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

By Hera Cook | Go to book overview

12
Sexual Pleasure, Contraception,
and Fertility Decline

In Parts I and II ofthis book major shifts in sexual mores from around 1800 to around the 1960s have been charted. In Part III the impact of oral contraception, that is, the pill, is described. In this introductory chapter the path of fertility from the low point, which was reached in 1933, to a new low point in 1976 is analysed. The availability of contraception altered the impact of demographic changes from the middle half of the twentieth century. The median age at marriage was at a low of around 21 in 1800, and returned to much the same figure in 1971, after rising to a high of 24 years around the First World War. This low age of marriage produced large families in 1800 when contraception was almost unknown but, by 1971, people were able to marry at the same low age and control their fertility by use of contraception. Hence the apparent paradox that relaxed sexual mores resulted in large families in 1800 but in 1971 small families accompanied the loosening of sexual restraint.1

Initially, however, the relaxation of sexual restraint was probably the major cause of the rise in marital fertility rates that took place from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s. Part of the increase in the numbers of babies born resulted from more people marrying. In 1931 only 54 per cent, that is just over half of women aged between 16 and 44, were married; by 1971, the percentage had risen to 73 per cent, nearly three-quarters.2 Of that 19

1 M. Anderson, 'The Emergence of the Modern Life Cycle in Britain', Social History, 10
(1985), 73, fig. 3, 74.

2Marriage and Divorce Statistics: Review of the Registrar General on Marriages and Divorces in England
and Wales, 1980,
OPCS Series FM2 no. 7 (1983), derived from table 1.1(B), proportions per
thousand married by sex and age: women ever married, aged 16–44, 1931 54%, 1951 65%, 1961
70%, 1971 73%.

-263-

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