Author: Marc Reynebeau
'About bad girls and lustful boys: sex between the two world wars – No-one wants to know how his parents or grandparents did ‘it’, but historians do. One hundred years ago there existed a great fear of sex, certainly amongst young people, certainly amongst girls. Everywhere there was the danger of moral decline.
Fourteen-year-old Eugenie, a greengrocer’s daughter from Deurne (near Antwerp) asked her new boyfriend Gaston, a carpenter five years her senior, in the Summer of 1934 to go cycling to the woods. Two days long their mothers didn’t hear of them and they called in the police – a disappearance. But when the two appeared again, there didn’t seem anything bad the matter. Or was there anyway? Because what had the two been doing in that wood?
Eugenie and Gaston admitted it very quickly: they hadn’t stuck to only holding hands in the forest. And that was a problem, because Eugenie was only fourteen. By having sex with her Gaston had made himself automatically guilty of ‘assault on the honour’ of Eugenie. That at least was what the law on the protection of children of 1912 determined: it had increased the minimum age for girls to consent to sex or sexual contact from fourteen to sixteen.
But maybe little Eugenie wasn’t so innocent as the ideal of the asexual child? That question at least is what the deputy head-commissioner asked himself when he researched the case. The law of 1912 had resulted from the apprehension in the bourgeois circles of the middle-class Catholic leaders of the country then. They had seen an increasing moral decline around them, certainly in the cities, certainly amongst the lowest classes of the population, certainly amongst the young.
Mainly young girls were not expected to be any good. The law criminalised their sexuality and found support for that idea in the medical sciences. Those couldn’t warn enough for sexual diseases that didn’t only harm the health of the girls themselves, but also threatened the health of their sexual partners and their children, and could even endanger ‘the race’. But they were mostly the ultimate proof of moral decline.
Although boys equally suffered from STDs they were only searched for actively in girls. The apprehension to them also comes across in the enforcing of the law. Where boys were mostly brought to the juvenile court for theft, girls were brought there for ‘bad sexual behaviour’, often for prostitution. And much more often than boys they were shipped of to ‘an institution’ for the purpose of re-education.
So the distrustful deputy head-commissioner hasted to the school of Eugenie, to the Grey Nuns. And yes, they told him that Eugenie ‘was often dreamy during classes and very common and low on morals. She is also madly in love with all boys and from this point of view she is, for her age, very developed.’ The policeman took his decision very quickly: ‘If there is still anything good to come from this child,’ thus he noted in his report, ‘then it will be possible only by locking her up in a special institution until the age of majority.’
What had happened between the two and how they themselves dealt with it – because their story has not been told fully yet – gives an accurate picture of the sexual norms in the past. But, although sex tickles the imagination, up until now historians often left the subject to itself [at least in Belgium]. The scientific magazine Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Nieuwste Geschiedenis (BTNG) (Belgian Magazine for Newest History [after WWII]) has just published an issue dedicated to just sex, which also features the story of Gaston and Eugenie.
The issue mainly talks about the first half of the twentieth century. That moment is the main focal point of current research. It is a period of sexual repression (and, not coincidentally, a period when women still did not have the right to vote for example [at least in Belgium]) – the reaction to that came with the sexual liberation of the sixties.
A lot of pieces in this BTNG-issue are supported by legal documents. That is partly due to the subject itself. It is not easy to find trustworthy, qualitatively high sources. The ‘detour’ through the justice system gives a good picture of the contemporary norms and the conflicts around them. Although it is no coincidence that just the legal system has so much to offer: in the name of care for the ‘morals’ sex got quickly pushed into an atmosphere of repression and control.
Sexual honour is a central issue In that. That was also the case for the lowest social classes, who also made sexual behaviour into a theme in public insults. That proves that people talked much more about sex than is usually believed. Although there as well, the double standards were not at all absent. Also in insults women were addressed about their sexual honour much more than men, even by other women. Men were permitted to relieve their vices, within certain boundaries – repressing it, that cannot be healthy.
Those double standards were also applied to Eugenie and Gaston. They were in a difficult situation: because of the police, their youthful and apparently spontaneous love-making had become a sexual offence. Not only because of the age-difference Gaston turned into a committer and Eugenie into a victim. If it was about sex, the man took the active role per definition – his lusts, you know – with the woman in the role of principle chastity and passivity.
But victims of sexual offences had to be worth the status. They could only be considered a victim through proving their sexual reputation. And with that Eugenie, according to the Grey Nuns’ accounts, had a great problem. That Gaston ‘walks on the street a lot and has a hard time leaving young girls in peace’ was much more easily excused.
And the accused of sexual offences knew very well that that was the mentality. In another case, in which a twenty-five-year-old was accused of sex with a girls of fifteen, he tried to talk himself out of it by blaming it on provocation. He regretfully adjusted to the dominant morals by stating that he came to insight when the girl took on an active role: ‘At that moment my desire was over, because I saw that I had to do with a bad girl.’
In order to maintain her honourable position and so situation of passivity (to avoid being sent to an institution), Eugenie could not do otherwise than have the police understand that Gaston forced her to have sex with him. ‘He asked whether I liked to have a boy’, she explained to the police. ‘I answered: no, don’t. After that he pushed me with his arm and I fell. I kept lying like that. After that he took off his trousers. And then he parted my legs and came to lie on top of me. He put his masculinity a little in my femininity.’
In order to plead extenuating circumstances Gaston had to state the exact opposite. So he made Eugenie into a seductress: ‘She said at a certain moment: I’d like to have boy of you, it has been in my head for a long time. I told her that she was too young for that still. She took her knickers off and then she loosened my trousers and she put herself on top of me. She put my masculinity a little in her femininity and she kept lying like that. I pushed her back and after that she left me in peace.’
During the next interrogations the truth seemed to lie where it always lies: in the middle. Gaston: ‘It is true that I lay on top of Eugenie and that I put my male part in her female part myself. She on the other hand let my do that.’ Eugenie: ‘It is true that I did not protest.’ And so it had been proven again how bad the moral decline was amongst youngsters.'
Author: Mark Reynebeau
'Little is known about the history of sexuality. The prominent idea is that people dealt quite uncomplicatedly with sex for a long time. That all changed in the 17th century when the Catholic church saw its ‘natural’ authority challenged by the Reformation. It tried to re-establish its power by enforcing strict rules on church-goers and making sex taboo during the Counterreformation.
A second tightening followed in the late 19th century with the triumph of bourgeois power. It ‘annexed’, via the state at least, also the body that had to serve production and reproduction, not anything else. Self-control became highly valued and the middle-classes made it their specific identity, of course not without double standards. With that they tried to distinguish themselves from what it thought of as the frivolous conduct of nobility and the unbridled vices of the lowest classes.
If this theory is right, then the sexual liberation of the sixties was nothing new, but only the return to a former ‘natural’ approach to sex. But that sexual freedom encountered fierce criticism in its time, just because it went against all fixed norms.
Although no-one should have too many illusions about the exemplary chastity of former generations. The fast spread of the pill shows that, apart from a normatively and religiously inspired ‘legal’ society, there existed also a ‘true’ society with a freer but therefore not valueless sexual practice. That tones down the complaint of so much Flemish literature of the sixties about the repressive Catholic morals: it mainly reveals the bourgeois background of the writers in which those morals were the most prominent.
The old fear for boundless sex amongst youths has come to the surface again recently, now that no-one can go on the internet without stumbling over pornography. But the criticism to what is now called ‘pornification’, is probably not more than a new variant of former fears for ‘moral decline’. The debate certainly looks very much like that, in the first place due to the danger of e
Sociology has a term for that: moral panic. Because just like a century ago the sexual norms of the lowest classes were not in the least ‘bestial’, the Flemish youngsters of today strive for, all pronification left aside, a ‘normal’ monogamous family life.
It is certainly not a coincidence that the care about sexual promiscuity seems to crop up at moments when history is accelerating. That was the case in the beginning of the preceding century, In the sixties and today again. Because then the whole of society starts to move in a way which is difficult to understand.
Many people become insecure because of that, first the conservatives and whoever fears for his position of power. With ‘moral panic’ as the consequence. To that problem is answered with stricter rules, in the hope to recover control.
The debate about norms and values fits in that context. And it often focuses itself on sex because that is unique to all of mankind, it is of great importance to their intimacy and it influences their behaviour a great deal.
The articles were translated from the original in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard.
Even with the Belgian context of these articles we might understand then the Victorian sexual repression in literature. Essentially, it came out of the middle-class approach to self-control, not at all out of Puritanism or Protestantism, but rather from a much wider political perspective. The Victorians saw their society change, their cities change and expand rapidly and the lower classes slip into bad ‘bestial’ behaviour. From there, naturally, the Victorians’ fetish with control: workhouses where people were controlled physically (separate dormitories and places for both sexes and children) in order to ‘control’ the ‘bestial’ behaviours of the poor, madhouses where the mad were controlled and preferably cured so they could not pollute ‘the race’, the suburb where the middle-classes were happily settled away from the ‘bestial’ poor in the cities. With the middle-class authors came also middle-class literature that focused on those morals: Hardy, the Brontës, Gaskell and others complained about the repression. But was that repression not more in their own head, and in their own class, than really there for everyone?
More to the point of current affairs would be the debate about swearing. It astonished me to know that Princess Margaret used to swear a lot. It astonished me equally to hear a certain Lord in a documentary with politician Prescott, swear with the word ‘fucking’ at least three times. The man had had a serious education with appropriate accent and was a man of about fifty, yet swore as if it was normal. The other day I got told off by a man of about 70 for saying the word ‘bloody’. The man was a retired banker. Out of the above we may conclude that the debate about swearing only exists in the middle-classes who absolutely want to distinguish themselves from the higher classes (who do swear) and the lower classes (who certainly swear) with the result that they become extremely edgy about any word remotely sounding ‘rude’. In that sense it should also be asked what was the real problem with the statement about Andrew Sachs’ granddaughter. Yet Sachs got paid about £100,000 in damages by the BBC, whereas the statement was even true and the voicemail was not a voicemail but something that sounded like it. Or the fact that some people found Little Britain in America too close to the edge. Certainly the two last episodes of the two body builders was unnecessary, people found. Was it because the two actors were not at all naked but stuffed in a fat-suit, or was it because a ‘vagina’ was pointed out and earlier very little unrealistic penises shown? Is it not time for the English public to get out of hypocritical bourgeois Victorian standards? Granted: saying ‘fucking’ every five seconds is not fun, sounds stupid and is even annoying for the people who are listening, but on the other hand ‘bloody’ can not be really called offensive. Nor can ‘shit’ be called offensive if it does not reoccur every five seconds. It merely means ‘dung’ or ‘faeces’. If we were to say those words there would be no problem. Yet ‘shit’ is a ‘rude’ word. From time to time a swear-word to ventilate one’s excessive emotions that he/she can’t express is not at all a problem it seems to me. In other languages swear-words exist as well. They are not considered as really offensive, not to be used on television, or vulgar. People use them moderately. So it should be in English. But I guess the middle-class in England with their stiff upper lip is not yet conquered.