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How can we explain rising levels of pre-marital sex in post-war Britain? Focusing on the experiences of young women growing up in Britain between 1950 and 1980, this article argues that changes in sexual practice were brought about by shifts in the social value of sexual knowledge and experience. While the figure of the ‘nice girl’ was still central to understandings of respectable femininity, across this period social status and reputation became linked to demonstrations of attractiveness and sexual knowing. For girls of the post-war generation, discussions of sex were central to how they related to those around them, and the decisions that teenagers made about their own sexual practice were informed by their perceptions of what their friends and peers would think of them. The article argues that, by considering the history of sexuality at a ‘local’ scale between the macro-level of culture and the micro-level of individual sexual selfhood, we not only gain an important new perspective on the everyday sexual experience but also uncover new processes of socio-sexual change.


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Department of History, University of Bristol, 13–15 Woodland Road, Bristol, BS8


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The author would like to thank James Freeman, Amy Edwards, Andy Flack, Josie McLellan, and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this work. Thanks also to the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, for permitting the use of archive material.



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1 Chandler, E. M., Educating adolescent girls (London, 1980), pp. 122–3.

2 Weeks, Jeffrey, The world we have won: the remaking of erotic and intimate life (Abingdon, 2007).

3 Cohen, Deborah, Family secrets: living with shame from the Victorians to the present day (London, 2013); Evans, Tanya and Thane, Pat, Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried motherhood in twentieth-century England (Oxford, 2012).

4 Ingham, Mary, Now we are thirty: women of the breakthrough generation (London, 1981).

5 Examples of this include: Abrams, Lynn, ‘Liberating the female self: epiphanies, conflict and coherence in the life stories of post-war British women’, Social History, 39 (2014), pp. 1435; McDowell, Linda, Working lives: gender, migration and employment in Britain, 1945–2007 (London, 2013); Davis, Angela, Modern motherhood: women and family in England, 1945–2000 (Manchester, 2012).

6 On the value of oral history for exploring histories of private life, see Szreter, Simon and Fisher, Kate, Sex before the sexual revolution: intimate life in England 1918–1963 (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 19. See also Sheridan, Dorothy, ‘Using the Mass-Observation Archive as a source for women's studies’, Women's History Review, 3 (1994), pp. 101–13.

7 Thomson, Alistair, ‘Memory and remembering in oral history’, in Ritchie, Donald A., ed., The Oxford handbook of oral history (Oxford, 2010), pp. 7791; Mills, Helena, ‘Using the personal to critique the popular: women's memories of 1960s youth’, Contemporary British History, 30 (2016), pp. 463–83.

8 Szreter and Fisher, Sex before the sexual revolution, p. 361. Langhamer, Claire, ‘The meanings of home in postwar Britain’, Journal of Contemporary History, 40 (2005), pp. 341–62.

9 Langhamer, Claire, The English in love: the intimate story of an emotional revolution (Oxford, 2013), pp. 51–2.

10 On romance in twentieth-century Britain, see Harris, Alana and Jones, Timothy Willem, eds., Love and romance in Britain, 1918–1970 (Basingstoke, 2015). On marriage in the twentieth century, see Burgoyne, Jacqueline and Clark, David, eds., Marriage, domestic life, and social change: writings for Jacqueline Burgoyne, 1944–88 (London and New York, 1991).

11 Langhamer, English in love; Collins, Marcus, Modern love: an intimate history of men and women in twentieth-century Britain (London, 2003).

12 Geiringer, David, ‘Catholic understandings of female sexuality in 1960s Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 28 (2017), pp. 209–38; Brown, Callum G., ‘Sex, religion, and the single woman c.1950–75: the importance of a “short” sexual revolution to the English religious crisis of the sixties’, Twentieth Century British History, 22 (2011), pp. 189215.

13 Brook, Stephen, Sexual politics: sexuality, family planning, and the British left from the 1880s to the present day (Oxford, 2004); Hoggart, Lesley, Feminist campaigns for birth control and abortion rights in Britain (Lewiston, NY, 2003).

14 Cook, Hera, The long sexual revolution: English women, sex, and contraception 1800–1975 (Oxford, 2004), p. 339.

15 Brewitt-Taylor, Sam, ‘Christianity and the invention of the sexual revolution in Britain, 1963–1967’, Historical Journal, 60 (2017), pp. 519–46.

16 Hall, Stuart and Jefferson, Tony, eds., Resistance through rituals: youth subcultures in post-war Britain (3rd edn, London and New York, 2006).

17 Hemming, James, Problems of adolescent girls (London, 1960), pp. 149–52. See also Erikson, E. H., Childhood and society (New York, 1950).

18 Newman, Philip R. and Newman, Barbara M., ‘Early adolescence and its conflict’, Adolescence, 11 (1976), pp. 261–74, at p. 273.

19 Sebold, Hans and White, Becky, ‘Teenagers’ divided reference groups: uneven alignment with parents and peers’, Adolescence, 15 (1980), pp. 979–84.

20 Bugge, Christian, ‘“Selling youth in the age of affluence”: marketing to youth in Britain since 1959’, in Black, Lawrence and Pemberton, Hugh, eds., An affluent society? Britain's post-war ‘golden age’ revisited (Aldershot, 2004), pp. 185202.

21 Abrams, Mark, The teenage consumer (London, 1959), p. 9.

22 Studies that define ‘youth’ as the period after school-leaving age include Mills, ‘Using the personal to critique the popular’; Langhamer, Claire, Women's leisure in England 1920–60 (Manchester, 2000).

23 Nash, Roy, ‘Clique formation among primary and secondary school children’, British Journal of Sociology, 24 (1973), pp. 303–13; Egan, Owen and King, Denis, ‘Popularity, friendship, and interpersonal perception in the classroom’, Irish Journal of Education, 1 (1979), pp. 3453.

24 Williams, Michael, ‘The sixth form common room as an arena’, Educational Review, 31 (1979), pp. 193203.

25 Roberts, Elizabeth, A woman's place: an oral history of working-class women 1890–1940 (Oxford, 1984); Robinson, Jane, In the family way: illegitimacy between the Great War and the swinging sixties (London, 2015).

26 ‘Danger boy too hot to handle’, Jackie, 28 Mar. 1964; ‘Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf’, Jackie, 3 June 1976. See also ‘Talking it over’, Honey, July 1964; ‘Margot Murray’, Honey, May 1968; Raynor, Claire, People in love: a modern guide to sex in marriage (London, 1968), pp. 3447.

27 Warner, Nancy le P., L for learner: towards an understanding of sex (London, 1962), pp. 28–9.

28 Schofield, Michael, The sexual behaviour of young people (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 122; Gorer, Geoffrey, Sex and marriage in England today: a study of the views and experience of the under-45s (London, 1971), pp. 34, 217–19.

29 Lesley (1958), University of Sussex, Mass Observation Archive (MOA), ‘Sex’ directive (2005), L3298; Marian (1964), MOA, ‘Sex’, M3401. The bracketed date refers to the Mass-Observer's year of birth.

30 Daphne (1941), oral history interview with author, Jul. 2015. The bracketed date refers to the interviewee's year of birth. On illegitimacy and shame, see Robinson, In the family way; Cohen, Family secrets.

31 On discourses of ‘sexual revolution’, see Brewitt-Taylor, ‘Christianity and the invention of the sexual revolution’.

32 Fox, Greer Litton, ‘“Nice girl”: social control of women through a value construct’, Signs, 2 (1977), pp. 805–17, at p. 805.

33 Carolyn (1940s), MOA, ‘Sex’, C1832.

34 Mandy (1939), MOA, ‘Courtship’ directive (2001), M1979. See also Dawn (1950s), MOA, ‘Sex’, D156; Deborah (1950), MOA, ‘Sex’, D826; Mabel (1946), MOA, ‘Sex’, M3408; Norma (1943), MOA, ‘Sex’, P3392; Wendy (1943), MOA, ‘Courtship’, W633; Carrie (1955), MOA, ‘Close relationships’ directive (2001), B1928.

35 Michael Schofield found that 66 per cent of boys and 69 per cent of girls agreed that ‘Most boys want to marry a virgin’. Schofield, Sexual behaviour of young people, pp. 121–2, 130–5.

36 Jayne (1941), MOA, ‘Sex’, H2639. See also Carolyn (1940s), MOA, ‘Sex’, C1832.

37 Deborah (1950), MOA, ‘Sex’, D826.

38 Dyhouse, Carol, ‘Graduates, mothers and graduate mothers: family investment in higher education in twentieth-century England’, Gender and Education, 14 (2002), pp. 325–36.

39 Daisy (1940s), MOA, ‘Close relationships’, B2304.

40 Linda (1952), interview, Feb. 2015.

41 Theresa (1954), interview, Feb. 2014. See also Evelyn (1947), MOA, ‘Sex’, F3409.

42 Evelyn (1947), MOA, ‘Sex’, F3409. See also Theresa (1954), interview; Barbara (1952), interview, Mar. 2015; Mary (1959), interview, Nov. 2015; Mabel (1946), MOA, ‘Sex’, M3408.

43 Linda (1952), interview.

44 Wellings, Kaye et al. , Sexual behaviour in Britain: the national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles (London, 1994), pp. 3740; Michael Schofield, ‘Pre-marital sex: new social attitudes’, Spectator, 9 Feb. 1974, p. 14.

45 Betty (1963), MOA, ‘Sex’, B3154.

46 Tinkler, Penny, Constructing girlhood: popular magazines for girls growing up in England, 1920–1950 (London, 1995), p. 38; Nott, James, Going to the palais: a social and cultural history of dancing and dance halls in Britain, 1918–1960 (Oxford, 2015), ch. 7; Langhamer, Women's leisure, ch. 4.

47 Langhamer, English in love.

48 Dyhouse, Carol, Heartthrobs: a history of women and desire (Oxford, 2017).

49 Andrea (1957), MOA, ‘Sex’, A2212.

50 Heather (1948), MOA, ‘Close relationships’, H1703; Janice (1950s), MOA, ‘Close relationships’, J1549.

51 Mary (1959), interview.

52 Stephanie (1960), interview, Sept. 2015.

53 Heather, MOA, ‘Close relationships’, H1703.

54 Jill (1959), MOA, ‘Sex’, H3459.

55 Sarah (1952), MOA, ‘Courtship’, S2207. See also Stephanie (1960), interview; Betty (1963), MOA, ‘Sex’, B3154; Glenys (1941), MOA, ‘Courtship’, G226.

56 Kay (1951), MOA, ‘Courtship’, K798.

57 Szreter and Fisher, Sex before the sexual revolution; Cook, Long sexual revolution; Roberts, A woman's place.

58 Mass Observation, ‘Love-making in public’, MOA, file report 3086, Feb. 1949, p. 13.

59 Anita (1954), MOA, ‘Courtship’, C2053.

60 Sally (1946), interview, Sept. 2015.

61 Barbara (1952), interview.

62 Theresa (1954), interview.

63 Christine (1947), interview, June 2015.

64 See also Helen (1950), interview, July 2015.

65 ‘Knock-out birds’, Jackie, 5 Apr. 1964.

66 Charlotte (1943), MOA, ‘Courtship’, C2654.

67 Marjorie (1952), MOA, ‘Courtship’, N1552.

68 Kathy (1950s), MOA, ‘Close relationships’, K2391.

69 Terri (1960), MOA, ‘Close relationships’, T2085.

70 Hilda (1950s), MOA, ‘Close relationships’, H1651.

71 Szreter and Fisher, Sex before the sexual revolution, pp. 348–59.

72 McRobbie, Angela, Feminism and youth culture: from Jackie to Just Seventeen (London, 1991), p. 101.

73 Audrey (1952), interview, Feb. 2015; Linda (1952), interview.

74 Schofield, Sexual behaviour of young people, p. 95.

75 Gill, D. G., Reid, G. D. B., and Smith, D. M., ‘Sex education, press and parental perceptions’, Health Education Journal, 30 (1971), pp. 210.

76 Rubin, Isadore, ‘Adolescents and contraception’, in Rubin, Isadore and Kirkendall, Lester A., eds., Sex in the adolescent years: new directions in guiding and teaching youth (London, 1969), p. 85.

77 Pilcher, Jane, ‘School sex education: policy and practice in England 1870–2000’, Sex Education, 5 (2005), pp. 157–74.

78 Farrell, Christine, My mother said…: the way young people learned about sex and birth control (London, 1978), p. 61.

79 Hazel (1947), interview, Aug. 2015.

80 Tracy (1962), interview, June 2014.

81 Amanda (1947), MOA, ‘Sex’, A1706.

82 Linda (1952), interview.

83 Jacqueline (1945), interview, July 2015.

84 Audrey (1952), interview.

85 On peers’ pregnancy as shocking, see Carolyn (1940s), MOA, ‘Sex’, C1832; Maria (1956), MOA, ‘Sex’, M2986; Tracy (1962), interview. On lack of sympathy for pregnant peers, see Joyce (1950), interview, June 2015; Mary (1959), interview.

86 Lester A. Kirkendall, ‘Understanding problems of the male virgin’, in Rubin and Kirkendall, Sex in the adolescent years, p. 126.

The author would like to thank James Freeman, Amy Edwards, Andy Flack, Josie McLellan, and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this work. Thanks also to the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, for permitting the use of archive material.


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