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

By Hera Cook | Go to book overview

Introduction

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.1

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

1 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.

-1-

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