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

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

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

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

Synopsis

In this book Hera Cook traces the path of sexuality in England, and shows how its route was determined by the gradual exertion of control over fertility. Most sexual activity had major economic and social costs, the most fundamental of which was the physical cost of children upon women'sbodies. Around 1800 birth rates reached historical heights. Using a combination of demographic and qualitative sources, Dr Cook examines the connection between the struggle to lower fertility and the increasing repression of sexuality throughout the nineteenth century. Contraception became aviable option in the early twentieth century. The book charts the resulting slow relaxation of attitudes to sexuality and the remaking of heterosexual physical behaviour, culminating in the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Excerpt

In 1961, when the pill was introduced to Britain, women pushed their, often reluctant, doctors to give them the drug. By the late 1960s, young women were talking about a revolution in women's sexual attitudes, but since then the suggestion that the pill just meant women couldn't say no has been widely repeated, alongside negative assessments of the 'sexual revolution'. As early as the 1880s, there had been suggestions that fear of pregnancy gave wives an excuse for denying to their husbands their conjugal right of sexual intercourse. By the early 1990s, over 80 per cent of British women of reproductive age since the early 1960s had taken the pill. What was the impact of contraception and, in particular, the oral contraceptive pill on women's sexuality? Historical analysis of change in heterosexual women's sexuality has often remained trapped in debates that began in the 1890s. Some feminists continue to argue, even in the late twentieth century, that contraceptive technologies can be seen not as emancipating women but as making women available to men and ensuring they alone bore the responsibility for preventing pregnancy. This argument has been extended to include the notion that contraception was part of making sexual pleasure rational and scientific, reducible to the internalizing of norms.

My first encounter with the notion that these ideas had any contemporary purchase was at a research seminar in the mid-1990s. The speaker announced authoritatively that the pill had not given women greater sexual freedom, rather the drug had merely made them subject to male sexual demands. 'Not all women,' I responded. Many young women of my generation, including myself, enjoyed extensive sexual experimentation. Only a decade or so earlier such casual, low-risk sexual activity had

e.g. A. Dugdale, 'Inserting Grafenberg's IUD into the Sex Reform Movement', in
J. Wajcman and D. MacKenzie (eds.), The Social Shaping of Technology (1999), 320–1.

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