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Last Updated: Friday, 30 September 2005, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Britain's secret sex survey
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

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The Kinsey Report of 1948 famously lifted the lid on American sexual behaviour. But when a similar study was conducted in Britain the following year, the findings were so outrageous they were suppressed. Only now have they been revealed.

The late poet Philip Larkin, who could always be relied on to expose some awkward home truths about British life, once declared that "sexual intercourse began in 1963".

His poem Annus Mirabilis famously links the start of the sexual revolution with the "Beatles' first LP". But the results of a survey into sexual attitudes and behaviour, conducted 14 years earlier, reveal the British had developed a hearty lust for sexual experimentation. Only, no one would openly discuss it.

In these liberated times, when sex is almost a constant undercurrent of everyday life, it's hard to imagine how much of a taboo sex once was.

Yet when a group of young researchers set out to probe British sexual behaviour in 1949 their findings were considered so outrageous they were instantly swept under the carpet; banished to the archives of a university.

Only now, more than 50 years on, have the results come to light, revealed in a new BBC programme. The findings show that the prim and proper fašade of post-war Britain hid some remarkable truths about sexual attitudes and experience.

Rose Hacker
Rose Hacker: "Many men were impotent, seeing their wives as pure"
One in four men admitted to having had sex with prostitutes, one in five women owned up to an extra-marital affair, while the same proportion of both sexes said they had had a homosexual experience.

Dubbed Little Kinsey, after the groundbreaking Kinsey Report into the secret sex lives of American men in 1948, this was the UK's first nationwide sex survey. And it went a step further than its American counterpart by including women among its respondents.

The study was the idea of a group of young social anthropologists called Mass Observation. Ten years earlier, in 1939, they had begun secretly recording the sexual behaviour of Northern mill workers by snooping on them during their week's holiday in Blackpool.

It was highly invasive, but all part of the group's plan to document and understand ordinary people's lives.

The 1949 study was vastly more ambitious, employing 24 full-time observers and 450 volunteers. But before they could get to asking the awkward questions, they first had to win the confidence of potential interviewees.

One of the original Little Kinsey questionnaires

Each had their own tactics, but it could start with striking up a friendly, innocuous conversation with a stranger in the High Street.

"It was very difficult in those days to talk about anything at all," recalls Rose Hacker, one of the researchers. Now 99, she is Britain's oldest sex therapist.

"I remember a woman coming to me again and again... for a weekly meeting... then she'd go away and at the last minute say 'Well, I haven't told you what I really want to tell you...' She had a terrible phobia about sex."

Although the ideal of the virgin bride pervaded in those days, more than half of those interviewed admitted to having had pre-marital sex.

Yet with only basic contraception such as washable condoms available, and widespread ignorance about sex in general, many women risked getting pregnant. Indeed, Little Kinsey revealed that in the 1940s, one in three pregnancies were conceived before marriage.

Men's reluctance to use birth control - the Pill had not been invented - meant married women often feared their husbands, who saw sex as a marital right.

"My husband accused me of being cold, but he knew little of the passionate longing I felt," said one of the anonymous respondents. "If only he'd made love to me instead of using me like a chamber pot."

Dr Hera Cook
People could go on denying pre-marital sex existed, that men had homosexual experiences and went to prostitutes
Dr Hera Cook on the suppression of Little Kinsey
The combination of such repressed attitudes and couples being forced into wedlock, led to many long, unhappy, or at the very least, "sufferable", marriages.

Men and women resorted to adulterous affairs and men to prostitutes, with whom they could act out the sort of fantasies they could never tell their wives about.

Many men had become accustomed to using prostitutes during the war - one in four questioned admitted to having had sex with one.

"In some ways it's a good thing," said one interviewee, a married RAF pilot. "You get people who are not suited but can make a happy family apart from the matter of sex so he goes somewhere to satisfy his lust."

Rose Hacker believes the stifling reticence about all things sexual meant "a great many men were impotent" in marriage.

They saw their wives as pure, but could have sex with a prostitute who would fit any bill they wanted to design for her, she says. "They could abuse her or they could have any kind of kinky sex or use bad language and that was the only way that they could be potent."

Dancehall
Researchers tested women's virtue by chatting them up at dances
The war too is thought to have contributed to the high number of homosexual experiences logged in the survey. One in five respondents - male and female - had had one, a higher number than today. This, at a time, when homosexuality was both illegal and an utter taboo in most circles.

"I think that's a terrible thing," said one female interviewee, "really I can't describe it, it makes me feel embarrassed to be near anyone, like that."

Yet it was these sort of inhibitions that saw Little Kinsey's findings mothballed before they could be published. Although the Sunday Pictoral, which helped finance it, ran a few pieces in the summer of 1949, the bulk of the findings were too shocking and dangerous to be made public.

The effect, says sexologist Dr Hera Cook, only perpetuated people's discomfort about sex.

"That meant that people could go on denying pre-marital sex existed," she says, "that men had homosexual experiences, that they went to prostitutes, that the old sexual morality was still intact when in fact it was crumbling all around them and a new modern sex world was emerging."

Little Kinsey will be shown on BBC Four on Wednesday 5 October, at 2200 BST.


Your comments:

Why do people find this so surprising? I can see no reason to think that people in the 1940s would have different sexual desires to people today, or for example to people in medieval times, or to the ancient greeks. Humans have not changed for many thousands of years and will not change for many thousands more.
James, London, UK

Nothing changes, in 1994 Margaret Thatcher's government refused to fund the study "Sexual Behaviour in Britain, The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes & Lifestyles" because they didn't like the results. This would have been suppressed had it not been for the Wellcome Foundation providing funds.
JP, London, England

My nan reguarly gets tipsy at christmas and proceeds to inform the entire family about all the american soldiers she 'had' during the war. As she puts it 'Well I could have died the next day'.
Darren, UK

My Great Aunt, admited that the sight of the officers caps lined up on the table at the back of the church, when my brother got married remined her of what a good war she had. This comment made no sence until I read the books by Mary Wesly. Never again will I look at the women lined up in the post office collecting their pension in the same way!
Rachel, England

And they say that the country has been becoming more sex-obbsessed since the war. Yes, we do talk about sex a lot now, and regardless of what the Armerican neo-conservatives and religious right tell us, were probably all much happier and healthier as a result.
Arthur Plant, Greenock, UK

One of the most interesting experience of my adolescence was to listen to a conversation of few mothers. They were all in a 'happy' marriage, teaching their children about moral and about sex after marriage. And there they were, gathered in the hall of my building to collect the mail, and saying "if I had to go back, I will not marry. I will be a single mother." I was really shocked and also pleasantly amused to see that all my friend's mother married because pregnant. Anna
Anna, Italy

I don't find this surprising at all. Next we'll be finding out that the general population likes to take drugs as well, and that it's not restricted to some sort of underclass. Unless, of course, that gets swept under the carpet for 50 years.
Mark, Brit in Germany

This news is interesting but needs to be treated with circumspection. After all, despite the media's hype around the American Kinsey report, it fails to meet modern standards for qualitative and quantitative statistical research, and reveals serious bias. Kinsey's report has been fairly thoroughly discredited by decades of more recent research in similar fields, showing that his findings were exaggerated, inflated or fraudulent.
Jonathan, South Africa

So what's changed since then? Most men still hide their homosexual experiences and their experiences with prostitutes. I'm secretly bisexual and the few times I have visited a prostitute I had my most relaxed sex with a woman. My male partners are few and far between because of the stigma still attached to it by my friends.
anony, uk

It is always fascinating to see the chasm between popular perceptions and reality, especially when it comes to heavily emotive subjects like sex. As my grandmother often observed, "There's nothing new under the sun."
Kaz, Briton in NJ, USA

I think the british are still too hung up on sex and are very closed minded. Only this last year my son had a lesson at school (aged 13) and was told that pornography is responsible for rapes and similar sex crime. Luckily my son is more broadminded than his teachers and told us over dinner that evening. My wife, son and I have never laughed as much. The more serious side of this issue is that there are now children out there who are believing that they are somehow sexual perverts if they find films and magazines sexually stimulating. I wonder what their future holds. Are the British sexually suppressed - the answer is definitely yes. However we are getting better.
Greg, preston uk

Very interesting Yet another example of the establishment's paranoia about publishing a controversial document while the Americans did publish Kinsey. Has anything changed in the last 50 yrs?
jack, UK

Next they will be finding out that society used to drink to much then, there were ruthless violent crimes that there was not enough police to manage the crime so much of it went un reported, in fact the only thing thats really different to the "good old days" is that now society is much more honest about what really goes on so people can't pretend it's not perfect and never will be.
Les Ruddick, UK

Some of the comments are heartbreakingly sad. Relationships - platonic or sexual - are such an important part of our life. Thank goodness we are moving away from this, albeit slowly.
Janet, USA/Scotland

Interesting! Very interesting, I've always wondered about the old-fashioned attitudes towards sex and how Britain came to be sexually repressed for a while.
Clive, UK

I love this. Next time my Grandma says "Back in my day..." I will find it very hard not to bring it up. I'd love to but I fear the shock would kill her. But then according to this maybe she's not as innocent as I think.
Richard, England

Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.


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