Pushing the Boundaries: Sex Advice in Women’s Magazines, 1960s Ireland

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Manuals on how to be a good wife were widely available in Ireland at the start of the twentieth century. Publications such as The Young Wife (1938 edition), provided women with practical advice on such matters as housekeeping and budgeting, or emotional guidance on understanding and caring for her husband. They did not, however, generally offer advice on matters of intimacy (other than to warn against intimate relations before or outside of marriage).

It was not unusual for such pamphlets and books to appear in the 1960s: Building a Happy Marriage was translated from French and published in Dublin in 1964, for example. However, magazines in that decade began to surpass such guides as the main source of information on how to be a good wife. Advice columns and letters pages, mixed with cautionary tales told under the guise of short-stories, instructed women on how to be the perfect wife or, at the very least, maintain their marriage:

Woman's Way Guide to Happy Marriage
Woman’s Way, 14 April 1964

But magazines also addressed matters commonly left unspoken in what were usually Catholic marriage manuals. Woman’s Way raised the issue of the ‘first night’ in February 1966.

First Night
Woman’s Way, First Fortnight February, 1966

While Catholic teaching dealt with sex between husband and wife in terms of creating new life, passing reference only is made to creating a family through the physical expression of mutual love.  Rather, this article focusses on enjoying the physical act.  The word ‘sex’ appears in the sub-title and ‘climax’ can be found in the main body of the article. These are hardly shocking words, but remember that February 1966 is also the month and year that The Late Late Show, presented by Gay Byrne, found itself in trouble with the Bishop of Clonfert after audience member Eileen Fox, when asked the colour of her nightdress on the first night of her honeymoon, answered that she hadn’t worn one at all (though subsequently gave the answer of ‘white’ — a detail overlooked by the Bishop). Footage of the quiz has been lost, but a sound recording still survives and is available to hear on the RTÉ on-line archive.  (Hat tip to Brian Murphy for pointing this out to me).

The implication of her quip was clear.  In his Sunday sermon the following morning, the Bishop referred to ‘morally — or rather immorally — suggestive parts of the show’, which he deemed ‘most objectionable’ and ‘unworthy of Irish television’. RTÉ (the Irish broadcaster) was initially reported as having nothing to say on the matter.[1] The following day, though, The Irish Times carried comments from Gay Byrne who explained that

it has never been our intention that viewers should be embarrassed by the programmeWe now realise that a part of last Saturday’s show was embarrassing to a section of the viewers, and we would like to say that we are sorry for this.[2]

Clearly then, women’s magazines were pushing the boundaries in a way that television was not able to do. And while the page-length article in Woman’s Way was not explicit and did not provide any instructions on engaging in the physical act, it did offer reassurance to couples anxious about their first intimate encounter.

It should be remembered that the bride requires more time to reach a climax than her husband and in the early days it is often extremely difficult for the man, much as he would wish to do so, to wait … It is not uncommon and provided that the wife is understanding and does not exaggerate the difficulty, it will soon resolve itself. She should be aware, too, that her husband may need some guidance and assistance and that her active participation in love-making is a fully-accepted and natural element in a happy marriage relationship.[3]

Aside from a physical relationship being a deeply private act between a couple, sex was something of a taboo issue (as evidenced by The Late Late debacle) in Ireland: magazines covering such topics thus provided an important source of information.*



[1] The Irish Times, 14 February 1966.

[2] The Irish Times, 15 February 1966.

[3] Woman’s Way, First fortnight February, 1966.

* This post is based on my current research project on the everyday lives of Irishwomen in the twentieth century as seen through the pages of women’s magazines.


Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

4 thoughts on “Pushing the Boundaries: Sex Advice in Women’s Magazines, 1960s Ireland

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