Dr Helena Wright, Pioneer of Contraception (1982), 155–6. Holroyd suggests that Ida (née Nettleship, 1877–1907) and Augustus John (1878–1961), who married in 1901, were insufficiently disciplined to use contraception, but it is possible that Augustus held similar beliefs to Gollancz and Gill. Ida was unable to obtain an abortion in 1906 and she died of puerperal fever following the birth of her unwanted fifth child. M. Holroyd, Augustus John (1974), 191–2.

(4) Emotional control, see E. F. Griffith, Emotional Development (1944), 8. He repeats this sentiment in Modern Marriage (1935; 1947), 31.

(5) At the symbolic level, Douglas offers insights into the internalization of new standards and Rose, a relevant Foucauldian discussion of self-governmentality. M. Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966; 1994). N. Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self (1990).

(6) A. Wear, ‘The History of Personal Hygiene’, in R. Porter and W. F. Bynum (eds.), Companion Encyclopaedia of the History of Medicine (1993), 1304–5.

(7) L. England, ‘Little Kinsey’, in L. Stanley (ed.), Sex Surveyed 1949–1994: From Mass Observation's ‘Little Kinsey’ to the National Survey and the Hite Reports (1995), 78.

(8) V. Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain's War Diary 1913–17 (1981), 30–1.

(9) Wear, ‘Personal Hygiene’.

(10) C. Fremlin, War Factory, ed. D. Sheridan (1987), 39–40. See also R. Hoggart, A Local Habitation (Life and Times, i: 1918–1940) (1989), 26. For a middle-class example, see The Hygiene of Life and Safer Motherhood [c.1929], 422. This guide was republished in a slightly different version as W. Arbuthnot Lane (ed.), The Modern Woman's Home Doctor (1939), 312.

(11) T. H. van de Velde, Ideal Marriage (1928; reset 1943), 27–9, 49–51.

(12) N. Haire, Birth-Control Methods (Contraception, Abortion, Sterilisation) (1936; 1937), 89–90.

(13) van de Velde, Ideal Marriage, 271–3. Genital hygiene was also mentioned in E. Chesser, Love without Fear (A Plain Guide to Sex Technique for Every Married Adult) (1941), 60. W. de Kok, ‘Woman and Sex’, in Lord Horder, J. Malleson, and G. Cox (eds.), The Modern Woman's Medical Guide (1949; 1955), 137.

(14) E. Hunt, Diseases Affecting the Vulva (1943), 144. Vaginal douching for cleanliness was actively discouraged by a few inter-war writers, e.g. M. Stopes, Wise Parenthood (1918), 28.

(15) e.g. K. Wellings, J. Field, A. M. Johnson, J. Wadsworth, and S. Bradhaw, Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (1994), 146. E. Slater and M. Woodside, Patterns of Marriage (1951), 175.

(16) S. Issacs, Social Development in Young Children (1933), 150–1. Three cases of parents who did use, or were advised to use, splints imprisoning their child's limbs at night to prevent masturbation are described in the book. Issacs, whose book contained extensive observations of children supporting the Freudian view that infantile sexuality was universal, received considerable public attention. See W. A. C. Stewart, Progressives and Radicals in English Education, 1750–1970 (1972), 256–61.

(17) J. Gathorne-Hardy, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny (1972), 270, 272.

(18) Ibid., ch.1.

(19) M. D. Marwick, ‘Reminiscence in Retirement’, Family Planning (Oct. 1965), 79.

(20) E. Roberts, A Woman's Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women, 1890–1940 (1984). C. Chinn, They Worked All their Lives (1988), 141–53.

(21) R. Roberts, The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century (1971; 1973), 164.

(22) E. Chesser, Sexual Behaviour: Normal and Abnormal (1949), 126–7. The Himeses, from the USA, believed English investigators were unduly cautious about questioning patients, and Chesser's results suggest they were correct. N. E. and V. C. Himes, ‘Birth control for the British Working Classes: A Study of the First Thousand Cases to Visit an English Birth Control Clinic’, Hospital Social Service, 19 (1929), 588.

(23) D. Sanders, The Woman Book of Love and Sex (1985), 21. It is not clear from the text whether this is two-fifths of those who masturbate or two-fifths of all the unmarried women.

(24) M. Parkin, Moll: The Making of Molly Parkin (1993), 58. Men, e.g. Hall Carpenter Archives, Walking after Midnight: Gay Men's Life Histories (1989), 58. W. F. R. Macartney and C. MacKenzie, Walls have Mouths: A Record of Ten Years Penal Servitude (1936), ch. 23.

(25) J. Newson and E. Newson, Patterns of Infant Care in an Urban Community (1963; 1965), 201. Class I and II 25%, class V 93%.

(26) J. Newson and E. Newson, Four Years Old in an Urban Community (1968), 385–6. See also Bibby, Sex, 116.

(27) Issacs, Social Development, 16.

(28) G. Gorer, Exploring English Character (1955), 163. This book was based on 5,000 of the questionnaires returned in 1951 in response to a request in People, a popular newspaper of the period.

(29) Gathorne-Hardy, Nanny, 262–6. Gorer, English Character, 164.

(30) Gathorne-Hardy, Nanny, 264.

(31) M. Mead quoted in P. D. and E. D. Kronhausen, Sexual Response in Women (1965), 95, also 103. See e. Chesser, Sexual Behaviour, 125. For a useful discussion, see J. H. Gagnon and W. Simon, Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality (1974), 55, 61–2.

(32) This was still the case for some girls in the 1960s, e.g. M. Warner, ‘Our Lady of the Boarding School’, in M. Laing, (ed.), Woman on Woman (1971), 36–7.

(33) D. Gittins, Fair Sex, Family Size and Structure, 1900–39 (1982), 84. See also S. Alexander, ‘The Mysteries and Secrets of Women's Bodies: Sexual Knowledge in the First Half of the Twentieth Century’, in M. Nava and A. O'Shea (eds.), Modern Times: Reflections on a Century of English Modernity (1996). Chinn, They Worked, 141–2. K. Dayus, Where there's Life (1985), 95. C. Dyhouse, ‘Mothers and Daughters in the Middle-Class Home c.1870–1914’, in J. Lewis (ed.), Labour and Love: Women's Experience of Home and Family, 1850–1940 (1986), 36. England, ‘Little Kinsey’, 81. J. Klein, Samples of English Culture, vol. i (1965), 65.

(34) G. R. Scott, The New Art of Love (1934; 1955), 27–8. Van de Velde, Ideal Marriage, 91. Women's Group on Public Welfare, Our Towns: A Close up (1943; 1985), 98.

(35) Women's Group on Public Welfare, Our Towns, 98.

(36) Ibid. 97–8. Some girls in factories were found to be using toilet paper and a few Second World War evacuees were using no protection whatsoever.

(37) Slater and Woodside, Patterns, 208. M. Macaulay, The Art of Marriage (1952; 1957), 58–9.

(38) Hunt, Diseases, 144.

(39) M. Sanger and H. Stone, The Practice of Contraception: An International Symposium and Survey. From the Proceedings of the Seventh International Birth Control Congress, Zurich, Switzerland, September 1930 (1931), 12. See Haire, Birth-Control Methods, 123.

(40) F. W. Roques, J. Beattie, and J. Wrigley, Diseases of Women (1959), 107.

(41) See Ch. 4.

(42) E. Lewis-Faning, Report on an Enquiry into Family Limitation and its Influence on Human Fertility during the Past Fifty Years, Papers of the Royal Commission on Population, Vol. 1 (1949), 134.

(43) H. Llewellyn Smith (ed.), The New Survey of London Life and Labour (1935), vi. 314. For the labour involved in laundry, see Chinn, They Worked. Middle-class toilet facilities, e.g. E. F. Griffith, The Pioneer Spirit (1981), 31. Roberts includes a picture of a toilet seat, with the cut-up squares of newspaper used by the respectable poor. Roberts, A Woman's Place, 132–4. G. Rattray-Taylor, Sex in History (1953), 190. Women's Group on Public Welfare, Our Towns, 87–8.

(44) M. Spring Rice, Working-Class Wives: Their Health and Conditions (1939; 1981), 28.

(45) M. J. Daunton, ‘Housing’, in F. M. Thompson (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750–1950 (1990).

(46) H. Gavron, The Captive Wife (1966; 1968), 62. For conditions before the Second World War, see M. Llewellyn Davies, Maternity (1915; 1978). M. Pember Reeves, Round about a Pound a Week (1913; 1979).

(47) H. A. Allbutt, The Wife's Handbook (1886), 57–8.

(48) e.g. ‘The alternative [to use of birth control] … is not merely the cessation of sexual intimacy, but also abstinence from all the endearing intimacies which are natural and spontaneous in married life. They must not only sleep apart but in many ways live apart. And this not only means pain of the heart … but also often leads to serious nervous trouble because of the strain which it involves … I believe conception control to be the better way.’ A. H. Gray, Men, Women and God (1923; 1947) 112.

(49) M. Stopes, Enduring Passion (1928; 1931), 134–5.

(50) Roberts, A Woman's Place, 41.

(51) Gittins, Fair Sex 1982. 90. M. Stopes, Married Love (1918; 1937), 115.

(52) Mass-Observation, Britain and her Birth Rate (1945), 75.

(53) ‘The Need for Prostitution’, Twentieth Century, 172 (1964), 127.

(54) England, ‘Little Kinsey’, 143.

(55) Ibid. 155; example of abstinence, 156.

(56) B. Donoughue and G. W. Jones, Herbert Morrison: Portrait of a Politician (1973), 174, 309.

(57) Contribution by Dr W. H. B. Stoddart in R. Pierpont (ed.), Report of the Fifth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference. Kingsway Hall, London, July 11th 14th, 1922 (1922), 283. Beale, Wise Wedlock. Beale refers to the ‘much debated question of separate or common bedrooms’, 100.

(58) e.g. R. D. Laing, The Facts of Life (1976), 14. Chinn found this to be routine: C. Chinn, They Worked, 152. A middle-class example, J. Calder, The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison (1997), 10.

(59) I. H. Pearse and, L. H. Crocker, The Peckham experiment: A Study in the Living Structure of Society (1943), 258.

(60) K. M. Walker and E. B. Strauss, Sexual Disorders in the Male (1939; 4th edn. 1954), 76, 84. See also M. Cole, The Life of G. D. H. Cole (1971), 91. Stopes, Enduring Passion (4th edn. 1931); ‘Undersexed Husbands’, 54–6.

(61) C. Benn, Keir Hardie (1992), 426.

(62) L. A. Hall, Hidden Anxieties: Male Sexuality, 1900–1950 (1991), 102–3.

(63) J. Malleson, ‘Vaginismus: Management and Psychogenesis’, BMJ 2 (1942). ‘Infertility due to Coital Difficulties: A Simple Treatment’, Practitioner, 169 (1952). ‘Sex Problems in Marriage with Particular Reference to Coital Discomfort and the Unconsummated Marriage’, Practitioner, 172 (1954).

(64) L. J. Friedman, Virgin Wives: A Study of Unconsummated Marriages (1962), 11. A list of the medical experience of the ten, all female, participating doctors is given, 4–5.

(65) Ibid., derived from table 4, 126. The 100 cases discussed in the seminar were ‘not a random sample’ of those seen. The doctors tended to report those cases which they found difficult, 11–12. See also Alison Giles, ‘Learning to Deal with Sexual Difficulties’, Family Planning, 10/2 (1961). Many of the patients would have been referred from FPA clinics, which had a mainly middle-class clientele. A. Leathard, The Fight for Family Planning (1980), 76.

(66) Friedman, Virgin Wives, 39.

(67) Ibid. 105–6.

(68) Ibid. 111.

(69) K. M. Walker, Love, Marriage and the Family (1957), 133.

(70) In the late 1960s, Gorer found ‘a couple’ of instances. G. Gorer, Sex and Marriage in England Today: A Study of the Views and Experience of the under-45s (1971), 31.

(71) For an overview of fertility decline, see D. Kirk, ‘Demographic Transition Theory’ Population Studies, 50 (1996). R. Lesthaeghe and J. Surkyn, ‘A Century of Demographic and Cultural Change in Western Europe: An Exploration of the Underlying Dimensions’, Population and Development Review, 9/3 (1983).