Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Archives Open Up Centuries Of British Sex

LONDON (Reuters), UK - - The 17th century punishment for sex crimes was public humiliation and 1930s Britons pretended to be drunk so they could get away with sex on the beach.

Historical attitudes to sex in Britain will be laid bare for all to see this week in archives which reveal a nation rich in sexual experience and enthusiasm.

The historical documents, to be given a public outing by the Center for Archive Studies at Liverpool University, include Britain's first ever sex survey, conducted 57 years ago but deemed too shocking for publication at the time.

The survey shows many British men had homosexual experiences, many were frequent visitors to prostitutes and many British wives were active in the pursuit of sex outside marriage.

The archives also have details of public displays of sexual behavior in the 1930s on the south coast's famous Blackpool Beach as well as in cinemas and dance halls, and show how many Britons threw sexual caution to the wind during World War Two.

According to archivists, who will debate the archives on Saturday, Britons "tended to pretend they were drunk or playing a joke" in order to get away with sexual behavior in public.

Caroline Williams, of the Center for Archive Studies, says the archives show that while sex has always been a part of major part of British -- and human -- life, attitudes have changed and broadened over the years.

Dorothy Sheridan, a fellow archivist from the University of Sussex, has looked at decades of extracts from personal diaries, letters and autobiographical accounts of experiences in which people describe the most intimate aspects of their lives.

"Materials in our archive range from holiday makers enjoying themselves on the beach at Blackpool to the experiences of the Second World War when many people, fearing they may not survive the war, were more sexually active," she said.

Despite the taboos of the time, the 1949 sex survey, originally meant for national newspapers but never published due to its content, found one in five men had homosexual experiences and a quarter admitted to having sex with prostitutes. One in five women confessed to extra-marital affairs.

Alan Crosby, a historian at Liverpool University, said the archives also show how attitudes to sex crimes have changed.

"Sexual offences in the past were recognized as serious crimes, just as they are today," he said, but the punishment system was very different.

Documents detail how a man convicted of a sex crime in northern English town in 1630 was punished by being paraded through the streets and humiliated in front of fellow citizens.


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