Douglas is a voyeur. A characteristic I am ashamed to say he shares with me. Unlike me, he has the arrogance to believe that he is entitled to go beyond ogling and make unwelcome advances towards any woman to whom he is attracted. He has no compunction about using his power as a Member of the British Parliament to take advantage of the many vulnerable women who cross his path.
Mabel, sickened by the behaviour of a similarly motivated man in a World War II armaments factory, abandons her small town existence for the bright lights of London. Thirty years later she helps the daughter of her brother’s boss conceal the pregnancy that threatens her acting ambitions.
Marjory (stage name Madge) made a disastrous mistake as a teenager; she seduced Douglas. Over the years that follow Mabel becomes a close confidant to the young actor, helping and advising her when she is drawn to drink, drugs and an abusive relationship.
Marjory and Douglas’s daughter, Sally, brought up by adoptive parents, witnesses the suicide of a school friend, following abuse by a radio DJ in the 1980’s. When she discovers that her mother was a teenager when she gave birth she assumes the father is an abuser. She is determined to out him.
Throughout the telling of these individual’s stories I am trying to highlight the immense changes in society’s attitude to sex and sexuality that have taken place over the past 70 years. It is hard to imagine a time when birth control was only available for married people. When living with a sexual partner without a marriage license was called ‘living in sin’. The only people who did it were those who were unable to obtain a divorce in order to marry a new lover. Engaging in homosexual activity could land you in prison.
If a girl became pregnant it was taken for granted that the father would marry her. Woe betide her if he was already married to someone else. This was one side of a double standard whereby it was taken for granted that a man would become sexually experienced before meeting his future bride, either by visiting prostitutes or in the arms of a willing neighbour. Women of such repute were shunned by their peers and sometimes referred to as the town or village ‘bike’, always available for a ‘ride’. At the same time, a blind eye was turned when men in a position of power took advantage of vulnerable young women. Provided their behavior did not result in pregnancy it could be dismissed as ‘only a bit of fun’.
Small hotels and private detectives with cameras did a roaring trade in providing proof of adultery for people wanting a divorce. Even with that proof, if the spouse chose not to file for divorce the other party was stimied in their attempt.
In the late 1960s and into the ’70s these prejudices and conventions were overthrown. A new generation of young people grew up believing that having sex was a natural rite of passage. The ready availability of contraception, especially ‘the pill’, oral contraception for women, made it possible for people to indulge in such behaviour without fear of the consequences.
It is my contention that this created circumstances in which predatory men were like children let loose in a sweet shop. They could not believe their luck. Where their behaviour would once have had to be conducted clandestinely, now they felt justified in indulging their every whim.
We know better, now – or think we do. There is a lot of talk about consent. ‘No’ has to be understood to mean ‘no’. Once, a woman might have said ‘no’ because it was expected of her, even though she might wish she could say ‘yes’. Now she has the freedom to say exactly what she means and any man who ignores her wishes is unambiguously in the wrong.