‘Sex and Common Sense’: Secularization and ‘Modern’ Sexual Subjectivities in Evolution

Speakers: Alana Harris, Sue Morgan, Timothy W. Jones

Chair: Lucy Delap

In much of the historiography of modern Britain, it is taken as ‘common sense’ that ‘sex, love and rock n roll’ have unequivocally ousted an older, obsolete trinity of ‘character, duty and Christian morality’. Building upon recent studies that highlight religion’s continued currency in the negotiation and formation of ‘modern’ sexual subjectivities, the papers in this panel explore the ways in which three middle-class women (Maud Royden, Letitia Fairfield and Mary Whitehouse) mobilized diverse church traditions and differing theological priorities to address pressing contemporaneous problems about love, sex and right living in modern Britain. The diversity of their interventions into these debates is a fitting illustration of the ways in which concepts of ‘modernity’ remained fluid and problematic in the religious context, as elsewhere, across the twentieth century.

Spanning the Edwardian era to the ‘permissive age’, this panel will explore the sexual and spiritual subjectivities of these three intelligent, highly educated and prominent women and their efforts to ‘translate’ (or restate) Christian precepts on marriage, contraception and homosexuality for a wider audience. In their professional lives, publications and social action, it is possible to trace the ways in which they sought to incorporate religious values into evolving  ‘cultures of democracy’ and utilized, as women, the continuing valence of religion as a platform and discourse for intervention in the public sphere and political debates. Moreover, attention to the persistent presence of class-based perspectives within their thinking offers important perspectives on the problematics surrounding historical (re)construction of belief and religious experience, and the ways in which the classed dynamics of sexual politics shifted across the period. As such, the papers within this panel – with commentary from Dr Lucy Delap drawing on her ESRC project on post-war child sex abuse – will contribute to the re-narration of the place of religion in twentieth century Britain (and beyond), critiquing the totalizing paradigm of secularization and inadequate chronologies of change that pivot on the Second World War and the presumed watershed of the sixties.

Paper 1 Abstract: Sacramental sex? Religion, feminism and new sexual discourses in interwar Britain

Sue Morgan, University of Chichester

Despite recent studies highlighting religion’s continued influence upon the formation of twentieth-century sexual identities, the tendency to privilege secular rather than spiritual discourses remains dominant in histories of modern sexuality. Shifting attitudes towards sexual morality provided organized religion with some of its keenest opportunities to demonstrate the relevance of faith to a modern age, however, and the success or otherwise with which it has embraced this challenge remains under-investigated.

This paper explores the intriguing intersections of religion, feminism and new sexual discourses in interwar Britain in order to reveal the uneven developments and meanings attached to the term ‘modern’. It focuses primarily on the writings of the Anglican feminist Maude Royden and the women’s rights campaigner Dora Russell who represented two important competing strands of postwar sexual ideology – Christian progressivism and sex radicalism. These women clashed not only over their particular sexual manifestos but also over the authority of religion as a cultural determinant of modern subjectivity. According to Royden, New Testament Christianity offered an enlightened code of sexual, spiritual and social self-fulfilment for women and men alike within the bounds of modern matrimony; Russell, on the other hand, regarded organized religion as the antithesis of all things modern, responsible for distorting the sexual instinct and imposing centuries of female degradation and infantilization. This paper juxtaposes these women’s differing attitudes towards Christianity and sexuality alongside their many ideological convergences as emblematic of the exploratory, shifting moral landscape in which they wrote and campaigned, and of the multifarious notions of the modern sexual self they correspondingly produced.

Paper 2 Abstract: Sex in the Maltese Position: Dr Letitia Fairfield and Catholic Attitudes to Contraception before and after the Second World War

Alana Harris, King’s College London

In 1938 the Senior Medical Officer for the London County Council, Dr Letitia Fairfield, undertook a social-scientific mission to the then predominantly Catholic colony of Malta to examine the prevalence and prevention of the spread of venereal disease. It was a revelatory experience, leading the staunch Catholic convert to acknowledge, empirically, the link between overpopulation and poverty and thereby revisit her earlier opposition to birth control at home and throughout the Catholic world.

Honoured with a papal medal in 1965 for her services to the Church, and a regular commentator in the Catholic press on miracles, visionaries and stigmata, there is a marked tendency within the scant historiography discussing Fairfield (cf. her sister Rebecca West) to compartmentalize her public life and leftist politics from her faith, ethics and intense curiosity about the supernatural.

This paper seeks to interrogate the ways in which Fairfield integrated her feminist principles and Fabian networks with her continuing commitment to Roman Catholicism. Through the lens of her experiences in Malta, it examines her own ‘hierarchy of values’ cutting across gender, class, race and religion and the ways in which she theologised her shifting stance on contraception and the dictates of conscience.

In doing so, it also seeks to connect Fairfield’s experience to changing attitudes to contraception across a cross-section of the Catholic population in the 1940s. British Catholics, whether middle-class professionals or the more numerous working class, were not quarantined from the ‘democratization’ of sexual knowledge and a growing awareness of contraceptive practices in this period. Through these frameworks, this paper disrupts traditional chronologies that date the advent of a ‘modern sexual (Catholic) self’ to the sixties and demonstrates the diversity and malleability of Catholic attitudes to contraception well before the furore of Humanae Vitae (1968).

Paper 3 Abstract: Postsecular Blasphemy: Mary Whitehouse and the emergence of the liberal homosexual subject

Timothy W. Jones, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Historians of secularization have long been debating the rates and dates of de-Christianization in Britain. This focus on the history of religious decline, however, has elided the continued influence of religion in secularized societies. The relegation of religion to the ‘private’ in histories of secular societies has deprived us of an analytical language through which to understand religious difference and negotiate religious conflict. This elision has become increasingly problematic as secularized societies in Western Europe and Australasia attempt to deal with new Islamic movements in particular, but also conflicts between religious and sexual discrimination.

This paper explores Mary Whitehouse’s influence on sex in modern Britain. Whitehouse was a schoolteacher who became Britain’s most notorious morals campaigner. Concerned about the influence of mass culture, and particularly television, on public morality, Whitehouse founded the National Viewers and Listeners Association in 1965, and campaigned vigorously against sex and violence on television. She had a particular zeal to oppose permissiveness on the BBC, but also prosecuted her case against other the channels and the print media. Whitehouse is often presented as a crank, an anachronistic promoter of Victorian sexual repression in an era of sexual liberation. Her significance appears much greater, however, if we analyze her work through a postsecular lens. Whitehouse was part of the emergent transnational New Christian Right. Her campaigns influenced, mirrored and were directly linked to campaigns around the Anglophone world. An examination of her simultaneous prosecution of Gay News for blasphemy and her international campaign against child pornography reveals her role in the emergence of the liberal homosexual subject.

 

 

 

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