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Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution

Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution

by Sheila Jeffreys

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The sexual revolution of the 1960's and 1970's is generally considered a time when the women's movement made great strides. In this provocative book, Sheila Jeffreys argues that this much heralded sexual freedom did not constitute any real gain for women but continued the tradition of their oppression. At the root of sexual liberation, Jeffreys finds an increasing


The sexual revolution of the 1960's and 1970's is generally considered a time when the women's movement made great strides. In this provocative book, Sheila Jeffreys argues that this much heralded sexual freedom did not constitute any real gain for women but continued the tradition of their oppression. At the root of sexual liberation, Jeffreys finds an increasing eroticization of power differences within the heterosexual, lesbian, and gay communities.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Anticlimax is the most impressing and critical book that I have read in a long time. Jeffreys is clear, concise, smart, and critical and in all this incorporates a dark sense of humor that I truly appreciate. She delivers strong arguments that are difficult to disprove or argue against...Anticlimax is a great book to use in classroom settings and I wish it would have been mandatory reading in my Women's Studies classes or in the classes I took that discussed sexuality." —Elin Weiss, Metapsychology Online Reviews

Product Details

Spinifex Press
Publication date:
Spinifex Feminist Classics series
Edition description:
Second Edition, Second edition
Product dimensions:
4.80(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)

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A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution

By Sheila Jeffreys

Spinifex Press Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Sheila Jeffreys
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74219-807-1


THE 1950s

Marriage guidance and marital sex illustrate a central premise of Anticlimax: that the heterosexual couple embodies a relationship of power and control, rather than representing a consequence of nature, biology or sexual preference. The setting up of the Marriage Guidance Council, the work of sexologists and the development of sex therapy are all instances of how men's power over women was to be supported and managed through the regulation of marital sex.

Sex, in this scheme of things, was not a natural and spontaneous seeking after pleasure by men and women, but a regulatory mechanism designed and constructed to enforce male dominance and female submission. In the 1950s sex was hard work and sometimes an onerous duty. The job of keeping women in their place was not necessarily seen as fun. An examination of the 1950s shows the purpose that male-supremacist ideologues intended for sex without all the hype with which sex has been surrounded since the 1960s. The sexual revolution was to introduce a new language of liberation and pleasure which can befog the observer and make the political function of sexual intercourse less easy to spot. The joy of reading the sexological works of the 1950s is that they do reveal the naked power politics involved in marriage and sex. The Marriage Guidance Council was an organisation set up just after the Second World War with the task of regulating the political relationship of marriage and upholding men's power within it. The writings of its founders are particularly helpful to an understanding of the political function of marriage.


The Marriage Guidance Council was created in 1938, according to its first Secretary David Mace, when 'doctors, psychologists, parsons, social workers, teachers and others' came together because they thought 'there was something going wrong with marriage'. In 1942 Mace became Secretary and in 1943 three rooms were acquired in the West End of London. It wasn't until after the war that Marriage Guidance Councils began to proliferate around the country and marriage guidance as a phenomenon really got off the ground. Whatever concern there had been for the state of marriage before the war was amplified greatly afterwards. One source of anxiety was a sharp increase in the number of divorces.

In 1913 there were 577 divorce decrees granted in England, in 1936 4,000 and in 1945 20,000. H. E. Norman, formerly Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, writing in the 1949 book Sex in Social Life put together by Sybil Neville-Rolfe of the Social Hygiene Council, attributed the rise partly to changes in the law which had facilitated divorce and separation. When we look closely at the legislation it is clear that these were changes which enabled women to obtain divorce and separation more easily.

The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act had made it possible for men to obtain a divorce more easily, i.e. simply on the grounds of the wife's adultery. The Act was no great help to women, who had to prove bestiality, incest or some other 'unnatural' practice as well as adultery to get a divorce. The logic behind this discrepancy was stated to be the fact that adultery in a woman was more serious than in a man. An adulterous man, it was argued, would still know he was the father of his wife's children, but if a wife was adulterous there was no way of knowing. In 1923 divorce was made possible for wives simply on proof of adultery and as a result the number of applications for divorce shot up.

Between 1895 and 1925 what were called the Married Women's Acts gave power to magistrates to make separation orders and orders for maintenance. In 1937 two amending Acts widened the grounds and improved the facilities for divorce and set up special magistrates' courts with a simplified procedure for hearing applications for maintenance and separation orders. Every reform was followed by an increase in applications. It is clear that these reforms allowed women the possibility of getting out of abusive marriages and that women were swift to take advantage of them. Thus any lamentation by the male authorities about the breakdown of marriage in this respect must be seen as anxiety at women escaping the prisonhouse of marriage, and the resulting threat to male privilege.

But, Norman tells us, it was not just these legal reforms which accounted for the number of 'broken homes'. There was also an increase in population, and the unsettlement of the war which led to problems for women and men who had to adjust to partners they had not seen for years and may even have married in the romantic flush inspired by posting and never really known. Norman concludes:

... a great many marriages are not fulfilling their proper purpose and ... family life for a very large percentage of the rising generation must be so defective that the time is ripe for serious action to prevent further drift and hurt to the social health and security of the nation.

The Foreword to Sex in Social Life explained that the conditions of the Second World War had resulted in a serious breakdown in morality which led to the need for effective sex education: during the war 'there has been an exhibition of sexual incontinence and shameless conduct in our streets and lanes which must have shocked many more than just the old-fashioned Christians.' David Mace explained in his book Marriage Crisis that the war had made 'a havoc of family life'.

It was a pretty painful business – the evacuation of children, the life in the shelters, the black-out, the separation of husbands and wives, the frantic embarkation leave marriages, the have-a-good-time-tonight-because-you-may-get-bumped-off-tomorrow atmosphere.

Mace's Marriage Crisis is written in what was meant to be a popular style and has the tone of a friendly vicar giving a fireside chat to rather disillusioned parishioners about the necessity of keeping up the wartime spirit. It is genial and uses what he probably imagines to be a working class idiom. His other writings about marriage and Christianity are far more formal. The genial banter sometimes goes a little too far and strikes an entirely inappropriate note of levity as in this comment on Hitler, who is represented as a kind of naughty teddy boy.

Take Hitler, for instance. What a whole heap of trouble and misery he and his crowd caused! We all knew he was half mad. But why was he like that? ... some people say it was his bad upbringing that made him such a fanatic, and that he might have been a better man if he had been brought up in a normal happy home. The same thing could be said about all the other little Hitlers who make life so awkward for many of us.

This was an appeal hard to resist. The importance of stable marriages was clear if they could help prevent genocidal dictatorships.

In 1948 the Family Discussion Bureau was set up to do social casework in marital problems, after an approach to the Tavistock Institute by the Family Welfare Association. The reasons given for its inception once again stress the disruption caused by the war to marriage and morals. But even before the war 'the nation was becoming increasingly anxious about the number of homes broken by separation and divorce'. This situation was exacerbated by 'wartime stresses' and the answer was an expansion of the 'national social services' which were concerned with 'maternal and emotional well-being'.

Also in 1948 a government body, the Harris Committee, recommended a grant for marriage counselling services to go to the Family Welfare Association, the Marriage Guidance Council and the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. The government and the burgeoning social services were now to take a direct role in keeping marriages stable, a task which appears on close examination to mean making sure the wife remains obedient as a servant and handmaid to her husband and children and does not think of making a break for independence. The state is here involved directly in the maintenance of male dominance and privilege at the domestic level.

Through all the sound and fury about weakened morals and marriage breakdown during and after the war there is a clear note of fear about women's independence. It was women, after all, liberated from individual husbands while the men were away, and endowed often with financial independence from war work whether single or married, who were in a position to exercise their new freedom in 'immorality'. The theme of hostility to women's emancipation is clear and strong in the early literature on marriage guidance.

Joseph Brayshaw of the Marriage Guidance Council cites a great list of reasons for marriage breakdown such as decline in religious observance, separation in the war years, shortage of homes, the false values of films, but concludes that there is one underlying reason behind all of these. The reason is the 'equality' of women.

I shall probably court misunderstanding if I state my thesis bluntly; but in truth it is the new equality of women with man that has led inevitably to the disruption, for the present, of stable marriage and family life. Lest this sound as if I were some old buffer in side-whiskers and drainpipe trousers lamenting that things are not what they were in Queen Victoria's day, let me say that I believe strongly in the essential equality of the sexes. It has, however, far wider social implications than have so far been generally recognised.

What was it that kept marriage stable in the time before women's equality? According to Brayshaw it was the unquestioned dictatorship of the husband and father in the home. Brayshaw invites us to look at 'Grandfather's day' when the father was the clear dictator in the family and the wife had few choices because she could not just go out and get a job. The problem for marriage in the 1940s was that women would openly disagree with their husbands. 'Husband and wife, as equals, must somehow agree upon scores of matters that were not open to discussion by their grandparents ... obviously there is far more chance of disagreement when there are far more things to be settled jointly.' He states that achieving 'a democratic sharing of responsibility' in place of 'dictatorship' in the family 'can only be achieved by the attainment of a certain level of education and responsibility'. He proposes a general theory that: 'Whenever you get the equality of women emerging in law or in custom, there you get increased breakdown of marriage.'

So what was the solution? If the problem was men being unable to cope with women challenging their authority then an answer might have been to educate men to their role as equals – to reconcile them to their loss of power. This is not the solution that the MGC opted for. To Brayshaw the new equality of women was a fairly unmitigated disaster as he makes clear in this comment on the Roman Empire.

The only other time in the whole of history when women enjoyed equality with men was in the later days of Rome; and there it may well have contributed to their disasters. The rich ceased to have children, and standards of loyalty and morality decayed. The equality of the sexes may be a means to good or ill; it is not an end in itself.

It does not seem that he had any real doubt as to whether good or ill might result. This fascinating myth, whereby women's equality or sexual promiscuity is supposed to have led to the downfall of Rome, is frequently reiterated by men who tremble before the possibility of women's emancipation. They could think of nothing to compare with the aftermath of the end of male supremacy save the downfall of what they regarded as civilisation and centuries of 'dark ages'.

David Mace also sees the problem of marriage breakdown as being caused by women's equality. Like Brayshaw he sees 'patriarchal marriage' as being under threat.

What it all comes to is that men and women are now to count as equals. The idea that the man is superior and the woman inferior has had to be scrapped. Women are entitled to the same rights and privileges as men ... This is all very well; but it has been bad for family life.

He uses the word 'family' here as a euphemism for men's power and privilege. The fact that women were no longer seen as 'inferior' was doubtless not a bad thing for women so the family clearly meant men and perhaps children. This is a common use of the word family by sexologists, sociologists and the legal system. How was the Marriage Guidance Council to help? The MGC was to construct a new workable pattern for marriage because: 'It's a particular pattern of marriage and the family that is breaking down. And the reason we're in such a mess is because we haven't yet worked out another pattern to take its place.' The way this worked in practice becomes clear when we look at case studies of marriage guidance. We can then see how counselling could tinker with the husband/wife relationship so as to bolster the man's power and subordinate the woman.

The case studies that follow are taken from the Family Discussion Bureau. One woman was sent by a hospital complaining that her husband's emotionally abusive behaviour had damaged her health. Her husband 'sometimes didn't speak to her for weeks and had built up unbearable barriers between them'. The counsellor's response was to undermine the woman's sense of reality by manipulation so that the woman came to admit that she was actually to blame for her behaviour towards her husband.

The worker suggested that the client felt very uncertain about herself, and was really very worried and unhappy about her behaviour towards her husband. She replied immediately, 'I know I am making him feel inferior and that I get at him whenever he says anything.' And with that, she looked for the first time fully at the worker and became friendly and co-operative.

The counsellors simply did not hear women's reasonable complaints about male behaviour. The women were directed to blame and change themselves in every case. One young woman complained of her husband's offensive sexual behaviour including his 'perverted and inordinate sexual demands when he was drunk, his enuresis, his "dirty-mindedness" ...' The counsellor described the woman as having 'poured out a tearful story' and clearly did not believe it. Instead she sought to 'show her [the client] ... how anxious she seemed for the worker to recognise the positive side of her attachment to her husband'.

In another case the worker adjusted the husband and the wife to a stereotyped version of heterosexuality, i.e. fetishised masculinity and femininity. The wife became more submissive and the husband's authority was restored. Here it seems the husband may actually have married his wife for her spirit or 'boyishness' but once married wanted his privilege of unquestioned power.

[Mr C] ... a rather disturbed person with homosexual tendencies. He had married a very boyish girl ... Mrs C seemed to be very immature as well as boyish, humiliated by her feminine position, and unable to accept it, sulky and resentful towards her husband ... Mrs C made astonishing moves towards femininity. She began to make clothes for herself and her child, to have her hair permed and generally to look prettier ...

The restoration of a male-supremacist status quo seems to have been achieved in each case through therapeutic techniques which the wives were not sufficiently familiar with to resist. Sex was the secret weapon for these new marriage counsellors. They understood that woman's pleasure in sexual intercourse facilitated her subordination, and sex advice and sex therapy became important tools in their struggle to maintain male power.


The marriage guidance counsellors, sexologists and all those writing sex advice literature in the postwar world used the rhetoric of women's equality. They spoke as if women's emancipation had been achieved and it was their onerous duty to clear up the few little inconveniences this had caused, and help adjust society to the new situation. What was the new equality that these writers had in mind? The new equality was an ideology of separate but 'equal' development, a kind of sexual apartheid. Women and men were said to have entirely different roles in society because they were different physically and mentally. David Mace expressed it thus:

... although men and women are equal as persons that doesn't alter the fact that there's a lot of differences between them. The woman may be able to turn out as much work as the man. But just because she's a woman, she won't feel the same way about it as the man does ...

The popular sexologist, Eustace Chesser, explains the equal-but-different line in terms of woman's reproductive function:

Few rational commentators would find it difficult 'to agree that, in general, the sexes should be regarded as equal, but different. It is impossible to arrive at any other conclusion than that woman holds a much more important position than man, has higher functions to perform, and is, indeed, Nature's chosen sex for the carrying out of her purposes in the world.


Excerpted from Anticlimax by Sheila Jeffreys. Copyright © 2011 Sheila Jeffreys. Excerpted by permission of Spinifex Press Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sheila Jeffreys is author of The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880-1930 (1985) and editor of The Sexuality of Debates.

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