Swans Commentary » swans.com January 31, 2011  



The First Sexual Revolution And Its Discontents


by Michael Barker





(Swans - January 31, 2011)   During the late Victorian period British women maintained a significant numerical advantage over men such that "almost one in three of all adult women were single and one in four would never marry." Therefore it is no coincidence that spinsters "provided the backbone" of the women's suffrage movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These spinster-led feminists opposed patriarchal exploitation and challenged "the idea that male sexuality was a powerful and uncontrollable urge," and in the course of their activism drew much needed attention to other related problems such as prostitution and the abuse of girls. (1) But by presenting such resistance to the status quo their rising success roused an equally powerful countervailing enemy whose rise to power was intimately connected to the proponents of the "sexual revolution" that came to fruition in the 1920s. (2)

Shedding light on this watershed period in the history of sexuality, Sheila Jeffreys' book The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930 (Pandora Press, 1985) provides a corrective overview of the implications of the "sexual revolution." She demonstrates, contrary to the misleading version of events offered by the "revolutions'" propagandists (and by many feminists to this day) that this so-called revolution should be interpreted as providing a strong reason for the decline of the feminist movement, not as a defining moment of its success. Jeffreys writes:

Alec Craig's interpretation in Sex and Revolution (1934) presents the standard analysis beyond which historians have not much advanced. Craig saw the 'revolution' of the 1920s as entirely positive, especially for women. He explained the change in sexual mores mainly in terms of economic development, rather than in terms of the changing relations between the sexes. He also attacked pre-war feminists for their puritanical attitude to sex. It is this latter distortion which should be of most serious concern to those who are interested in developing a balanced history of sexuality or of feminism. Pre-First World War feminists had constructed a theory of sexuality and embarked upon campaigns around sexuality which were a hugely important aspect of the women's movement. Instead of being credited with having a worked-out theory around sexuality, these feminists have been dismissed as having an oldmaid, prudish attitude of mind. However if the campaign to transform male sexual behaviour and protect women and girls from abuse had not been so important a part of feminism then antifeminists in the 1920s would not have picked it out as a particular target for ridicule. No other aspect of pre-war feminism was seen as so challenging or so deserving of attack. (p.194)

Held in awe of the "sexual revolution," sex reformers mounted a sustained attack upon both spinsters and lesbians in an effort to dismantle the threat posed by their militant activism. Reformers leading the "sexual revolution" had initially become organized in the 1890s through the Legitimation League and its journal the Adult, working with "two eloquent propagandists," the now famous sexologists Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. Interestingly, these endeavors were well supported by other progressive intellectuals, especially those affiliated with the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, which was formed in 1914 "to campaign for better education on the scientific facts of sex." (Havelock Ellis was "closely involved" with the Society's propagandizing, which was overseen by Edward Carpenter.) (3) Furthermore, considering the controversial nature of the sex reformers work it is significant that around this period in history the anti-Socialist Rockefeller family philanthropies began to throw their weight behind the international sex reform community. Writing in The Journal of Sex Research in 1985, Vern Bullough observes that it "is hard to overestimate" the importance of the entry of the Rockefeller funds into the support of sex research.

[I]n the period between 1914 and 1954, the Rockefellers were almost the sole support of sex research in the United States. The decisions made by their scientific advisers about the nature of the research to be supported and how it was to be conducted, as well as the topics eligible for research support, shaped the whole field of sex research and, in many ways, still continue to influence it. (4)

This is a critically important aside that unfortunately remains unexplored in Jeffreys' own academic studies.

Either way, returning to the sex reformers in the UK -- in their desire to undermine the ideological backbone of the feminist movement the reformers set their sights on the danger posed by militant women, and "against all evidence to the contrary [argued] that spinsters suffered from thwarted desire which turned them into vicious and destructive creatures." Furthermore, starting from the false assumption that "sexual intercourse with men was vital" to a woman's well being, the reformers sought to promote what they referred to as "sex freedom"; the strange idea that women should feel less repressed and express their natural need to have more sex with men. (5) Such controversial ideas were not easily accepted by women, so a powerful and well-supported propaganda offensive then sought to embed these falsehoods in the public mind, doing so, one might add, with a relatively high level of success.

The groundwork for this multi-faceted and vicious propaganda campaign was firm, and as part of their bid to revolutionize sexual relations, sexologists had already provided a "scientific" description of their sexual enemies, that is, lesbians. In 1897, in his book Sexual Inversion, Havelock Ellis had already codified the classic stereotype of the female homosexual, "classif[ying] as 'homosexual' precisely those form of behaviour for which spinster feminists, the 'New Women' of the 1890s were criticised by anti-feminists." (6) Unfortunately these dubious claims being made by predominantly male sexologists were legitimized to some degree by women sex reformers (like Marie Stopes and Stella Browne) who joined with their male associates to stigmatise lesbianism. (7)

The rising tide of the "sexual revolution" and the "scientific mystification of sexuality and sexual aggression towards women" was then taken up with a vengeance by a rising sexual professoriate of male sexologists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts. To the detriment of women, the adoption of the reformers "medical model" of sexual abuse meant that male offenders were now simply diagnosed as sick by heath care professionals, which...

... had two significant implications. Women's anger against men was deflated when responsibility was taken away from the male offender and attributed to his 'disease.' 'Sick,' offenders could be seen as exceptions whose behaviour had little relevance to that of men in general. The issue of sexual abuse was removed from the context of crimes against women. Despite dissentient voices, the move to see offenders as sick had taken over from the fiercely indignant largely feminist campaign against sexual abuse by the 1930s. (8)

Thus, in the name of progress, the "superstitions and prejudices of the sexologists were given, under the cloak of science, a spurious objectivity." (9)

Sadly, the mythology of the "sexual revolution" remains strong today, and individuals like Havelock Ellis continue to falsely maintain a "reputation of having attacked and made inroads into the puritan sexual morality of the nineteenth century, for having proclaimed that sex was good and enjoyable, for having destroyed the myth of woman's sexual anaesthesia and for having established her right to pleasure." Yet from a feminist perspective Ellis's "views can be recognised as staples of antifeminist ideology today." (10)

The first of these ideas was Ellis's assertion that there were innate biological differences between the sexes, particularly in the area of sexuality, which were immutable. The second was to prescribe that sexual relations between women and men should take the form of male dominance and female submission. The third was to create an ideology of the "ideal" woman, which was represented as a form of feminism, and consisted of the glorification of motherhood. (11)

Ellis even went so far as to pronounce "that aggression was an innate part of sexuality." So considering that challenging the sexual abuse of girls (by men) formed a centerpiece of the spinster-led feminist movement, it is appropriate (in a painful way) that: "Ellis stated that it was almost or quite normal for men to take pleasure in inflicting pain upon women, and 'certainly normal' for women to delight in experiencing pain..." (12)

In a further extension of their cynical reversal of actual-existing sexual exploitation, the sexologists also succeeded in promoting the falsehood that it was not they who were women-haters, but the feminist's who were the real "haters." "Feminists, spinsters, lesbians, any women who showed reluctance to adjust" to the requirements of the "sexual revolution," "were attacked as frigid man-haters." In this way, the fallacious concept of female frigidity was to become the "main weapon which the sexologists used in the 1920s to pressure women into adjusting themselves to men's sexual behaviour and to undermine the feminist critique of male sexuality..." (13)

In a response to their self-made "problem" of frigidity, the "sexual revolutionaries" now felt the need to eroticise married women, and fresh propaganda promoted the idea that marriage was "to be primarily about sexual intercourse which was to be the pivot and focus of the relationship." In large part these serviceable ideas sought "to shore up marriage" as a mechanism of control of women, "introducing a new binding ingredient in the form of woman's sexual response to sexual intercourse, to compensate for the lost legal and economic restraints." (14) Men would still abuse women, but now women were called upon to satisfy men's ostensibly natural carnal desires -- "needs" that had been formerly serviced by the sex trade. Of course the "sex freedom" of the "sexual revolution" was not intended to promote true freedom, especially not for women.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930, (Pandora Press 1985), p.86, p.48.  (back)

2.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.1, p.84. "Concern about the sexual abuse of children rose from the campaign for the abolition of the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s. The raising of the age of consent for sexual intercourse to 16 years in 1885 resulted directly from revelations about juvenile prostitution and the sexual exploitation of young girls. The 1885 Act which raised the age of consent to 16 for sexual intercourse, leaving it at 13 for indecent assault, was passed after a House of Lords select committee reported in 1882 on the law relating to the protection of young girls." (pp.54-5)  (back)

3.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.48, p.156. "Members and supporters [of the Society] included George Bernard Shaw, Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge, Dora and Bertrand Russell, and Alexandra Kollontai, the Russian feminist." As Jeffreys observes, "Stella Browne is the only woman to appear in the published papers" of the Society. (p.156)  (back)

4.  Vern Bullough, "The Rockefellers and Sex Research," The Journal of Sex Research, 21 (2), 1985, p.113. Bullough notes that John D. Rockefeller's "concern about sex was first effectively focused and clarified in 1910, when Rockefeller became a member of a New York City Grand Jury which was investigating prostitution." (p.114) It is important to add that Sheila Jeffrey's does not acknowledge the importance of the Rockefeller philanthropies in supporting sex reformers in The Spinster and Her Enemies or in any of her subsequent writings.  (back)

5.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.97. Feminists like Christabel Pankhurst were "very suspicious and hostile to the 'new morality' proponents. 'Sex freedom' was being heralded as the way to eliminate prostitution, an idea which is still popular today. The argument is that men's use of women in prostitution is the result of women's sexuality being repressed so that men have difficulty finding partners. 'Sex freedom' and prostitution in fact manage to coexist very happily side by side. The argument transfers responsibility for men's use of women in prostitution from men to women." (p.98)  (back)

6.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.106. Jeffreys notes that while Havelock Ellis is seen by contemporary male gay historians "as performing a service to male homosexuals by breaking down the stereotype that they were effeminate. For women the service he provided was quite the reverse." (p.106) Homosexual sexologist Edward Carpenter also had an intriguing way of viewing female homosexuals such that Jeffreys argues that "his view of women's emancipation was that women should have equal rights so long as they remained different, feminine and passionately attached to men." (p.108) Likewise, Iwan Bloch noted that "male homosexuality was defined by genital contact and their lack of other kinds of physical contact with each other prevented men from straying from the heterosexual path. Through the defining of any physical caresses between women as 'pseudohomosexuality' by the sexologists, the isolation and stigmatising of lesbianism was accomplished, and women's friendships were impoverished by the suspicion cast upon any physical expression of emotion." (p.109) ("Iwan Bloch is one of the three sexologists who, together with August Fore1 and Havelock Ellis, were pinpointed at the 1929 Sex Reform Congress in London as the founding fathers of sexology." p.108)

"[August] Forel's work The Sexual Question, translated and published in an American edition in 1908, shows how the rhetoric of equality can be incorporated into what appear to be ideas totally opposed to the struggle for women's emancipation. Forel was later to be one of the presidents of the World League for Sex Reform along with Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis." (p.139)  (back)

7.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.115. "Stopes and Browne both exhibited great anxiety about lesbianism and sought, with great difficulty, to distinguish between innocent affectionate friendships and inversion. There are indications that both these women had experience of passionate friendships with women which they felt forced to redefine or reject when they adopted the ideology of the male sexologists." (p.115)  (back)

8.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.85.  (back)

9.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.85, p.128.  (back)

10.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.129.  (back)

11.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.129. "Ellis has been seen as a sexual enlighter because he asserted not merely woman's capacity, but also her right to sex pleasure. But the form of pleasure which woman was to receive was strictly circumscribed. In courtship she must be hunted, must be captured and surrender. In sexual activity itself she must be entirely passive." (p.130) Jeffreys notes how with age Ellis's socialism gave way to "genetic engineering in his blueprint for change" and his focus on motherhood was in keeping with popular eugenic trends. In this way he "set out to reinterpret the aims of the 'woman' movement totally to fit in with his project of improving the race. His new model for this movement was that of an organisation of mothers seeking to help in the creation of a 'selectively bred race'..." (p.135) For a related discussion of eugenics and feminism, see "Planned Parenthood For Capitalists."  (back)

12.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.131. "Having pronounced that women enjoyed pain and being forced to surrender it is not surprising that Ellis had difficulty believing that rape or sexual assault to which women did not consent and which they did not want, could exist at all." (p.133)  (back)

13.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.164.  (back)

14.  Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies, p.166, p.169.  (back)


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Published January 31, 2011