Sex in Marriage and Only in Marriage The National Marriage Guidance Council’s Sex Advice:

By Kirsty Watson

Sex. Well that likely grabbed everyone’s attention. As something that even today remains frequently deemed an inappropriate topic it at first caught me by surprise that such a straight to the point booklet was available in 1958. The Sex in Marriage pamphlet was aimed at advocating a happy and lifelong marriage to couples in which the importance of and ways of achieving a fulfilling sex life were central to the advice given. Not that it is exactly a twentieth-century karma sutra, but who would have thought that for one shilling and about twenty pages reading you could supposedly know all you needed to about sex. Well, as long as you were in a heterosexual relationship, and married, and if not you could consider yourself non-existent as far as this pamphlet is concerned.

The National Marriage Guidance Council was established by Dr. Herbert Gray in 1938 after his research prompted many requests for marital advice.[1] Seventy-seven years later it is still running albeit now under the new name ‘Relate’ and with a far more encompassing scope. The Guardian highlights that Gray who thought ‘that masturbation was a perversion, homosexuality a sin and that couples had a duty to bear children’ would likely not be all that thrilled with the current state of affairs.[2] Relate now deals with same-sex marriage, divorce, and cohabitation diverging far from the picture that Gray envisaged and promoted.[3]

A Royal Commission in 1956 concerning the high post-war divorce rates ‘emphasized that the solution lay in education, pre-marital instruction, marriage guidance and conciliation, rather than a harsher divorce law’.[4] Two years later followed the ‘Sex in Marriage’ pamphlet aimed at those soon to be married providing advice on preparation for marriage along with stressing the importance of overcoming both initial obstacles and any hardships arising in marriage. The motive for such leaflets therefore was not merely to ease the concerns of couples about to marry but to satisfy the social concerns of the time and actively promote a relationship and family structure suited to society.

The pamphlet prescribes a pretty restrictive relationship type only acknowledging heterosexual relationships with no room for premarital sex or divorce. Yet in the very same manual there is a casual discussion of forms of contraception, mutual pleasure and even advice on the use of lubrication! I find myself stuck somewhere between thinking how great it was that such a simple guide to sex education was available in the 1950s and how infuriating it is to have a pamphlet which only allows for a relationship between a man and a woman in marriage. At least there is the delight of knowing that much has changed since then both within the council and society in general.


As for the layout of the pamphlet it is plain and straightforward and as such is much the same as the message inside! The cover is a dull grey with minimum writing in white whilst the inside is divided every few pages into sub-topics such as ‘how often’ and ‘some practical points’ which lists suggestions on how to maintain attraction. Practical seems to be exactly what it was aimed towards with a lack of colour or images throughout. In terms of the reach of the pamphlet the back cover proudly states that 100,000 copies have sold so far. I somehow can’t quite imagine teenagers nowadays buying such an item, however a free copy placed in the right outlets might go a long way towards sex education today.

Despite its faults I can’t help but think that some adaption of this would be useful today. A guide perhaps around the same length although obviously not advocating only one relationship type and instead offering advice based on different forms of sexuality and general sex education. A guide that might even replace those all too well remembered ‘birds and bees’ talks. A way of learning the necessities without sitting in a classroom surrounded by those who pretend to be the fount of all knowledge when they most likely are nothing of the sort. Therefore, if we took the 1958 leaflet and added a more open minded viewpoint, a splash of colour, and made it available online then we might just find something that could work well today.

If you fancy a look at the pamphlet for yourself or loads of other fascinating documents and objects relating to women’s history then why not take a trip down to the Glasgow Women’s Library where you are sure to find something of interest!

[1] The Guardian. Stuart Jeffries, (Saturday 26th October 2013). Relate: 75 Years of Marriage Guidance [Online] Available from: <> [Accessed: 27th October 2015].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Relate. Relate The Relationship People [Online] Available from: <> [Accessed: 28th October 2015].

[4] Kathleen Kiernan, Hilary Land, and Jane Lewis, Lone Motherhood in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), p.82.

The Sex in Marriage Pamphlet itself is available on the Glasgow Women’s Library website at <> under the reference code FP 4/1. Alternatively, the site also provides transport suggestions from Glasgow City Centre if you would rather view the items in person.




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