Twentieth Century British Social History: sex, with Les Dawson

Pretty important comma there!

I want to be daring, for a school history blog, and think a little about the history of sex in 20th century Britain. So, where better to begin than Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough, as Cissie and Ada?

As a source, this brilliant sketch is so rich. I can still recall the silent mouthing of words that were not meant to be heard by my little ears when my nan and her sisters talked. However, what I am really interested in here is the subject of Cissie and Ada’s wonderful dialogue. The first is the ideal of being, as the sketch says, ‘Virgo intacto’: of not having sex before marriage. It is certainly true that in the first half of the twentieth century many, probably most, did not have sex before marriage. Many, though, did; perhaps something like one in three, though most with their ‘intended’.

Historically, ’twas ever thus. Indeed, in the early modern period, sex before actual marriage was actually common. For the social elite, sex before marriage was social death for young women or girls. Whether Katherine Howard committed adultery is very much open to question; however, the fact that she might possibly have had sex before she met Henry and did not tell him was condemnation enough.

For those of lesser birth, sex before marriage was common, though only in the form of ‘bundling’. The key thing here is that marriage was in many ways a mere ceremony, the key thing was betrothal. It was a commonplace: the betrothed couple were allowed to bundle, have sex, to see if pregnancy would ensue. Studies of marriage and birth registers in the early modern period commonly show something like a five-month gap between marriage and birth.

By the 20th century pre-marital sex had not gone away, hence Cissie and Ada’s scandalised remarks about the clearly pregnant bride. There was, however, another issue. The 20th century saw the advent of a modern phenomena, the social survey. With that, came our first systematic understanding of what we like to euphemistically call people’s private lives: we mean sex.

One feature of those studies might seem remarkable to us now. It’s at the heart of the sketch. To put it bluntly, some couples simply didn’t know what to do. In the absence of any sort of sex education, young people had to rely on other sources. Some had the good fortune to learn well, whether from home or workmates or even the first sex manuals (Marie Stopes Married Love was published just after the Great War, by 1948 the staunchly conservative Christian White Cross League had published their own). Many did not learn at all. In the sketch the young bride is on the sacrificial altar thinking of England; one 1936 bride recalled a muffled and so euphemistic as to be meaningless conversation with her father on the day she got married.

Of course, most got the hang of it somehow, which is why we are all here now. But ignorance, pure simple ignorance did immense harm to some and made married life, for most people then (even now, perhaps) the longest and most enduring relationship of their lives, less happy and less, simply, than it could (should?) have been.

So here’s another Les Dawson honeymoon joke:

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