The first sexual revolution

Two centuries before the Swinging Sixties the weakening of social customs caused by the Industrial Revolution led to a modest transformation in people’s sexual behaviour, says Emma Griffin in an essay from a few months ago, Sex and the Industrial Revolution.

Women in the factory districts drove the rise in illegitimacy during the Industrial Revolution, but we should not conclude that they were experiencing some kind of early sexual emancipation. Without effective contraception sexual activity usually led swiftly to pregnancy and raising a child on one small income was anything but liberating for the women concerned. Yet, if sex outside marriage was not particularly liberating, it certainly was a symptom of how the Industrial Revolution undermined older forms of social control. Before the mid-18th century poverty had controlled young people’s sexual behaviour and steered them away from sexual intercourse until they were ready in the eyes of their neighbours to marry, set up house and raise a family. The young men and women of the factory districts did not show this kind of deference to social norms. They made decisions about when to start a family that tied in with their own wishes, rather than obeying what their community dictated. Seen in this light it becomes possible to understand the true complexity and significance of the Industrial Revolution. As well as ushering in new working patterns, industrialisation raised the incomes of the poor just enough to permit them to make meaningful decisions about their own life. As such, it was a vital step towards the sexual revolution of more recent times.

I think a job in the factory in town offered more opportunities for privacy during one’s free time than did life in a small farming community where everyone knew everyone else and their business, and where single women were surrounded by their families most of the time. Before the industrial revolution single motherhood was almost unheard of. Prior to the Industrial Revolution I doubt at novelist could have made a story about a single mother into a best seller as did Charles Dickens with Little Doritt, the story of a mother whose common law husband had abandoned her, and which was based upon the real life experience of Caroline Thompson. Likewise the character of Fantine and her daughter Cossette in Victor Hugo’s 19th Century novel Les Miserables would have seemed preposterous a century earlier.

The Victorians are said to have been sexual prudes, although that is questionable.  But if they were it may have been a response to the new phenomenon of unwed motherhood in Britain.

Emma Griffin is professor of Modern British History at East Anglia University and is the author of Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution. Liberty, like everything, has its own twists. It frees people to pursue their own path in life, whether for better or for worse.

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