Published On: Wed, Oct 22nd, 2014

Women And Pleasure Old And New Ideas

Women and Pleasure Old and New IdeasA woman married in 1900 would not have expected such a thing. She might have been happily surprised, of course, but in the main she would not have expected sex to be enjoyable. Sex was for having babies, and for fulfilling her obligations to her husband. Sex was something she knew little about – she wouldn’t necessarily know the mechanics of it all – she would simply know that “something” would happen, and that it would lead to childbirth and babies. For young women, who would generally have heard the cries from women giving birth at home, it could be a terrifying prospect.

A woman married in 1930 might have had slightly different expectations. If she was a progressive thinker, well educated, and had some cash to spare, she might have read one of the new guides to marital sexuality. The most popular were those written by the English biologist and birth control advocate, Marie Stopes. Marie Stopes, so her story went, had a tragic first marriage, with both her and her husband so inexperienced that they never ever managed to have sex. The marriage was never consummated. From then, she sought out information on sex, and wrote books to share it.

The story of her failed, sexless first marriage is probably an urban myth, but she did write a host of books that explained why sex and birth control were important to women. She wasn’t the first to say this, but Stopes struck more of a note than most. She wrote books women would read – without the air of pornography or sleaze – and her rather eclectic mix of science and poetic spiritualism quickly gathered a new popular audience.

Stopes wrote eloquently on the wounds caused by a lack of knowledge in marriage, for both men and women. For men and women struggling to find information on sex, it must have been such a relief to read her practical advice. She wrote quite explicitly about women’s dissatisfaction, and continually suggested that it was a husband’s role to please his wife in bed. She condemned hasty, embarrassed under-the-covers sex, which could be tiresome or even painful for a woman. Stopes demanded foreplay so a woman could experience arousal and even orgasm.

While this might not seem to us to be so remarkable, in the 1920s and 1930s it was indeed revolutionary. The idea that women might – and should – experience pleasure had not hit the mainstream, and it was only with fashionable writers such as Stopes that the message was spread. Even so, her work was heavily censored by the Australian federal and state governments. Her books were banned in Australia in 1930. Some had slipped in earlier, but in the whole vast state of Queensland, women passed around a mere six copies of her most famous work!

Stopes was of course in many ways still conservative to our eyes. She wasn’t concerned with pleasure for anyone outside of married couples: she always stressed that her aim was for “normality”. So she certainly never spoke about sexual pleasure for unmarried women, or for lesbians, or for women having extra-marital affairs. It was all about sex between husband and wife. Even so, she made a significant impact on women’s understandings of their own bodies, and their right to pleasure.

It was not until the 1950s that there was a more general understanding of therole of sex within marriage. By this time, rising divorce rates had shown marriages to be vulnerable and impermanent, and many thought that a happy and “healthy” sex life would keep couples together and out of the divorce courts. Suddenly, sex was seen as a key way of keeping families together. Tune in to the next posting to read of this mini “sexual revolution” behind the polite facade of the 1950s home….

Dr. Lisa Featherstone 2012
University of Newcastle

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Dr. Lisa Featherstone is  an Australian historian primarily interested in the history of bodies, especially the history of sexuality and the history of reproduction. She is published widely on sexuality, masculinity, childbirth, race and medicine, and child health. Her book, Let’s Talk About Sex (2011) explores a range of Australian sexualities in early twentieth century Australia.

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