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Sex in the 1950s

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Cadbury’s Flake advertisement – an image that simulates oral sex

 

I think I was in my late twenties when I first became aware of the possibility of oral sex. Does that make me unusual? On the contrary, I believe I am typical of my generation. The circumstance of my initiation into the world of oral-genital contact was the showing of a black and white porn film in a neighbour’s living room, sometime in 1969 or ’70. The wives were at a Tupperware party, or something of the kind. My immediate reaction was one of disgust. I could not believe that ordinary folk would behave like that. It seemed perverted, indecent.

You have to remember that my generation of English men and women grew up with the belief that anything to do with sex and the sexual organs was dirty. Jokes about such things were referred to as ‘dirty jokes’. You shared them furtively with your male friends. They were not regarded as suitable fare for the delicate ears of a lady. Sexual references in literature were dismissed as ‘filth’. Genitals, on the rare occasions when it was necessary to allude to them, were universally referred to as ‘private parts’, usually in a furtive whisper.

Anyone under fifty reading this might begin to think that I belonged to some strict religious sect. The truth is, my up-bringing was slightly unusual in two respects. I grew up without a father, mine having been killed whilst serving in WW2. Shortly before my eleventh birthday I was sent away to boarding school. Among my mother’s motives for this was, I am certain, the hope that I would encounter suitable male role-models there.

It was an institution in which regular church-going was obligatory. Whereas, at home, we attended church or chapel only on special occasions. It is, therefore, fair to say that religious beliefs and attitudes were a significant influence. For clarity, ‘church’ in this context refers to the Church of England, ‘chapel’ to a small Primitive Methodist establishment which was the place of worship nearest to my home in rural Herefordshire. But, if those aspects of my childhood and adolescent experience were different from those of youths growing up in the suburbs and attending neighbourhood schools, the values learned were not. How else is it possible to explain the back-lash from my parents’ generation when those values began to be questioned in the late 1960s and the 1970s?

The Old Blacksmith’s Shop at Gretna Green By Niki Odolphie from Frome, England (The old blacksmiths shop at Gretna Green2) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Homosexual acts were against the law in Britain until 1967 when they were de-criminalised for consenting adults over 21. (For a fascinating analysis of the background to the relevant Act, and subsequent events, see this Guardian article from 2007). Whilst the age of consent for heterosexual activity was 16, you had to be 18 in order to marry without parental consent.  This did not apply in Scotland, a fact that made the small community of Gretna Green, just over the border, a popular wedding venue for couples where at least one of their number, being under 18, was denied parental permission to marry.

The possibility of two people of opposite gender living together and having children without first getting married was unthinkable. And, once married, divorce was far from easy. The most commonly used ground was adultery which had to be proven, a fact that provided steady business for private detectives, solicitors and dodgy boarding houses. Even then, if the spouse was unwilling to agree to the divorce, it could not take place until a statutory period of separation had elapsed.

Contraceptive advice was available only to married couples. There were far fewer methods of preventing conception then. For married women there was something usually referred to as a ‘Dutch Cap’, or diaphragm, which, when fitted, provided a physical barrier preventing the sperm from reaching her uterus. For men, condoms could be purchased in a discreet transaction, mostly in the barbers, where, if you looked old enough, you would be asked, as the barber brushed you down, “Something for the weekend, sir?”

Without such barriers, withdrawal before ejaculation was the only way for a man to avoid getting his partner pregnant, a most unsatisfactory and unreliable method. Abstention was the only way a couple could be certain the girl would not conceive. Note the underlying assumption that sexual activity implied penetration. The possibility that an orgasm might be achieved without actual intercourse was not entertained. Neither was the idea that a woman might achieve orgasm under any circumstance. Masturbation, another ‘dirty’ practice, was discouraged with the claim it would make you blind.

Given so much prohibition about this supposedly ‘unhealthy’ activity, the secrecy, the nudges and winks that accompanied any discussion of sexual matters, it should come as no surprise that the idea of placing one’s mouth anywhere near someone’s genital region was unthinkable.

Compare all that to the present, when all of these matters are openly discussed; where young people can view porn on their mobile phones; where masturbation is encouraged so as to discover what gives you most pleasure and pass on that information to your partner. We now live in a different world entirely. This is the background to my novel Transgression which is at the same time a reminder to those old enough to remember how things were, and an education in social history for those fortunate young people who no longer have to live with the lack of reliable information that characterised sex in the 1950s.

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