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Sex Before the Sexual Revolution
Intimate Life in England 1918–1963

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Part of Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories

  • Date Published: September 2010
  • availability: This ISBN is for an eBook version which is distributed on our behalf by a third party.
  • format: Adobe eBook Reader
  • isbn: 9780511911071

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About the Authors
  • What did sex mean for ordinary people before the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, who were often pitied by later generations as repressed, unfulfilled and full of moral anxiety? This book provides the first rounded, first-hand account of sexuality in marriage in the early and mid-twentieth century. These award-winning authors look beyond conventions of silence among the respectable majority to challenge stereotypes of ignorance and inhibition. Based on vivid, compelling and frank testimonies from a socially and geographically diverse range of individuals, the book explores a spectrum of sexual experiences, from learning about sex and sexual practices in courtship, to attitudes to the body, marital ideals and birth control. It demonstrates that while the era's emphasis on silence and strict moral codes could for some be a source of inhibition and dissatisfaction, for many the culture of privacy and innocence was central to fulfilling and pleasurable intimate lives.

    • Draws on entirely new and unique oral history evidence on sexual attitudes and practice in marriage in the early and mid twentieth century, from working and middle class respondents who lived in industrial northern and affluent southern communities, and from male and female perspectives
    • Explores changing sexual values and practices including how people learned about sex, sexual practices in courtship, attitudes to the body, marital ideals and birth control
    • Re-evaluates the dominant historiographical views in the field by focusing on the first-hand testimonies of ordinary people rather than highlighting exceptions to the social norms
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    Awards

    • Longlisted for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction
    More

    Reviews & endorsements

    '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.' Petra Boynton, The Times Higher Education Supplement

    'I can scarcely recall reading a book which gives a richer, more comprehensive - and ultimately, more deeply moving - account of the human experience.' Simon Callow, The Guardian, in which Sex Before the Sexual Revolution was selected as 'Book of the Week'

    'A brilliant new book … based on the intimate experiences of people from the middle and working classes whose adolescence, marriage and childrearing took place during and after the period between the two world wars … provides a glimpse into an era when sex was not spoken about.' The Daily Express

    'A peek through the curtains of the pre-Sixties bedroom, this convincing and gripping social history provides undeniable evidence that sex did not start in the Sixties.' Oliver James

    '… an exciting, pioneering study … Szreter and Fisher advance a refreshingly candid account of English sex, love, and marriage and present the fascinating oral history material to its best advantage. In short, this is an excellent book which deserves to attract a very large readership.' Angus McLaren, Emeritus Professor, University of Victoria

    'A surprising number of people think that Philip Larkin was right and the British didn't discover sex until the 1960s … This book goes further than any other in breaking the silence and presenting middle and working class people who married between the 1930s and 1950s talking frankly about their sexual experience, revealing that sexual intercourse really did happen before 1963 - and some people even enjoyed it.' Pat Thane, Director, Centre for Contemporary British History, Institute of Historical Research

    'A work of deeply engaging and distinguished scholarship, based on fascinating interviews and other primary data, which bring the last century to life in a vivid and often touching manner. In doing so, the authors shatter many myths about intimate life during previous generations and provide the context for the development of modern British sexuality … a major contribution to social history and to the history of sexology. This book should be required reading for all serious students and researchers.' Brett Kahr, Honorary Visiting Professor, Roehampton University, and author of Sex and the Psyche

    'An accessibly written yet theoretically nuanced analysis of oral histories from the generation that came of age before the sexual revolution … Drawing on the touching, sometimes funny, and occasionally sad oral histories of working and middle class men and women, Sex Before the Sexual Revolution reveals an untold story about how, for some married couples, silence, inhibition, and a shared commitment to privacy were core elements of the erotic, and love was demonstrated both through sexual intimacy and, at times, by deliberate abstinence.' Jennifer Hirsch, Associate Professor of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University

    'Sex Before the Sexual Revolution provides the first rounded, firsthand account of sexuality in marriage in the years 1918–1963. The authors, two distinguished, award-winning academics, studied the testimonies of 89 men and women from all backgrounds. None of them was used to discussing intimate matters - after all, in their day people didn't. Yet the researchers managed to get even the shyest interviewees talking in the end - with truly fascinating results.' Bel Mooney, Daily Mail

    'This is a fine book, crammed with engaging empirical detail, and providing rich insights into the English marital bedroom in the decades between the First World War and the so-called 'sexual revolution' of the 1960s … Historians of sexuality, gender and demography will pay gratitude to Szreter and Fisher for providing us with this culmination of many years of important work.' Social History of Medicine

    'Szreter and Fisher skilfully reconstruct a moral universe of sexual knowledge and quotidian experience in which ideals of naturalness, spontaneity, respect and trust framed the intimate lives of at least two generations of English men and women.' Sally Alexander, History Workshop Journal

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    Product details

    • Date Published: September 2010
    • format: Adobe eBook Reader
    • isbn: 9780511911071
    • contains: 6 b/w illus. 1 table
    • availability: This ISBN is for an eBook version which is distributed on our behalf by a third party.
  • Table of Contents

    1. Introduction
    Part I. What was Sex?:
    2. The facts of life: learning about sex in childhood and youth
    3. Sexual intimacies before marriage
    Part II. What was Love?:
    4. Romance and love: finding a partner
    5. Married love: caring and sharing
    Part III. Exploring Sex and Love in Marriage:
    6. Birth control, sex and abstinence
    7. Bodies
    8. Sex, love, duty, pleasure?
    9. The morning after
    10. Conclusion.

  • Instructors have used or reviewed this title for the following courses

    • Love in the Modern Western World
    • Period Styles
  • Authors

    Simon Szreter, University of Cambridge
    Simon Szreter is Reader in History and Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge. His previous publications include Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain 1860–1940 (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Changing Family Size in England and Wales 1891–1911: Place, Class and Demography (co-editor, Cambridge University Press, 2001). In 2009 he was awarded the Viseltear Prize of the American Public Health Association for contributions to the history of public health. He is also a founding member of the History and Policy Network.

    Kate Fisher, University of Exeter
    Kate Fisher is Senior Lecturer in History, University of Exeter. Her highly acclaimed first book, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918–1960 (2006), won national and international awards including the RHS Whitfield Prize. In 2007 she was shortlisted for Times Higher Academic Author of the Year Award.

    Awards

    • Longlisted for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction
    • A Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2011

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