Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

3.5 Birth control

The fertility decline in Britain was not the direct result of social policy aimed at reducing the birth rate. The deliberate use of birth control was widely condemned as unnatural and immoral by the medical profession, the church and a wide range of conventional opinion, even though doctors and vicars were the first to limit their own families. There was widespread ignorance about the mechanics of human reproduction and how to control it, but for those in the know there were many methods of contraception and abortion available. Most of these had been practised since ancient times, but they were all unreliable or dangerous by today's standards and over the period under review their use was closely associated with prostitution and ‘vice’. Condoms in particular were associated with preventing venereal disease rather than conception, although the invention of vulcanised rubber in the 1870s led to some improvements in their usability and reduced their cost. Douches and sponges using various herbs and chemicals were also known and advertised, although in highly euphemistic terms. Women often knew that breast-feeding after the birth of a child would reduce the risk of becoming pregnant again. The reliance on restricting sex to the ‘safe period’ of the menstrual cycle was of very limited value at this time because most advice, including Marie Stopes's, located it in the most fertile time of the month. There is some evidence that abortion was also widely practised, although it was illegal and often dangerous. There were many popular advertisements for what appear to be abortifacient products, and also many home remedies were attempted; a scalding hot bath, a deliberate fall down the stairs or drinking a bottle of gin being widely believed to induce abortion. Figure 8 shows sex-related products, including two for abortifaciants (to prevent ‘irregularities’), one for condoms (rubber goods), one for a cure for masturbation (for ‘weak men’) and one for a medicine for venereal diseases (‘certain cure’).

Figure 8
Source: The Popular Herbal, London Hygienic Stores, c. 1910 ©
Source: The Popular Herbal, London Hygienic Stores, c. 1910
Figure 8 A group of advertisements from The Popular Herbal (1910)

But the most common birth control methods were likely to have been withdrawal (coitus interruptus) and long periods of abstinence. These were probably the most reliable, as well as the cheapest methods available, although they carried emotional, psychological and physical costs.

Activity 5

In an interview by Elizabeth Roberts in the early 1980s, Mrs Pearce, who was born in 1899 and worked as a weaver in Preston, talked about her visit to the doctor when pregnant with her sixth and last child.

In the part of that interview given here in Extract 6, see if you can you pick out some of the issues raised about:

  • the constructions of parenthood and childhood;

  • marriage and women's place within it;

  • the links between sexuality and fertility; and

  • attitudes to birth control methods.

Extract 6: Mrs Pearce

There must have been tears in my eyes because I was thinking about keeping them. I loved children but it was the thought of keeping them. You want them to be as nice as others as well as feeding them. He said, ‘It's no good crying now, it's too late!’ I felt like saying that it wasn't the woman's fault all the time. You are married and you have got to abide by these things, you know. He [her husband] once said that if anybody had seen this squad in here, they would think that we had a wonderful time, but they don't know what I have gone through to try to avoid it, you know. We never would take anything in them days. God had sent them and they had to be there. I'm not a religious person, but that were my idea.

(Roberts, 1984, p. 88)


We can see here the idea that each child should be valued and cared for, and therefore large families were seen as a drain on family resources. Even where women wanted to avoid pregnancy, they could not always rely on their husband's cooperation because men could insist on ‘these things’. The wish to prevent pregnancy placed great strains on the marriage and sex within it partly because contraception was seen as immoral, against God and nature.

By the time that Marie Stopes and others began to champion the use of contraception in the 1920s it is clear that many couples had already managed to restrict the number of children they were having, despite considerable practical obstacles and opposition from many influential directions. It is difficult to pinpoint how this occurred, partly because experiences of reproductive sex and parenthood were very diverse and also because there is so little documented evidence in which married people explicitly discussed their sexual practices. On the one hand it could be argued that the critiques of male sexuality and feminist demands for women's control over their bodies worked with the grain of sexual restraint which restricting family size often entailed before reliable contraception became available. It could also be argued that it was men who were more likely to determine sexual practices and thus played a more important part in achieving fertility decisions, pointing to a significant change in the constructions of fatherhood in which large families were no longer highly valued. Social policy formations concerning marriage, parenthood and sexuality therefore underpinned the ways birth control was used, but those who took up such practices were also actively shaping social policy in these domains.


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