Marie Stopes – 100 years of a True Brazeneer!

In 1918 Marie Stopes the pioneer of birth control in Britain, brought out her book Married Love. Its publication, as she herself later wrote, “crashed into English society like a bombshell”. Many publishers turned her down because of its controversial content – but it rapidly sold out, and was in its sixth printing within a fortnight. Originally banned in the US, that was swiftly overturned. The book went through 19 editions and sales of almost 750,000 copies in the UK alone by 1931.

Today the book and its contemporary reviews provide an invaluable social document of how appallingly ignorant people were about sex a century ago.

The revolutionary theme of Married Love was that women were capable of enjoying and benefiting from sexual union just as much as men were. When men failed through ignorance to give their wives ‘satisfaction’ they also lost out themselves, for the highest and most beautiful experience conferred by sex would elude them. Marie Stopes was a little vague about what this ‘highest experience’ was, which is hardly surprisingly because when she wrote her book she was unmarried and still a virgin and in her mid 30s.

What is even more shocking was that it was Stopes’ disastrous marriage that first sparked her interest in  family planning. After five years of marriage, she realised her sex life wasn’t quite right and that she was, in fact, still a virgin.

But pre-marriage (and after, it seems) she was very vague about precisely how married partners could give each other ‘this experience’, although her contemporaries seemed to find her explicit enough. One critic denounced the book for “providing instruction to girls of initially dubious virtue as to how to adopt the profession of more or less open prostitution”

Such reactions seem incredible today, for Married Love gives no specific instructions about sexual technique and it’s style is flowery and emphasises the mystical, spiritual satisfaction that can go hand in hand with sensual pleasure.

Also, Marie Stopes was severely censorious of many sexual practices that today are considered perfectly normal. Oral and anal intercourse she considered “really disgusting and cruel. Acts of such gross indecency that they undoubtedly amount to cruelty mentally to any refined or sensitive woman” and masturbation, she wrote, was very harmful for young people, though “for women over 30, if they understood it is dangerous, and to control the use to not more than twice a month, it is sometimes beneficial.”

Despite her puritanical attitudes and her ignorance (she taught that the absorption of semen by the woman promotes health), Marie Stopes was a pioneer. She opened the first birth control clinic in Britain and introduced from France the first contraceptive that women could use, the diaphragm, and she shocked her age by maintaining that sex could and should be enjoyed; by women as well as men – or rather wives as well as husbands.

Nine decades on, Marie Stopes delivers services from around 117 locations around the UK. So there’s no better time for a reality check on how far we have really progressed! Most women and girls in Britain can now access the contraception they want, relatively easily and free of charge – something that their grandmothers and even their mothers would have found unimaginable. As recently as the 1960s the contraceptive pill was only available to married women. Thanks to the 1967 Abortion Act, unsafe and illegal abortion has become a thing of the past, unless you live in Ireland.

The Mother’s Clinic for Constructive Birth Control opened in London in 1921

There had been other writers who had dealt with the topic of sex, but their work was more academic and was not accessible to a general readership. One of the most influential was Havelock Ellis, who in his Man and Woman (1894) and his seventh volume work Studies in the Psychology of Sex (completed 1910) repeatedly stressed the ills that result from women’s sexual frustration and deprivation. Ellis wrote with understanding and sympathy about sexual abnormalities, and clarified the task of exploring and explaining many aspects of the vast subject of human sexuality.

While Havelock Ellis and Marie Stopes intended to liberalise attitudes to sexuality, the same cannot be said for their contemporary Sigman Freud yet his ideas on sex were to have a profound influence on culture and society. Freud‘s contribution was to make people realise the importance that libido, or sexual energy, plays in human life, and how it is simultaneously the calls of man’s discontents and the spur to his highest achievements.

The famous cartoon that shows Freud looking down to his trousers neatly states that a man who sees sex in everything, as Freud seems to have done, must have had an anxiety neurosis. Furthermore, Freud’s statements on the subject of women and female sexuality were often unscientific, untrue, and the derogatory. And yet although his own attitudes were of the 19th century, he had a major influence on the sexual revolution of the 1960’s because he stated the fact that sexuality must be at aknowledged to be a basic drive in human beings.

A psychoanalyst who was to have a profound influence on sexual ideas in the 1970s was a former pupil of Freud, Willhelm Reich. In his works The Sexual Revolution and The Function of the Orgasm (1927) Reich sought to liberate, but he became the victim of a witch hunt and his books were burned. Reich deplored the contemporary negative attitudes to sexuality and pointed out many ways in which such attitudes did psychological and social damage. He argued that prevailing ideas of sexual morality, including the concept of life long monogamy, only had the effect of curtailing and stunting human development. It was alleged of Reich that he made a fetish of the orgasm, but this does scant justice to his argument, which was based on clinical experience, that when people become capable of full sexual expression they undergo a change of personality. Their compulsive attitudes disappear, they ceased to be sexually promiscuous and begin to enjoy all aspects of life.


With thanks to The Complete Book of Sexual Love by Stuart and Susan Holroyd