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  • "How Far Should We Go?":Adolescent Sexual Activity and Understandings of the Sexual Life Cycle in Postwar Britain
  • Hannah Charnock (bio)

In 1965 the sociologist Michael Schofield published the first major survey of teenage sexuality in Britain.1 Researchers from the Central Council for Health Education had interviewed more than eighteen hundred young people between age fifteen and nineteen. Beyond asking these teenagers about their attitudes toward sex, the survey prompted them to assess their levels of sexual knowledge and to evaluate the sex education they had received. Most notably, the survey recorded details of their sexual practice, including incidences of kissing, "petting," and penetrative intercourse. The somewhat "unsensational" central finding of the research was that "premarital sexual relations are a long way from being universal . . . for well over three-quarters of the boys and girls in our sample have never engaged in them."2

Underpinning Schofield's study was an assumption that there was something distinctive about teenage sexuality and that accounts of modern sexuality were missing something by having neglected to consider young people's sexual attitudes and practices. Schofield's survey was certainly a turning point in studies of British sexuality insofar as it was the first major study to interrogate premarital sexuality. However, Schofield's impulse to investigate and quantify teenage sexuality was indicative of a longer-term shift in which sexuality became increasingly understood as an organizing marker of the life cycle. In the decades after the Second World War, the [End Page 245] emergence of sexual feelings, participation in sexual activity, and the first occurrence of penetrative intercourse joined matrimony as pivotal markers in the process of growing up and achieving adulthood.3

While we have a rich body of scholarship on cultures of heterosexuality in mid-twentieth-century Britain, the implications of this developmental model of sexuality are not yet well recognized or understood.4 To begin to address this, this article uses age as a category of analysis for understanding heterosexuality in postwar Britain, focusing in particular on adolescent sexuality. Considering youth-facing guidance literature produced in the decades after the Second World War alongside over three hundred personal testimonies from individuals who were teenagers in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, this piece explores how understandings of age, maturity, and the life cycle underpinned shifting discourses of adolescent heterosexuality in the mid-twentieth century.

Over the last fifteen years, historians such as Laura Doan, Matt Houlbrook, and Elizabeth Stephens have begun the work of "queering" heterosexuality. Challenging the notion that heterosexuality is static, universal, and therefore ahistorical, these scholars have drawn attention to the elasticity and instability of sexualities constructed as "normal."5 While numerous approaches and lenses have subsequently been used to call into question notions of a singular model of heterosexuality, it is only more recently that historians have begun to consider how ideas of age interacted with constructions of heterosexuality, showcasing how the meanings of sexuality were informed by notions of maturity. Recent scholarship by Ishita Pande and Ashwini Tambe, for example, has revealed the contingent, [End Page 246] unstable, and contested place of chronological age in understandings of heterosexuality in their studies of consent and age of marriage laws in the twentieth century.6

Reflecting the frameworks of its historical subjects, this article does not focus so much on chronological age (understood as the time since birth, defined numerically), instead considering age in broader terms related to individuals' movement through the life cycle. Although chronological age certainly did figure in understandings of adolescent sexuality in postwar Britain (this period witnessed numerous debates over legal definitions of consent and the age of marriage, as well as broader discussions over the ages at which young people should be given sex education and access to sexual health facilities), the developmental discourses explored here revolved around notions of relative and functional age.7 I demonstrate that in postwar Britain, adolescent sexual feelings, identities, and activities were understood by both adults and young people to represent a specific form of sexuality that was related to but distinct from the sexualities of adults. Adolescence was considered to be a period of transition in which young people grew into sexually mature adults...