Angus McLaren is well-known for his significant contributions to the history of reproduction, gender and sexuality - Birth Control in Nineteenth Century England, A History of Contraception, Reproductive Rituals, A Prescription for Murder, The Trials of Masculinity and many more. This present study sets out to locate the sexual debates of the end of the millennium within their longer-term context - as he cogently remarks, these debates are often 'historically impoverished' and 'unaware of the genealogy of the discussion' (p. 2). It is a mammoth task, especially as he includes not only North America (where surely enough has happened during the century about to pass to be sufficiently daunting to the synthesising historian) but Britain and continental Europe as well. McLaren however does not lump these together into a homogenous mass of undifferentiated 'twentieth-century sexual culture': while dealing with over-arching historical trends in common rather than differences, he is aware of the particular national traditions and idiosyncrasies which have inflected developments in different countries.
As always, the book is stuffed full of goodies in the form of little-known facts and events and provocative and stimulating interpretations, in McLaren's usual readable style. It elucidates the trajectory of changing sexual attitudes and mores over a broad front, registering both changes and the (sometimes occluded) continuities.
Having said this - and there is a good deal to be got out of this book - it does not come entirely up to the standard that one expects from its distinguished author. It may be quibbling to cavil, but there are a number of minor though irritating inaccuracies and omissions concerning the British scene. The body founded by an alliance of feminists and doctors concerned about VD in 1914 (not 1915), was the National Council for Combatting Venereal Diseases, not the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, formerly Josephine Butler's Ladies' National Association to Repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts. Birth control was certainly not included within the National Health Service in 1948: contraceptive services were only fully incorporated in 1974. The take-up of vasectomy in the UK in the 1970s somewhat undercuts the assumption that following the advent of the Pill men were relinquishing contraceptive responsibility. The relatively early legalisation of abortion in the UK is not mentioned, nor the fact that in 1991 after two decades of struggle the 1967 Steel Act was essentially confirmed rather than restricted, in spite of the 'family values' agenda of the Thatcher government then in power. Domestic violence towards women (including sexual violence) was rediscovered in the 1970s rather than a new issue, having been a major concern of the nineteenth century women's movement. While none of these instances seriously militates against the general argument, such blips are distracting.
In the later chapters there is sometimes a feeling that McLaren was desperately trying to cram everything in, leading to rather odd juxtapositions of issues and chronological elisions (always a problem in a vast overview of this nature), and, more than in earlier sections, something of a sense that North America is the focus with Britain and Europe tacked on.
Partly the problem is that there is just so much to deal with, there are so many aspects to sexuality in the twentieth century. This may have been the case in earlier epochs also, but seldom does there survive the vast array of resources in a wide variety of media, telling different stories and needing different interpretative strategies, which the historian cannot help but be aware of, even when taking the decision to delineate certain boundaries within which the study can practicably be contained.
There are real strengths to Twentieth-Century Sexuality: A History. McLaren does not try to simplify the complex story into what might be a more elegant, but also a misleading, narrative structure. Indeed he cautions against too ready an acceptance of simplistic scenarios and assuming that apparent similarities across time and culture mean sameness. In particular he warns against a 'unilinear and self-congratulatory' assumption of an evolution from obscurantism to enlightenment (without therefore glorifying the sexual worlds that we have lost) (p. 221). He emphasises the ways in which 'sex was not a natural act [but] continuously shaped and regulated' (p.223), perpetually generating stories and being influenced by them.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London