Fast Girls, Foreigners and GIs : An Exploration of the Discursive Strategies Through Which the Status of Pre-Marital (Hetero) sexual Ignorance and Restraint Was Upheld During the Second World War
This paper explores contradictions within qualitative data gathered among women and men whose young adulthood coincided with the Second World War. These data were generated as part of an ESRC-funded project which investigated the making of heterosexual relationships cross-generationally. They suggest the co-existence of both a prevalent taboo or stigma associated with sexual knowledge and practice before and outside marriage, and personal experiences of precisely these engagements with embodied sexuality. Drawing on Charles Tilly's work, the paper argues that, when interrogated, these contradictions can reveal the strategies through which a creaky heterosexual consensus was shored up during a period of military upheaval that profoundly destabilised existing beliefs and practices. Tilly differentiated between academic historians who sought to reconcile 'very large structural changes' and 'the changing experiences of ordinary people' through either collectivist or individualist approaches to 'history from below'. Neither of these methods could yield an adequate account, in his view. However, the 'lay historians' who participated in our study combined collectivist and individualist perspectives, thereby providing a unique insight into an era when collective values and individual practices were often in tension with one another. As our participants spoke about their young adulthood, their data revealed the potency of local gossip which mobilised wider discourses of alterity or 'othering', so shoring up a consensual view of sexual mores, despite the prevalence of attitudes and practices that contravened it. What we argue, therefore, is that rather than a half-remembered, contradictory account of heterosexuality during the 1920s and 1930s, the data we gathered in the early 21st century exemplifies precisely the discursive strategies of that period. In other words, these data shed light on the ways in which not only heterosexual norms, but also an entire, endangered system of distinctions based on class, gender and national identity was upheld.