Between the covers
A historian's informative new book talks about sex - the Australian way.
Much has been written about the mores of the swinging sixties but how did society get to the point of sexual liberation?
That is the question Dr Lisa Featherstone has tackled in an ambitious research project tracking the history of sexuality in Australia during the first 60 years of the 20th century.
"People have this idea that sex was invented in the 1960s but of course it wasn't," Featherstone says. "There is surprising little broad history on sexuality in Australia and virtually nothing on the period prior to the sexual revolution that covers multiple and varied forms of sexual identity and practice so I saw that as a very open area for research."
Featherstone is a researcher stratigically aligned with the Centre for the History of Violence. The result of her most recent endeavour is the book Let's Talk About Sex: Histories of Sexuality in Australia from Federation to the Pill.
In it she moves through the decades analysing the ways sexuality is understood and practiced and how sexual behaviour is shaped by attitudes, regulation, prejudice and fears of disease, pregnancy and being ostracised.
Featherstone found that although attitudes to sex were quite conservative throughout the first part of the century, there was a disparity between what people talked about and what went on behind closed doors.
"People were quite prudish but it doesn't mean they weren't having sex," she says. "Around 1910 about one third of women who got married were already pregnant, so sex before marriage was going on."
Society's evolution towards sexual enlightenment takes place gradually over the period studied in the book, with Featherstone finding little evidence of radical shifts in public opinion.
"It's not always a neat history of progress," she says. "For gay men, for instance, the 1950s are worse that the 1930s because there is higher policing and surveillance of gay relationships, which are illegal, and you see people appearing in front-page exposes in the newspapers. But overall there is a movement to more liberal attitudes."
Even the sixties themselves come late to Australia - at least in a metaphorical sense.
"We don't really swing that much in the sixties," Featherstone says. "The sexual revolution doesn't really take hold here until the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"Even the arrival of the pill is received quite conservatively. Australian women are early adopters of the pill but they find it hard to get if they are not married. It is really aimed at married women who have completed their families, not single women who want more sexual freedom."
However, there are some deviations from the systematic advance towards the sexual revolution, notably the loosening of attitudes that comes with the influx of foreign soldiers in World War II. Featherstone notes that this shift puts the Church on the front foot in regard to issues of sexual behaviour.
"The Church says as little as it can about sexuality before then but when it starts to become obvious that pre-marital sex and abortion are becoming more commonplace, you start to see much stronger condemnation."
Featherstone expects to find a faster pace of social change in her next research project, which will look at sexuality in Australia beyond the advent of the pill. In the meantime, she hopes her book brings new perspective to contemporary conversations about sexuality.
"Not a day goes by where you don't see one of the issues discussed in this book being aired in the media, whether it is gay marriage, abortion, teenage sex or any one of a number of topics relating to sexuality," she says,
"Attitudes may have shifted, and mostly for the better, but we are still a long way from resolution and acceptance."