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

By Hera Cook | Go to book overview

4
'One Man is as Good as Another in that
Respect': Women and Sexual Abstinence

In this chapter the signs of women's increasing confidence and assertiveness in the late nineteenth century and the growing female consciousness of the impact of sexuality upon women are briefly charted. The evidence for a shift toward female rejection of sexual pleasure during the nineteenth century is considered and it is argued that this took place. Women's belated, even churlish, acceptance of birth control in the twentieth century is then described. This produces an account of changing sexuality in the nineteenth century which is incompatible with the account by Michel Foucault that has dominated the history of Victorian sexuality over the last three decades. Foucault rejected the 'repressive hypothesis', that is the claim that sex had been increasingly repressed since the seventeenth century, and put a counter-argument that the Victorian period incited sexuality, producing a multiplicity of sexual discourses and the privileging of sexuality as the core of identity. Little attention has been paid to the limits Foucault placed upon his subject matter:

It is quite possible that there was an expurgation—and a very vigorous one— of the authorised vocabulary… Without question, new rules of propriety screened out some words: there was a policing of statements. A control over annunciations as well: where and when it was not possible to talk about things became much more strictly deWned; in which circumstances, among which speakers and within which social relationships… This almost certainly constituted a whole restrictive economy… At the level of discourses and their domains, however… practically the opposite phenomenon

-90-

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