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

By Hera Cook | Go to book overview

6
'Physical “Open Secrets”':
Hygiene, Masturbation,
Bowel Control, and Abstinence

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 oriWce, 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,

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

-143-

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