Sex and the Industrial 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.

'The Reapers', a hand-coloured mezzotint of 1809. British MuseumSexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Something of the sexual revolution of the 1960s is captured in Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’ from his collection High Windows (1974). His pithy lament resonates because it captures an elemental truth. The advent of the contraceptive pill did transform sexual behaviour. Since the 1960s ever more children have been born out of wedlock and the soaring divorce rate has begun to slow only because so few now tie the knot at all. For social conservatives the sexual revolution proved a mixed blessing indeed.

But the 1960s was not in fact the only sexual watershed in modern British history. Two centuries earlier the Industrial Revolution also catalysed a transformation in the way in which men and women came together. The new sexual freedoms that followed rapid industrialisation were more modest than those of the 1960s. But they should still be recognised as an important stepping stone on the road to modernity.

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