SOMETIMES it may be hard to remember that contraception was once taboo… that the early pioneers had to risk jail to bring women the most basic and necessary information about their own bodies.
Marie Stopes was one such pioneer. She made a film – a silent film – about the benefits of birth control when it was still and extremely daring subject.
But the censors went to work. They placed so many limitations and restrictions on the film that it finished up being incomprehensible.
This is what happens.
A poor girl, Maisie, is courting. Her young man wants her to marry him. But she looks at her mother, and sees all the poverty and misery that go with marrying young and having a baby every year. So she turns him down and he goes off broken-hearted.
Maisie gets a job as a maid in a big house in town. She wears the black and white uniform maids were always decked out in, to make them look brisk and efficient, and unattractive to the young men of the family. But far from looking brisk, Maisie is downcast.
One day the lady of the house asks her why she’s so sad, and Maisie’s story comes spilling out. She couldn’t marry because she feared to have a multitude of children.
Ah, says the lady. But it needn’t always be so.
Right. This is the bit where you’re going to get the message. The good news about contraception.
But what happens? The picture goes misty. There’s a rose bush, and beautiful roses with dew on them. It’s like a garden, says the lady. The gardener doesn’t let the roses grow wild. He prunes them. That’s it. That’s the message. So now you know all about contraception. Or are you still in the dark, still as baffled as before? And maybe even more so. Pruning! God forbid!
But that’s all Marie Stopes was allowed to say. The censors made sure of it. Any woman who saw the film was still no better off.
Immediately after the roses bit, there’s a fire in the house. Maisie is being carried down a ladder by… a good-looking fireman. Yes, you’ve guessed it – it’s her old flame, so they marry and live happily ever after.
Last July we reported on the fact that adverts relating to contraceptives were banned on London Transport, as well as on ITV. It wasn’t long after Thames Television had refused to screen their documentary on changing sexual attitudes in Britain because it might offend some people.
Since then, London transport has relented. Adverts for Durex have appeared on the London underground, as elsewhere throughout the country. They comprise a picture of a racing care with DUREX written on its side, and the slogan, ‘The small family car’.
It was a similar car, racing at Brand’s Hatch which recently caused the BBC to threaten to cancel one of its outside broadcasts. But the BBC regularly screens other sponsored advertising including cigarette adverts which appear around football fields and the like.
No sooner were the Durex ads pasted than people like those who tried to thwart Marie Stopes went into action.
Dr Rhodes Boyson, education spokesman for the Tory shadow cabinet, led the field. People, he says, determined to advertise contraceptives in areas exposed to children are members of the semi-perverted groups of our society.
This is the kind of argument you often hear from those who are perfectly happy to bring their seven-year-olds bearing photographs of aborted foetuses on demonstrations organised by the Society for the Protection of the unborn child.
In reality the offended are few. A National Opinion Poll survey in 1972 found that 60 per cent of their sample thought that the government should spend money on national education and publicity campaigns about birth control.
And the Advertising Standards Authority has found no evidence that the Durex adverts caused widespread offence and had not upheld the handful of complaints it received.
Yet one such complainer in a position of power can do untold damage. One such person can prevent information reaching women who need it… Just one such person is a certain Miss Butler, who works in the Post Office’s telephone directory division. Recently the Family Planning Association, a thoroughly respectable body with government support, asked whether a section called ‘contraception’ could be listed in the yellow pages. Back came Miss Butler’s reply.
‘We consider there is still a substantial sector of the population which is opposed to contraception.’
Over Christmas I’ve been reading a new book called ‘Dutiful Daughters’ by Jean McCrindle and Sheila Rowbotham. It’s a collection of the recorded memories of a group of middle-aged and elderly women, most of them working class. Although their memories are recorded individually, there are themes which recur again and again. One of the most harrowing is the almost universally suffered ignorance; ignorance of menstruation and horror at their first period; ignorance of sex and a lifelong inability to overcome their fear and revulsion of it; ignorance of birth, even when they are already in labour.
Ignorance for these women meant suffering, and they ended up hating the mothers who had left them in ignorance. But ignorance is bliss for Rhodes Boyson, and those others like Mary Whitehouse who oppose sex education in schools so long as it is other people’s ignorance. It’s the premium that keeps their power insured.
by Judith Condon
Women’s Voice 13, January 1978