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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Marcus Collins, Modern Love: An Intimate History of Men and Women in Twentieth Century Britain

Okay, it's not really an 'intimate history' in the way that Szreter and Fisher's Sex before the Sexual Revolution is, or Kate Fisher's early work on birth control, or even, dare I venture, my own Hidden Anxieties. It's a touch distanced, it's more about rhetoric and reports and representations than lived (hetero)sexual experence.

There are some good useful case-studies in this book. Collins has delved into the archives of organisations offering various forms of marital counselling to rather different constituencies in more or less the immediately post-war era (though he doesn't seem to know that the Marriage Guidance Council started in the 1930s, though it went on hiatus during the early war years),  and found some fascinating material. I also greatly liked his investigation into the phenomena of same-sex and mixed sex youth clubs and the shifts and changes and unforeseen outcomes of various developments (though is he serious about somewhat marking down girls in the 50s for not somehow militantly reclaiming the space within mixed clubs that was taken over by boys and their interests?) But there's valuable material there. His analysis of the short period in the rise of glossy soft-porn men's mags when they were pro some kind of women's lib is intriguing, particularly in the light of some of the material in Mort's Capital Offenses about new ideas of womanhood.

However, I am not convinced by his rather rigid lump categorisation of people writing about marriage. I'm not sure 'radical feminism' is a helpful way of thinking about social purity feminism (which was hardly monolithic), and I am simply bewildered by the people he plonks into the interwar classifications of 'Christian mutualists' and 'sex reformers'. Given that quite a lot of the mutualists were not Christian (Collins specifically describes the secularist, Jewish by origin, Eustace Chesser, as a 'Christian': and there were elements in Chesser's rather diverse agenda which allied him with the interwar sex reformers as much as with e.g. Griffith or Mace of the Marriage Guidance Council) and that some of the prominent 'reformers' were just as much about mutualism, but a mutualism of both partners having other lovers, this seems unduly simplistic, even as a heuristic device.

Also, it's all very hetero, which is perhaps reasonable, but if you are looking at mutualism, a case can be made that writers on marriage were often quite benign on the subject of female-female couples, who were seen as embodying an ideal egalitarian form of relationship. This focus becomes particularly egregious in the concluding section, given that the C21st has seen, it may be argued, the spreading of the mutualist couple ideal to same-sex couples via civil partnership. I also felt the work as a whole rather ignored the impact on sexual mores of STDs - the burgeoning sexual revolution of the 60s/70s was underpinned by penicillin as much as the Pill, and the retreat from it from the early 80s surely owed something to the rise of herpes, the AIDS/HIV panic, the awareness of a range of other STDs, and the development of the paradism of safe, or safer sex.

However, useful, both for the case studies, and for provoking thoughts and ideas around the subject.

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