The Pill Changed Pre-Marital Bonking More Than Extra-Marital

An interesting – for a change – piece from Yvonne Roberts talking about that great sexual revolution of the 1960s. Yes, Women’s Lib, the sexual revolution, the pill and all that. But there’s an interesting point that she rather skates over. Or perhaps doesn’t quite recognise, even if the ingredients are all there.

Extramarital sex wasn’t invented in the 60s, as the myth-makers have it, but it was encouraged by improved contraception and liberalised legislation on homosexuality, abortion and divorce. So what tides of social change are driving celibacy? And should we be alarmed? Sex in the past was tricky. Ignorance was rife. “Self-abuse” led to insanity. Unmarried mothers spent a lifetime in mental hospitals. Illegal abortions could kill. But, as the historian Steve Humphries recorded, premarital sex was, nevertheless, not that uncommon, especially at the top and bottom of the social scale. Likewise, paradoxically, the “permissive” 60s may have been far tamer than branded. In 1975, the sociologist Geoffrey Gorer concluded that only 11% of the unmarried population, usually young men, was even relatively promiscuous, having three or more partners. “England,” Gorer concluded, “still appears to be a very chaste society.”

There’s a skating across the two different things there, pre-marital and extra-marital. Pre-effective contraception the two were rather different in incidence and in the manner they were considered. Among, say, the aristocracy the idea of marital fidelity was thought amusing to the point of it – so the story or joke goes – being thought rude to even ponder the paternity of the third and subsequent children. The standard DNA studies done into paternity seem to show a 10% or so father not being Daddy across the society.

But that’s extra-marital, not pre-. Lower down that societal pecking order there was rather a holdover from a very much earlier cultural practice. Betrothal – engagement – was when sex started, it being proof that the couple were compatible through pregnancy being the trigger for marriage. Yes, obviously, none of this is a totality, we’re talking about blends and gradations. But there is that old joke about being posh – getting married when she didn’t have to. Yes, of course, joke. Yet jokes are a little window into the assumptions of the society, for that’s what jokes are, comments about societal assumptions.

But from the “respectable” working class upwards virginity at marriage for a woman was expected. Societally enforced even, with perhaps more latitude given to engaged couples but not all that much. Breach of promise suits really were a thing showing the importance still given to the point.

What the pill changed, what that effective contraception did, is change that distinction of pre- and extra- marital.

Sure, it’s only a note about a definition but such things can be important. For if we don’t understand what people ddid and why then we’ll not grasp what has changed.

According to the University of Chicago general social survey, a key barometer of US social life, nearly one in three American men aged 18 to 29 said they did not have sex in 2018. (And we have to take them at their word.) Among young men, the figure in the past decade has tripled to 28%, while young women have seen an increase since 2008 of 8% to 18%.

Among the unmarried of the past, pre-pill, people would have thought those numbers unacceptably low. Different place the past, eh?

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Jonathan Harston

Doing family history research abounds with 8-month first child pregnancies. I have one ancestral relative who was engaged and all about to get married, when her beau died at sea, resulting in a fatherless baby. By all accounts nobody batted an eyelid, not least her future husband. Being a fishing town it was common for men to die early leaving kiddies behind, and society had set up structures to cope – multiple generations of widowed women living together, the men putting the ownership of their business assets in the name of their womenfolk, etc. And then come WW1 and probably… Read more »