Youth, sexuality and courtship in Scotland, 1945-80
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The decades following the Second World War witnessed a number of important developments affecting young people’s relationships and sexual lives, including the expansion of sex education initiatives and access to reliable contraception. The period has been heralded by some as one of ‘sexual revolution’, led by a rebellious youth whose views and practices were markedly different from those of their parents. This thesis examines the perspectives of young people growing up through these changes in Scotland, uncovering personal perceptions of their impact, or lack thereof, on their own emerging sexual lives. Whilst extant historical studies of sexuality in Scotland have focused on official perspectives and sexual governance, this thesis contributes to a history of sexuality ‘from below’, exploring the experiences of an untapped majority during a time of great change in heterosexual culture. Drawing on a series of oral history interviews with men and women growing up in various regions of Scotland between 1945 and 1980, evaluated alongside memoirs and contemporary surveys of sexual and contraceptive behaviour, this thesis examines the meanings and significance these developments held for young people in practice. These highly personal and subjective sources are key to understanding how young people learned about sexual matters, developed their ideas of appropriate conduct, and managed their early relationships and sexual behaviour. This research uncovers a piecemeal process of sexual learning against an atmosphere of mystery and shame, where educational initiatives and conversations on the topic were not necessarily comfortable or informative. Though growing numbers of young people were engaging in sexual activity outwith marriage, the illicit atmosphere they absorbed while growing up impacted on their perceptions of acceptable behaviour, and their ability to manage risk effectively and experience sex without anxiety. This was a time of flux for Scottish youth, who had to negotiate a path between traditional and liberal pressures, with resilient continuities evident in the form of rigidly gendered scripts defining appropriate behaviour, which continued to inform young people’s courtship practices and sexual experiences throughout the period. Interviewees detailed ongoing practical difficulties, for instance in obtaining contraception, alongside longstanding cultural concerns including the importance of reputation. Risk and fear of pregnancy remained preeminent throughout, despite the arrival of new options for young women in the form of the pill (latterly made available to the unmarried) and legal abortion. Gender, class, religion and region were all potentially significant in determining one’s experience of these issues. In all, the sources analysed here challenge conventional depictions of ‘sexual revolution’ and a confident, rebellious youth, with many interviewees feeling that the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was something that happened elsewhere. Changing patterns of behaviour were evident, but this was neither sudden nor revolutionary, and conventional attitudes to sex and relationships still held remarkable currency for many young people, with a clear separation of sex, marriage and childbearing only gaining ground from the later 1970s.