The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception, 1800-1975

By Hera Cook | Go to book overview

3
'Conferring a Premium on the
Destruction of Female Morals':
Fertility Control and Sexuality in the
Early to Mid-Nineteenth Century

The response to birth control methods in nineteenth-century England can only be understood in the context of the shifts taking place in women's sexual behaviour. There were major alterations, not just in the perception of female sexuality during the nineteenth century but in women's actual experience. In the early nineteenth century it was assumed that women had passionate sexual feelings. By the early twentieth century there is evidence that many, if not most, women repudiated physical sexual desire. A large proportion of women took little pleasure in genital sexual activity, and those who did so usually felt unable to admit to this openly. In the interval the economic position of women relative to men of their own class worsened in all classes. Consideration of the level of female sexual and economic autonomy in nineteenth-century English culture helps provide an answer to the question of why women came to repudiate sexual pleasure. This chapter and the following one lay the foundations for an understanding of the changes that occurred in twentieth-century sexuality. The nineteenth-century sources I have used are well known to historians but, when examined in the context of fertility rates and the more copious twentieth-century sources, a new understanding of the changes in heterosexual sexuality that took place can be suggested.

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