Manly rights and manly duties: sexuality and birth control in Flanders 1900-1940
EED working paper series 2012-2
Ghent, Ghent University
in Dutch with English abstract (2012)
During the first half of the twentieth century, discourses on distinct gendered sexual experiences were particularly powerful. Sexual lust was considered an invincible element of manly nature. Women had to channel this desire into permissible behavior: while they should not stimulate lust outside marriage, they were subjected to giving in to the manly rights within marriage. This encompasses a more general ideal of men as sexually active and women as passive recipients. In contrast, when it comes to the use of birth control, it is often assumed that women were the ones who took the initiative because the burden of large families weighed heavier on them. Before the existence of modern contraception however, women depended on the cooperation of their husbands since the most common ways to control fertility were temporary abstinence and coitus interruptus. In this perspective, family limitation occurs when women were in a position strong enough to convince the men. In Flanders, fertility levels dropped from about 1900. This creates an interesting paradox: at the moment when the emphasis on female sexual obedience was at its strongest, women´s negotiation power in the bed seems to have increased enormously. The answer to this apparent inconsistency may be found in a shift of focus from merely the content of the prevailing sexual ideologies to the way they were instructed to and experienced by common people. To this end, this paper analyses (1) how dominant discourses about sexuality were shaped into practical pedagogical literature for adolescents, (2) testimonies of men and women regarding sexual lust and inhibitions outside and within marriage and (3) their negotiation of the use of birth control methods. We argue that the ideal of male activeness versus female passiveness influenced the sexual practice and family planning of men and women in the first half of the twentieth century. When women were indeed more motivated than their partners to limit the family size, they exploited their passivity by faking sleep or illness. Yet, many couples agreed on family control. This suggests that the preferences of men and women alike had altered during this period. When this was the case, the use of contraceptive practices was considered the man´s duty: he was responsible for using coitus interruptus or purchasing of condoms. This shows that changing perceptions on family limitation were not necessarily linked with more egalitarian sexual experiences.