Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life In England 1918-1963

Petra Boynton surveys a candid and moving account of the sexual mores of an older generation

Discussions of older people and sex are largely absent from our culture. Where such discussions do appear in research or media coverage, they can be patronising, cute and coy, or express disgust that older folk are "still doing it". Alternative accounts (mostly informed by pharmaceutical company-funded research) acknowledge that older people may be sexual but either emphasise the psychosexual problems they experience, or suggest that they ought to be as sexual as their younger peers.

It would be a myth to say that older people are not sexual or do not desire intimacy. Indeed, the Family Planning Association's recent Sexual Health Week focused on raising awareness of rising rates of sexually transmitted infections in the over-50s. We forget that the baby boomers who benefited from the Pill and pushed our sexual frontiers - including women's sexuality and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights - are becoming pensioners.

But what we often miss are the genuine voices of older people talking about their sexual experiences of the past or present. Sex Before the Sexual Revolution offers a welcome alternative to stilted or limited accounts, and is built around in-depth interviews with 89 women and men from different regions of the UK who experienced adolescence, court-ship and marriage between the inter-war and post-war decades.

Discussions with participants focus on their early sexual memories, what they were told about puberty and sex, their intimate relationships and their views and experiences of love and romance. Its accounts of intimate lives may surprise us: women discuss affairs they had; men reflect on love. Given that we expect older people to have had little sexual knowledge and, particularly in the case of women, to have had disappointing sexual lives, it is heartening to read discussions of desire and passion. Indeed, the authors acknowledge the subversion inherent in asking women to speak frankly about their sexual secrets.

Accounts focusing on contraception, pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted infections are especially moving, and a stark reminder of how much has changed in relation to reproductive health. Hearing how many young women in these years were not adequately prepared for menstruation or marriage is also disturbing. Importantly, participants do not shy away from issues that would have been taboo during their youth, speaking openly about masturbation, homosexuality and prostitution.

The text affords us an opportunity to look at life through respondents' memories. Reflecting on their early relationships, the importance of virginity and the framing of marriage as an ultimately private space, they frequently contrast their experiences with what they see young people doing now. There is regret over what may have been missed, and concern that our era may not be as progressive as we believe.

A major period in history in terms of national and global economic and political events, alongside a seismic shift in our sexual mores, is documented here. We often assume that studying sex is frivolous, but using the lens of relationships to focus on a period of history allows us to realise how important intimacy can be and how, in some cases, major changes in gender and sexual equality may not have the widespread impact we might have assumed.

Methodologists will appreciate the thorough explanations of how the researchers encouraged and empowered participants. The detailed literature reviews underpinning each chapter put the stories into context, which will be helpful for any reader unfamiliar with the history of early 20th century life. The text's only limitation is the extensive use of footnotes, which may detract, in places, from the reader's enjoyment of the wider narratives.

I would recommend Sex Before the Sexual Revolution to anyone with an interest in history, sociology and culture. Sex researchers and therapists will find it a useful guide to qualitative research on intimate topics and understanding older people's sexual lives, health practitioners working with older people will find it enlightening, and it will be invaluable for teachers of sex and relationships education in informing lessons.

A warm and enjoyable read, at times heartbreaking and at others erotic, its appeal goes beyond its value as an academic text. It is an impressive venture that captures what otherwise might have remained a forgotten part of our sexual history.

Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life In England 1918-1963

By Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher

Cambridge University Press

466pp, £55.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9780521760041 and 11493

Published 14 October 2010

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