Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

1.5 The personal

The close relationship between parenthood and sexuality illustrates the importance of the personal in social policy in a number of ways. First, it shows that the growing interest in procreation, sexuality and parenthood by policy makers was never a one-way process whereby policy was simply imposed on people. Rather, individuals who set new terms for their experience of parenthood through changes in procreative sexuality were also helping to shape the policy formations within which they found themselves. While people sometimes conformed to current conventions and regulations and thus reinforced definitions of what was normal and acceptable, at other times they subverted policy intentions or directly challenged existing policy parameters. We will explore this two-way process by which policy and personal lives intersected and constituted each other later in this course.

Second, parenthood and sexuality are both domains which can be seen as closely linked to the production of individual identity. Parenthood is a life-changing event for mothers and fathers, both now and during the historical period under review. However, the subsequent ways in which parenthood becomes part of one's identity and the roles and qualities with which it is associated are complex and diverse. As we see in Section 3, forms of parenthood were being shaped by changes to sexual practices aimed at restricting family size. These changes were played out in the lives of individual parents and their children. By the 1920s being a caring parent came to mean one who focused on the needs of each individual child, enhancing each of their life chances, in contrast to parents of previous generations who saw themselves as producing as many children as possible to give the family as a whole the best chances for survival and prosperity. The arrival of children had also been seen as beyond human control, determined by fate or God's will. The biological processes of conception were not widely understood nor seen as particularly relevant. We can see these two views expressed by women who had children in the 1920s in two interviews by Diana Gittins (1982):

Q: Did you want to have lots of children?

  • 1: Oh we never even really thought about it. It just happened. I guess, and we loved them and that was it (p. 148).

  • 2: Two was enough to – to bring them up as we'd like to. You know, in the ordinary way, so that they didn't go short of anything – and we'd do what we could for them … I said, ‘Two,’ I said, ‘and give 'em a good education if we can’ (p. 152).

Fears about the personal consequences of having large numbers of children, combined with increasing knowledge about adapting sexual practices to restrict fertility, created opportunities for couples to have fewer children.

Third, both parenthood and sexual relationships can also be seen as constitutive of adulthood and a marker of adult identity for both men and women. For men the onset of fatherhood confirmed virility both sexually and reproductively, together with the arrival of adult responsibilities. For women it signified an entry into a desexualised and idealised maternal identity. A first pregnancy as the visible evidence of sexuality was, in Victorian and Edwardian times, often an uncomfortable transition for women, the subject of jokes, anxieties and concealment, foreshadowing an identity as mother, an ambiguous adult identity which could never be as fully independent as a man's.

Finally, we can also see the personal through the web of emotional connections between spouses, expressed through both sexuality and parenthood. It was sexual love for each other that was supposed to be the essence of creating a new life, transforming lovers into nurturers. Thus sexual feelings and acts were harnessed to emotions concerned with loving children and of caring for them. For women especially, love for children was often seen as superior, replacing baser sexual feelings. However, the realities of sexual experience and the arrival of children were rarely as elevated as this ideal and undercurrents of power and abuse were often played out in sexual relationships and in the role played by procreation within them.

Extract 1: Letter from Mrs SE

In this letter dated 1921 to Marie Stopes, the birth control campaigner, the wife of a farmworker (Mrs SE) pleads for help in resolving the acute emotional and health difficulties she faced as a wife and mother.

On Dec. 3, 1920 we had a stillborn daughter, this was the worst confinement which I have ever had [she already had six living children] … The third day after my confinement my husband came to my bedside and said it served me right that I was so bad [unwell], other women could prevent having children and so could I if I tried and he was so angry he never came into my room once more for 2 months … since then he has been very cruel to me because that I will not submit to his embrace. He has often compelled me as he had done very very many times before to submit with my back to him. He says if you won't let me at the front, I will at the back. I don't care which way it is so long as I get satisfied. Well Madam this is very painful to me, also I have wondered if it might be injurious. I feel that I hate my husband and cannot submit for fear of having any more children and then again be accused of unfaithfulness but when all is said and done I am still his wife and although I do not like just to be used for his pleasure and then abused when I am pregnant, still unless I do submit, he declares he will ask other women. Can you please give me any advice …

(Hall, 1981, p. 15–16)

In this letter Mrs SE expresses some very complex and conflicting emotions that relate to her sexual experiences as a wife and mother. On the one hand she feels she is being forced to submit to her husband's demands, which she finds unreasonable and physically painful. She is particularly upset about being blamed for getting pregnant when she had been trying so hard to avoid it, and for his lack of sympathy for the loss of her baby and the considerable physical danger which she had very recently faced. On the other hand she feels she should submit to him because she is his wife, and also because if she does not her husband will turn to someone else for sexual satisfaction. In writing to Marie Stopes she hoped to take some control over her situation.

We can see the acute differences of power between husband and wife that have aroused feelings of both hatred and duty. Victorians might define this as a problem of masculine sexuality, that this husband should restrain his sexual demands in order to protect his wife's health and to prevent conception. He might even be described as a ‘brute’ for his failures. However, by the 1920s, this might be perceived differently as a failure of a wife to know about and use contraception which prevented the true expression of sexual activity in the marriage. Although husbands were urged to be considerate to their wives after childbirth, in the longer term she might be seen as unfairly denying her husband a fulfilling sexual relationship as well as being sexually repressed herself. This shows us how in the context of negotiations around sexuality and the experiences of procreation we can understand sexuality to be simultaneously personal and structured in historically specific ways.

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