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Proving a negative? How important was sexual abstinence during the fertility decline?

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact John Forrester.

One of the main conclusions of the author’s Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain 1860-1940 (CUP 1996) was that some form of sexual abstinence in marriage had probably been an important, integral feature of birth control in Britain during the secular national fertility decline. This conclusion followed as an inference from innovative demographic analysis of the mass of quantitative data generated by the 1911 census, alongside reconsideration of the implications of certain contemporary qualitative sources and aspects of the period’s cultural history and gender politics. However, how can we ever prove this negative – that married couples in the privacy of their marriages increasingly refrained from sex during the period 1860-1940? How can we obtain positive confirmation of something people did not do – in a culture which generally did not talk about the subject? In order to attempt to address this, the author secured ESRC funding for a novel oral history project, carried out during 1998-2000, by the author and Dr Kate Fisher (University of Exeter). About 90 married persons born in the first quarter of the twentieth century were interviewed and asked to talk about sex in their marriages. Both men and women, middle and working-class, from the industrial north and the affluent south were interviewed. This lecture, drawn from a chapter drafted for a forthcoming co-authored book, will give a first presentation of what the respondents said about the relationship between birth control and abstinence in their marriages.


  • K. Fisher and S. Szreter, ’”They prefer withdrawal”: the choice of birth control method in Britain, 1918-1950’ Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34, 2 (2003), 263-91.
  • S. Szreter, Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain 1860-1940 (Cambridge University Press 1996), ch.8.

There will be tea before the lecture, at 4pm in Seminar Room 1, and a drinks reception afterwards, at 6pm in Seminar Room 1.

This talk is part of the Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine series.

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