Friday, 30 May 2014

'Having a bath with a coat on': Contraceptive habits in 1960s Britain

Image courtesy of the Hagley Library.
Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
In September 1961 Ernest Dichter Associates, the London office of The Institute for Motivational Research, Inc. submitted a report to the London Rubber Company concerning their Durex brand of condoms. Entitled ‘A Motivational Research Study on Rubber Contraceptives’, the study’s main aim was to ‘discover the factors which motivate and inhibit people in their use of various types of contraceptives, particularly the condom’. Through the use of questionnaires, word-association tests and interviews, the London-based team gained a significant insight into the sexual behaviours and mentalities of both men and women across Britain. 

The presence of the Durex name, and the fact that the birth control pill was made available on the NHS in December of the same year, make this report a particularly significant and unique document in the histories of sexuality and gender.

As part of the study, a total of 129 respondents spanning a wide cross section of society were interviewed by psychologists and social workers. The contraceptive methods employed by the sample were distributed as follows:
  • Condom                                                      44
  • Diaphragm                                                  39
  • Coitus Interruptus                                        15
  • Chemicals, Jellies, Tablets                           11          
  • Safe period                                                  5
  • Nothing                                                       15          

Clearly the most popular methods of contraception from these initial findings were the condom and diaphragm, and these two products provided as the main focuses of the report. From the responses included in the document it was clear that product choice often came down to a matter of habit or comfort, for instance one respondent stated: ‘my husband told that when he used a condom once… not with me, it was before we were married… it was like having a bath with a coat on.’ (114) Yet the study also identified three main psychological and sociological factors that influenced how men and women purchased various forms of contraception: class, age, and personality type.
A condom dating from the early decades of the 20th century
Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library

‘The role of age is extremely important. Thus, in the early stages of sexual relationships (either marital or premarital) the condom is more frequently used. As the relationship progresses, there is a change to the diaphragm’. (20)

This, as many respondents pointed out, was due to a shift in responsibility as the relationship progressed. Female interviewees believed that it was up to the man to dictate the speed and course of a relationship in its early stages, as the woman was often emotionally and financially dependent on him. After this point, however, as many respondents noted, all matters to do with children and the family became a woman’s responsibility, and it was up to her to ensure that pregnancy was prevented. For example a working class female aged 26 from Wales stated:

‘I think that the wife should decide because she has to have the children and look after them. He is away all day and doesn’t see them.’ (144)

Yet other factors also influenced contraceptive choice. The study found that ‘the class of the individual will broadly determine the type of contraceptive used’ (20) with the middle classes preferring to use diaphragms rather than condoms, which were reserved for the working classes. The report suggested that this trend was due to the fact that middle-class women took on a greater responsibility over sex (this may have been due to increased access to educative literature or a greater level of social and financial independence).
The most interesting aspect of the report comes when the personality types of various men and women were examined, exploring how a person’s nature could influence his/her choice of contraception. Alongside ‘the domineering’ and ‘the considerate’ male, there were four types of women featured:
  • The frigid woman‘This type of woman, as a rule, is a passive woman sexually who either finds a sexual relation distasteful, or is indifferent to sex’ … ‘She is disgusted with touching her sexual organs and, therefore, repelled by any female contraceptive which involves contact of this type.’ (22)
  • The dominant or emancipated woman‘Some women feel that the responsibility for contraception is that of the female. They often have an underlying contempt for men and will seek independence above all else.’ (24)
  • The woman with sexual anxieties‘This woman has often had a rather traumatic childhood, she is afraid of clinics and of allowing anyone to insert anything insider herself’ … ‘This type of woman is often somewhat childish and immature.’ (26)
(One of the most common anxieties felt by this type of woman was the fear that a contraceptive may do ‘harm’. The report suggested that ‘certain female contraceptives such as chemicals, jellies and caps, might “rip something inside” or might damage or cause miscarriage.’) (61)
  • The mature female who values both physical and emotional aspects of the sexual relationship‘This type of woman will probably take the responsibility for using a contraceptive and may use either a diaphragm or a chemical. She is different from the dominant, emancipated woman in that she accepts her femininity more and therefore is more considerate of her husband than the dominant woman would be.’ (29)
The report concluded that because of a number of psychological and sociological factors (such as age and class), ‘people will have, and continue to have, varying needs for different types of contraceptives’. These findings were particularly significant for Durex as it meant that it was impossible to satisfy these needs with one single product. Although 80% of respondents stated that an oral pill was the ideal method of contraception, even this carried fears of cancer and long-term infertility.

These reports contain images demonstrating how the various motivational research tests were carried out
Image courtesy of the Hagley Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The report did, however, offer some advice to condom manufacturers, much of which seems to have been taken on board when considering present packaging methods. For example the study suggested that, ‘it may be necessary to educate the teenager more correctly in the value of contraceptive techniques through schools, through literature, and also, to a very large extent, through inserts in the package itself.’ (16) Another recommendation was to ‘develop some sort of variety pack where the beginner could familiarise himself with various possibilities and make his choice according to his preferences’. (16)

This report, and others like it, provide a truly unique insight into the relationship between manufacturers and consumers, and this is particularly significant for histories of sexuality where contemporary attitudes and behaviours surrounding sex are often difficult to establish. By using source material such as this historians may be able to offer new insights and approaches to the studies of sex and gender, accessing information that previously remained hidden.
  • Ernest Dichter Associates, 'A Motivational Research Study on Rubber Contraceptives', (London, September 1961) - Hagley Library []