The Sexual Woman of the Post-War Popular Press
Michelle Tessmann | University of Reading
“If you are a full woman, you are bursting with sexual appetite.”
These are the words that the Sun proclaimed in October 1970 when it reported on the recent publication of Joan Terry Garrity’s The Sensuous Woman. As the book by the American author had been No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks, and received international appraisal, the Sun dedicated a twelve-part series to the sex manual and Joan Garrity’s belief that she could teach 'every woman' how 'to experience a full, fulfilling and joyous sex life'. Pointing to herself as the primary example of how to turn a rather plain woman into ‘the’ sensuous woman of the decade, Garrity advertised that every woman, whatever her looks, would become sexually irresistible by reading her book and following her teachings. In the Sun series, Garrity gave readers tips on how to drive one’s man to 'ecstasy' and how to turn one’s body into an 'erotic instrument'. Her 'sexercises', as she referred to them, ranged from moving one’s pelvis and bottom 'as if they were loaded with ball-bearings' and learning how to listen to the man’s body rhythm and sexual style, to tongue-training for better lovemaking, and how to touch oneself with a feather or piece of fur to awaken one’s sexual senses. These ‘sexercises’ were all directed towards training one’s true sexuality for the benefit of a satisfying marriage: 'Pin up your bed, your mirror, your wall, a sign saying: we women were designed to delight, excite, and satisfy the male of the species. Real women know this.' While the focus on marriage and a happy husband as the recipients of women’s sexual awakening could not be described as part of women’s post-war emancipation, Garrity’s book, and the Sun series, nevertheless presented a new phase of British post-war popular culture: the acknowledgement of and subsequent focus on female sexuality.
Late 1960s Britain witnessed the emergence of the permissive society and the sexual revolution: the liberalisation of censorship in theatre, the arts, and television of the mid-1960s had allowed for more a progressive outlook on many topics.The popular press started to express and promulgate the belief that British society had fundamentally changed, and that the previous moral traditions that ruled the country for decades were being abandoned by new ideas and concepts of permissiveness. Sex and sexuality slowly moved from the hidden private realm that took place in the comforts of marriage and the home into the sphere of the public – openly debated, promoted, and advertised in mainstream media and popular culture. The contraceptive pill was one of the deciding factors in not only bringing about the new freedoms for women, but also introducing the path towards a more progressive and liberal perspective about sex. Introduced in 1961 for married women only, by 1967 unmarried women gained access to the contraceptive device, before it became available free of charge on the NHS in 1975. While the usage of condoms continued to be extremely popular throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the pill offered an alternative to men’s contraceptive dominance. For the first time, women were able to decide if and when they wanted to reproduce. After its introduction, demand for the pill increased rapidly: while in 1969 approx. one million women used the pill as their choice of contraception, by 1976 this number had more than tripled to 3.2 million. Hand in hand with the permissive society, and the introduction of the contraceptive pill, was the emergence of sexual consumerism in Western cultures. When Garrity argued she could teach women to awaken their sexuality, she was drawing on common assumptions within popular culture that many women were uneducated on sexual matters and that their sex lives were therefore unsatisfying.
Sexology and sex research had first become prominent in the late 1950s and early 1960s in America, where famous US therapists, such as Alfred Kinsey, as well as William Masters and Virginia Johnson, conducted the first studies into sexuality and sexual pleasures. They were the first who revealed the variety of human sexual experience and the physiology of human sexual response, and their works were widely read and known. Out of their research emerged the notion of improving one’s sex life.By the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, going to sex therapists or sex counselling (as well as reading sex manuals)started to be promoted and advertised as the ultimate solution to a frustrating sex life. Newspapers regularly covered the opening of sex counselling clinics in the UK or interviewed sex therapists and their views of the sex lives of British citizens. Next to Joan Garrity’s book, other sex manuals of the late 1960s and 1970s that were widely read and discussed within the popular press included the Hite Report- as well as probably the most famous sex manual, The Joys of Sex by Alex Comfort. Comfort’s book, which he himself described as a 'Cordon Bleu' and 'gourmet' approach to sex, received particular attention due to the many sketches of naked couples in various sex positions. Even British television engaged with the new interest in sex studies with TV programmes such as Sex Therapy – the newest profession on the BBC. Consequently, the consumers of 1970s British popular press and culture were rigorously introduced and directed towards the importance and quality of their sex lives.
In the midst of the emerging permissive society, Rupert Murdoch entered the stage of the British popular press. Born into an Australian newspaper dynasty, Murdoch’s interests in media and the press were evident from the start. Prior to his move to England, he rebuilt and expanded the tiny newspaper empire he had inherited from his father by buying more papers, expanding into Australian television, and launching Australia’s first national daily. While the profits were small, they allowed him to set his eyes on the British popular press. In 1968, he got his long-awaited chance to get his foot into the British newspaper market: the weekend tabloid News of the World, weakened by an internal feud between the two intertwined families who owned the paper, was facing a take-over and Murdoch – still unknown in Britain - jumped right in. Only a few months later he set his eyes on the declining Sun, which was facing closure due to its ailing circulation numbers, and he bought the paper for almost nothing. After the acquisitions, Murdoch fired most of the existing staff, restructured and relaunched both tabloids. His rather abrupt entrance into the British newspaper market, and the following relaunches, would not only allow Murdoch to make a name for himself on the international stage but would also transform the landscape of the British popular press forever.
In the first week of the relaunched Sun, Murdoch’s editorial team loudly proclaimed that 'the permissive society is not an opinion. It is a fact' and introduced the tabloid as a paper for the youth and the promotion of a liberated lifestyle. Murdoch and his editors redefined acceptable journalistic topics and norms. Sex and sexualised coverage became the backbone of the Sun. Articles such as a page-long sex IQ test on contraception, orgasms, and sexual pleasure became as common as advertisements of sex manuals. The Sun thereby presented sex as all-present and often connected it to trivial and everyday topics with articles such as ‘what’s wrong with sex before soccer?’, where the author looked at the different athletic performances of British soccer players in relation to their marital status and the regularity of their sexual encounters. Regularly, these articles were accompanied by pictures of half-naked women. The best-known visualisation of sex in the Sun was the page-three girl, which was such a success that other papers followed suit throughout the 1970s. Even though the tabloid discontinued these pictures of topless girls in 2015, by then the pin-up girl had become an integral part of the tabloid’s identity. While the Sun was not the only paper of the day that adapted to and covered the permissive society, it was by far the loudest and most hedonistic. Thus, when the Sun dedicated a twelve-part long series on Garrity’s sex manual and loudly described it as the book that 'could change your life [and] save your marriage', it might have shocked many readers of the tabloid, yet it was not the last nor the most shocking push by a proprietor or editor of the popular press towards a more permissive popular culture.
Cofield, Laura, Ben Mechen, Matthew Worley, ‘History from the top shelf: the cultural politics of sex in postwar Britain’, Contemporary British History, 36. 2 (2022), pp. 165-173.
Mechen, Ben, “Instamatic living rooms of sin’: pornography, participation and the erotics of ordinariness in the 1970s’, Contemporary British History, 36. 2 (2022), pp. 174-206.
Bingham, Adrian, Family Newspapers? Sex, private life and the British popular Press, 1918 – 1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Bingham, Adrian, Gender, Modernity and the popular press in inter-war Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004).
Michelle Tessmann is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Reading, whose work focuses on post-war British popular culture and the challenging of gender norms. Her current research project explores the portrayal of women and womanhood in post-war British popular press. She holds a MPhil in Modern British History from the University of Cambridge and a MSc in Human Rights from LSE. She is interested in all forms of women’s history and women’s rights.