Going up to Heaven

Susan Pedersen

  • Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain 1918-60 by Kate Fisher
    Oxford, 294 pp, £24.00, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 954460 8
  • For Their Own Good: The Transformation of English Working-Class Health Culture, 1880-1970 by Lucinda McCray Beier
    Ohio State, 409 pp, £64.95, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 8142 1094 9

John Sayles’s film Lianna broke new ground in 1982 with its portrait of a young wife and mother who comes out as a lesbian. Equally ground-breaking was a scene early in the film in which Lianna’s husband, a philandering, self-obsessed academic, suggests that she have sex with him. Lianna looks at him with a mixture of indulgence and exasperation and says: ‘I’ll go put the thing in.’

Was this the cinematic debut of the female barrier method? Did anyone other than me find it a revolutionary moment? Think about it: among the possibly thousands, certainly hundreds of pre-coital scenes any post-1960s moviegoer would have seen, how many include breathless last-minute exchanges about birth control? When Angelina and Brad lurch towards the bed, when Kate and Leo sink to the floor, they never, ever, stop to say: ‘Let me put the thing in’ – or ‘on’.

The 193 elderly, mostly working-class English women and men whose recollections form the raw material of Kate Fisher’s book would have had little trouble understanding this omission. Caps and condoms were messy, uncomfortable, expensive and required a kind of calculation that turned intimacy sour. One would get ‘nicely carried away and going up to heaven quietly’, one woman explained, ‘and the next thing is he stops, walks over to put the sheath on, well I mean that’s the most unromantic thing in the whole world.’ It was unnecessary, too, many women insisted, since the man just had to ‘be careful’. Be careful? ‘Oh, you know, take the kettle off before it boils.’

Historians of birth control in Britain begin from an obvious paradox. Fertility rates declined precipitously in the last decades of the 19th century, virtually halving between 1880 and 1910, for example, in the Lancashire towns studied by Lucinda Beier, yet not until later in the 20th century did the use of mechanical methods of birth control become commonplace. Historians who focus on the often heroic efforts of feminists and other radicals to spread sexual knowledge and to instruct women in the use of these devices – usually caps – come up against the fact that the small numbers persuaded can’t possibly account for such a steep decline. Clearly, couples not using these methods were also managing to limit their family size. How were they doing it? Mostly, Fisher tells us, through withdrawal.

The importance of withdrawal as a means of birth control was known to historians before Fisher wrote her book. Birth-control campaigners between the wars referred in some frustration to its ubiquity, and social historians like Ross McKibbin have also noted its prevalence. But the sniffy views of these campaigners have affected our understanding, with the result that withdrawal appears in the historical record as a traditional relic, a method of last resort, the recourse only of those too poor, ignorant or disorganised to master the use of caps or condoms. It would disappear, surely, as mechanical devices became readily available.

With the exception of a small, self-consciously modern and middle-class minority, the women and men interviewed for Fisher’s study told her that this was nonsense. Sometimes indirectly, and in language laden with euphemism and circumspection, they made it clear that they had relied largely on withdrawal to limit family size and had done so as a conscious choice. It is a great merit of Fisher’s book that she listened to what they told her, trying to understand not only their choices but also the sexual culture that made those decisions appropriate. She has, in consequence, written the most illuminating account we have not only of working-class birth-control practices between 1918 and 1960 but of the unwritten codes that governed marital sexuality more generally.

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