Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

3.4 Sexuality

Just as ‘normal’ parenthood was seen as outside the realm of social policy (although framed and supported by it), sexual practices within marriage were widely seen as an essentially private matter. Foucault (1984) argued that while sexualities were very actively shaped by the Victorians through a range of discourses, particularly those of professional, medical and scientific interests, within marriage it was increasingly an area of silence. Up to the eighteenth century matrimonial relations had formed the centre of sexual discourses, particularly through the church and civil law. But from the nineteenth century heterosexual monogamy was ‘spoken of less and less, or in any case with growing moderation. Efforts to find out its secrets were abandoned; … It tended to function as a norm, one that was stricter, perhaps, but quieter’ (Foucault, 1984, p. 38). Foucault is referring to sexuality in its broadest sense here, as a field of discourses concerning practices, roles, identities and relationships.

This quieting of discourses around heterosexual monogamy is reflected in the paucity of historical evidence about ‘normal’ sexual experiences, especially within marriage. Historians have sought to understand these silences in the evidence by looking closely at what could and could not be said, and thus recorded and retained for the future. It is widely argued that there was a narrowing of vocabularies that could be used in respectable society (Hall, 2000, pp. 24–5), particularly for women, for whom even knowing an explicit word for a sexual act was seen as having inappropriate sexual experience resulting in a loss of reputation. For example, D'Cruze's study of sexual violence against nineteenth century working-class women points out that ‘simply by speaking out about sexual and physical assault women and girls put their character in jeopardy’ (D'Cruze, 1998, p. 160).

This silence around sexuality led to widespread ignorance on the part of both men and women, which was dramatically exposed in the letters written by readers of Marie Stopes's Married Love in the 1920s. Indeed, Marie Stopes's own first marriage was annulled when she realised (after some months) that she and her husband were not achieving ‘full sexual union’. The fears associated with first sexual experiences were particularly acute and were not just confined to the middle classes, as we can see from Extract 5 by Robert Roberts who was born in 1905 and wrote about his childhood in Salford. His father was a carpenter and his mother ran a small shop from their home.

Extract 5: ‘A ragged schooling’

Eighteen years of age, already married, Barney lived with his wife's large family in an ally behind the shop … When familiarity had loosened his tongue Barney whispered to one or two of us of sex, and specifically of his own intimacies. The ‘first night’, we were given to understand, had been a considerable ordeal. ‘Neither of us knowed nothink, really!’ They had occupied a single bed in a room which held, besides, the wife's parents, a grandmother and two younger brothers.

‘Now Lucy didn't want it, see, 'cos it hurt; but she kep' on whisperin', “Go on! It's me duty now! Never mind me cryin', make me have it!” It's their duty, see?’ … But I had to put my hand over her mouth to stop her cryin' out, else we'd 've got a real showin' up!’

‘How many times?’ asked Eddie, breathless.

‘Three times. All in the dark, o' course – very quiet.’

‘And was it all right?’ I enquired my mind much disturbed. ‘No,’ said Barney, ‘it wasn't. But it gets better later on.’

‘And will you have a baby now?’

‘She's four months gone already and her Old Pot-and-pan's dead mad, with me bein' out of collar [unemployed]. But what can yer do? It's natural, see?’

(Roberts, 1976, p. 91)

In Extract 5 it is interesting to note the paradox of sex being seen as natural, yet also evoking fears and anxiety. Here we see working-class boys able to talk about sex quite explicitly, if nervously, in ways which girls would probably have found much more difficult. Barney's position as an adult was a marginal one and this loosened his tongue with boys who were still in some ways his friends. Being unemployed and the lack of privacy for his sexual relationship, neither of which was uncommon for young men at this time, were both indications of the precariousness of his transition to adulthood. Roberts comments that once he had a job, Barney stopped talking to him (Roberts, 1976, p. 87).

The effects of ignorance and inexperience on the emotional lives of newly-weds could be profound, sometimes leaving permanent scars on their relationship. The amplification of motherhood as the most important source of women's identity and emotional attachments had implications for sexual relationships as well: ‘Victorian notions of motherhood were so deeply identified with purity that any identification of wife with mother was likely to make her a highly equivocal object of desire’ (Tosh, 1999, p. 68).

As well as tensions about personal experiences, wider perceptions that unchecked sexual activity presented dangers to both marriage and parenthood erupted into public view to influence social policy, emerging most strongly around the problem of venereal disease (VD). Syphilis in particular haunted marriage and parenthood until a reliable treatment was found in 1909. Although it was usually men who brought venereal disease into their homes, threatening the lives of their wives and children, it was prostitutes who became the target of policy. Concerns about the fitness of the armed forces led to a series of Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s that enabled doctors to detain, examine, confine and treat women suspected of working as prostitutes in towns with large military garrisons. The campaign to repeal these Acts was spearheaded by Josephine Butler and included feminists as well as more conservative social critics. They held that venereal disease was not only the fault of prostitutes, but of their clients as well. They successfully argued that criminalising women for prostitution was unjust and ineffective, being based on an unequal and immoral sexual double standard (Walkowitz, 1980).

By the 1870s, critiques of male sexuality entered public discourse in the social purity movement, which argued that male chastity was the remedy for the social evils that resulted from the sexual double standard, and insisted that men should aspire to women's superior moral level. A network of organisations called the White Cross League was set up to enlist men to pledge to leave behind their ‘animal’ natures and exercise sexual continence. Calls for male chastity were evoked both by conservative moralists and by some feminists, including the suffragettes in their slogan: Votes for Women, Chastity for Men. In Figure 7 a suffragette in 1913 advertises an anti-VD pamphlet by Christobel Pankhurst, which lambasted the sexual double standard. It urged men to restrain their sexual activity and drew on the image of ‘whiteness’ from the social purity movement.

Figure 7
© Museum of London ©
© Museum of London
Figure 7 The Great Scourge

However, by the 1880s some feminist and radical socialist circles were questioning the purpose of sexual restraint. Cohabitation, or ‘free love union’, was debated and attempted by a few brave couples. The argument that sexuality was a natural and a necessary part of a healthy relationship appeared in the writings of the socialist and sexologist Edward Carpenter and the sexologist Havelock Ellis as a movement for ‘sex reform’ emerged. This movement covered a very wide range of views on sexuality, including demands for ‘homosexual’ law reform, but also social purity perspectives on issues such as prostitution. In 1912 The Freewoman journal, founded by suffragists, hosted a debate about female chastity and whether women suffered physically and mentally from the social constraints on their sexual expression. Such debates began to be heard in literary and political circles and included discussions of contraception as a means of facilitating sexual pleasure for women as well as limiting fertility.

From this ferment of sexual debates came the work of Marie Stopes. She declared that both men and women deserved sexual fulfilment in marriage but that many required practical help, which she offered in her runaway bestseller, Married Love, first published in 1918. Stopes took the radical step of naming the pleasures of sex for those who expected to be parents, and at the same time, offered a solution to the risk of repeated pregnancies.

When two who are mated in every respect burn with the fire of the innumerable forces within them, which set their bodies longing towards each other with the desire to inter-penetrate and to encompass one another, the fusion of joy and rapture is not purely physical … From their mutual penetration into the realms of supreme joy the two lovers bring back with them a spark of that light which we call life. And unto them a child is born. This is the supreme purpose of nature in all her enticing weft of complex factors luring the two lovers into each other's arms.

(Stopes, 1918, pp. 77–8)

In this quotation we can see Stopes connecting together both conservative and radical ideas about sexuality. For her the highest purpose of sexual love is the generation of new life, an idea that was in keeping with long-standing religious teachings about sex within marriage. But she also saw sexuality as mystical, not animalistic, and as mutually pleasurable for both men and women. ‘Stopes's vision of birth control was not about “preventative restraint”, but a gateway into a new world of healthy wanted babies and erotic joy’ (Hall, 2000, p. 98).

Stopes's new ways of thinking about sex for respectable men and women were instrumental in eroding long-standing silences, although reticence about sexual matters had never been completely successful, as demonstrated by the rich language of euphemism and innuendo in popular culture, especially in music hall acts. But here we have investigated the more direct challenges to the silence around sexual experience within marriage and in procreation. These began in the opposition to repressive laws that aimed to reduce venereal disease and through general critiques of male sexuality. However, critics of conventional marriage and the burdens of parenthood also began to articulate new possibilities for sexual relationships based on greater equality between men and women.


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