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Friday, 29 July 2011

Leanne McCormick, Regulating Sexuality: women in twentieth-century Northern Ireland (2009)

A splendidly meticulous study of the particular spins on various issues around women and sexuality in the context of Northern Ireland and the particular pressures that pertain there. We observe that not merely was there significant concern not to undertake policies that might disturb the Catholic population, but that the Protestant interest had very similar concerns relating to sexual morality. This led to a culture in which women were supposed to be the carriers of sexual purity (this clearly relates to wider issues of national and cultural identity) and particularly stigmatised and blamed for behaviours considered immoral. In fact the book sits very neatly between e.g. Luddy's work on the discourse of pure Irish womanhood and its implications for transgressors, and Davidson and Davies's work on late C20th Scottish sexual culture.

McCormick covers a great deal of ground with considerable effect: prostitution and the role of refuges and rescue homes (where her work finds similar phenomena to those uncovered by Luddy in her study of prostitution in Ireland), various strategies of preventive work such as organisations aimed at providing healthy and chaste recreation for young women (Belfast, in particular, has a high proportion of women in the workforce for whom these arguably provided a valuable social resource), treatment and prevention of VD (including the reluctance of several local authorities to admit that this was anything like a problem requiring action in their areas), the arrival of US troops in significant numbers during the Second World War and the various clashes of sexual cultures that produced, and attempts to establish birth control clinics. Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland, but McCormick suggests that there was a significant degree of illicit abortion taking place (some of it by doctors), while particularly of more recent decades facilities available on the mainland have been resorted to.

As McCormick has focused her study on women there is nothing about the failure to extend the 1967 decriminalisation of male homosexuality and the problem of homosexuality in Northern Ireland. It would have been intriguing to have had something about lesbianism but one imagines that this would be extremely difficult to retrieve, at least much before the end of the C20th. However, we get enough sense of the general moral climate to be able to make some speculations.

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