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Camden New Journal - ROSE HACKER's NOTEBOOK
Published: 08 May 2008
Facts according to Queen Victoria

My mother had told me stories about doctors bringing babies in black bags or storks delivering them…`

MY mother and Queen Victoria had one thing in common. Neither was capable of believing in lesbianism.
Over my lifetime, not only have public attitudes towards sex changed dramatically, so has legislation covering all sorts of sex and gender-related matters.
I was 12 when I first found out about sex from reading a book about the human body that my father had hidden in his bedside cupboard.
I immediately felt it my duty to share the information with my siblings. As a result, I was beaten by my father at my mother’s insistence. She had told me stories about doctors bringing babies in black bags or storks delivering them.
Now we knew the truth!
That early learning experience also convinced me of the importance of something that hardly anyone talked about then, birth control, which made it possible to separate sexual intercourse from reproduction.
When I first became a marriage guidance counsellor in 1945 we found many of our clients absolutely ignorant of the basic facts of sex, the straightforward sexual act and even the relationship between intercourse and pregnancy, because it was not done for people to talk about their bodies.
Many didn’t even know the names or purpose of their sex organs. So one early task was explaining some basic facts of life. However, we soon realised that even more important were the relationships within which people had sex. Sadly, that is still omitted from much school sex education.
Sex therapy came much later, just part of the job, a small element of the counselling. Our only books at the time were Married Love by Marie Stopes, the pioneering campaigner for birth control, and Ideal Marriage by Dutch gynaecologist Theodor Van de Velde. Books with explicit descriptions of sexual acts were still being banned for obscenity.
I remember lending one couple some books. One I never got back, James Joyce’s Ulysses that I had smuggled in from France in the 1930s when it was banned here.
The man and his wife had been childhood sweethearts and had three children but he now had serious health problems. On reading it he said, “Oh but we’ve done all these things”.
Initially, possibly because of concerns about how we were perceived and the need to appear “respectable” we used to say “Marriage Guidance can only be for married couples”. In the 1940s and early 1950s we risked being closed down if we were identified as promoting “alternative lifestyles” that are now widely accepted and legally protected. How antiquated those attitudes sound now.
Birth control is taken for granted. Abortion is legal. Divorce is common. Homosexuality is not only no longer illegal, gay civil partnerships, effectively marriage in all but name – why oh why? – confer all the rights enjoyed by married couples on same sex couples. Having a child “out of wedlock” is no longer viewed as a sin, a source of shame, leading to people being ostracised or punished.
Gender reassignment, although still difficult to access – quite rightly because it is such a major, irreversible, physical step – is available through the NHS and the stigmatisation that used to go with all these different forms of being has largely gone. Trade unions support gay workers and provide guidance to transsexuals in transition, including what toilets to use. There are even transsexuals in the army and police force.
Each change sounds so modest when summed up in just a few words. Yet these new realities of daily life that we now take for granted represented histories covering decades or centuries of pain, suffering, punishment, battles for rights, acceptance and something approaching equality, legal struggles and major changes in legislation.
These achievements compare to the rights of women to own property in their own name, to vote or stand for public office, and the rights of people with disabilities to education and employment.
And it took courage for politicians to support the fight for equal rights and espouse and push through these changes.
One effect of long battles and attempts to reconcile conflicting attitudes is that change is slower and the laws that emerge often represent a consensus between widely varying positions rather than extremes.
I now worry that recent laws often seem intended as media headlines, their consequences not fully thought through. One example of this knee-jerk legislation is the law giving children the right to know their parentage, even when the father was a sperm donor. As a result there is now a shortage of a donor sperm and it is very difficult for infertile couples to get the help they need.
Properly considered legislation could have protected the privacy of anonymous fathers while guaranteeing access to medical and DNA information necessary to guarantee the health of children who emerge.
Yet overall I am convinced that these struggles have been worthwhile and that the changes represented by today’s sexual mores have contributed to making life better, safer and happier for millions of people.
My mother and Queen Victoria might not have been amused but I hope that many people including my lesbian and gay friends are.

This is one of several articles the popular and influential columnist Rose Hacker was working on before her death and which readers have requested we publish

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