When freshers arrive at Oxford, they are given all sorts of reading material to sink their teeth into. Pidges are filled with copies of the college rules, a guide lovingly prepared by freshers’ reps, and maybe even a copy of Cherwell’s sister publication, Keep off the Grass.
But 35 years ago, ‘freshmen’ were given a copy of The Little Blue Book, an unassuming, 60-page handbook that JCRs arranged to be pidged to them. The introduction to the 1983 edition makes no bones about its contents: “This booklet is about sexuality,” it says.
“It was originally written, by students for students, because it had been estimated that 60% of students who have intercourse take NO contraceptive precautions the first time,” the introduction continues.
“Over 30% of students have never had sexual intercourse when they leave university. While we realise that many students will have no immediate need for the information in this book, we hope that the content will be of interest to all.
“It has been impossible to write this book without expressing, to some extent, our moral standpoint. Some will disagree with us; sexuality should be a matter for responsible individual choice.”
After a trawl through the archives, Cherwell can reveal its wide-ranging advice on contraception, sexuality, and unwanted pregnancies, and while The Little Blue Book’s conclusions are often outdated, baffling, and at times hilarious, there are many areas in which it is clear that little has changed.
1. Sexual Behaviour
Following a diagram-filled section on anatomy and physiology, the booklet moves on to talk about sexuality and the importance of openness. While it may have been written some 35 years ago, much of the section’s contents rings true today.
“Unfortunately, few people are able to talk easily and honestly about their sexual feelings,” it reads. “This leads some people to feel that every sexual relationship should involve intercourse.
A key feature of The Little Blue Book is its focus on openness and dialogue within relationships.
“It is often difficult to talk to your partner about what gives you pleasure and there is often an unspoken feeling that sex ought to come naturally and that talking about it takes away the romance,” it claims.
“You may feel very vulnerable in indicating what gives you pleasure; will your partner like doing it, or mind? Will he or she feel hurt at having to be told? Usually it is reassuring to know that the things you do give pleasure and are also mutually stimulating.
“Intercourse may be a great disappointment,” it reminds its readers. “Patience, good humour and understanding usually overcome these difficulties, and most people find their sexual relationships improve with experience.
“It is unfortunate that embarrassment prevents people from seeking help, such that they have to put up with a state of affairs which may be making them very unhappy.”
This section proves very interesting, both in legal and political terms. For a start, it serves as a stark reminder that in the 1980s, the LGBTQ+ community faced significant discrimination from UK law.
“Homosexual acts involving men under the age of 21 are illegal, whilst the age of consent for heterosexual intercourse is 16,” the booklet says. Indeed, it is easy to forget that it was only in 2001 that the age of consent was finally equalised; until that point, it had always been higher for gay men.
“Anal intercourse, which is illegal between a man and a woman, is legal between consenting males over the age of 21 in private. In England and Wales homosexual acts (which may even be taken to include holding hands) are illegal in public,” the section continues. “In Northern Ireland homosexual acts are illegal at any age, even in private. For historical reasons lesbians are not encumbered by these legal restrictions, but all-purpose charges are available should the police feel they are needed.”
But the editorial team is firm in its stance that the law was unjust, and encourages students to be open-minded about their own sexuality.
“Homosexuality may be a possibility in all of us and the point at which we label someone a homosexual is arbitrary. It is only one aspect of you, and does not define you.
“Unfortunately, society has a long way to go before accepting sexual contact between two people of the same sex. We are all under pressure to devalue, supress [sic], and conceal any homosexual elements of our nature, even those who feel firmly heterosexual.
“Intolerance and discrimination against homosexuals means that many gays have to be secretive about their feelings and lie to their employers, family, friends and even themselves. Discrimination is faced in jobs, accommodation and social life.
“This is an unacceptable feature of society and it is only by being open about one’s feelings that social attitudes can be changed.”
The booklet also provided students with ‘further reading’ regarding sexuality, and a list of contact numbers if they wished to discuss their feelings. These includes hotlines called ‘Gay Icebreakers’, ‘Gay Switchboard’, and ‘Oxford Lesbian Line’, as well as an advertisement for ‘Oxford Gaysoc’, the precursor to the University’s LGBTQ+ Society.
If The Little Blue Book is anything to go by, first-year students often arrived in Oxford with some confused views about contraception: “Taking risks and keeping your fingers crossed is not a form of contraception,” it reminded them.
It goes on to list various contraceptive methods, but it is the section entitled ‘useless methods’ which is the most eye-opening as to what freshers might have considered sufficient.
It gives rightly damning verdicts on methods including douching (“this is not a means of contraception”) and the ‘sponge method’ (“not only is it ineffective but it may interfere with intercourse”), but three more alarming options are also outlined.
Regarding ‘coitus reservatus (or holding back)’, the Blue Book reads: “In theory the man is not meant to ejaculate at intercourse. No doubt reservatus often turns into interruptus and it is a very frustrating form of contraception which is most unlikely to succeed.”
On coitus saxonicus, it says: “In theory, one is meant to divert the semen into the bladder instead of through the penis. In practice not only is it painful but also does not work.”
And finally, on the ‘cling film’ method: “This is used in much the same way as a sheath [condom], except with a rubber band to keep the film on. This is unreliable and probably extremely uncomfortable.”
The editors dispel a few final myths at the end of the chapter.
“Some couples think that they will be safe if they have intercourse standing up, or if the woman sneezes, coughs hard, or holds her breath during the man’s orgasm. In addition, there are some people who falsely believe that women will not conceive if they don’t have an orgasm, or if they get up immediately after intercourse and walk around, jump up and down, or urinate.”
We can only hope that the Oxford students are better informed.
4. Pregnancy and abortion
The Little Blue Book’s exploration of these topics largely involves a list and a map of the nine family planning clinics in the city at the time.
However, it also offers some advice to undergraduates who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies. “Society is still such that it is difficult for a single parent to bring up a child,” it says. “The conditions for the availability of abortion are still under debate – the availability varies enormously from area to area.”
Again showing their progressive ideas, the editorial team champion the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion in the UK. They write that the act was “thought to have greatly reduced the number of illegal or do-it-yourself abortions,” and advise students on how to terminate a pregnancy if they wish to do so.
The booklet’s guide to sexually transmitted diseases is thorough and largely accurate, although its description of AIDS shows that even in 1983, there was a huge societal stigma about the illness.
“In recent years this serious and usually fatal condition has been reported, usually in promiscuous homosexual men, heroin users, haemophiliacs and Haitians – and their sexual partners,” it claims.
“The cause and the mode of transmission are unknown, but it appears to be spread in the same way as Hepatitis B, possibly by an as yet unidentified virus. The normal body defences of those affected are severely reduced, so sufferers tend to develop skin cancers and overwhelming infections.
“There is no known treatment as yet but research is being actively undertaken.”
6. Rape and sexual violence
The book outlines the legal descriptions of rape and sexual assault, and offer advice to female students as to how they can avoid attacks.
“One would not want women to curtail their social activities in order to minimise the danger of assault,” it reads. “Nevertheless some steps can be taken to reduce the risk.”
It advised the following:
- Where possible don’t walk alone after dark
- Always be alert and don’t be reluctant to take evasive action such as running away or crossing the road to avoid a “suspicious” person
- Avoid short-cuts and dark deserted areas such as car parks and subways
- Walk facing the traffic and do not hitch-hike alone
- Carry a torch and whistle or alarm after dark
- To avoid delay keep your keys in your hand when approaching vehicle or home.
- If attacked SCREAM and SHOUT as loud as you can.
In the midst of the #IBelieveHer movement, the editorial view is particularly interesting.
“Although the police and courts are now adopting fairer and more compassionate attitude to the victim, many women report that giving evidence and facing cross-examination are nearly as distressing as the assault,” the booklet reads.
“The majority of rapes are not reported; possibly because such a high proportion of attackers are known to their victims.”
The Little Blue Book was written and published by the WOLS Committee of the Oxford University Medical Society, and the editorial team (made up of six women and one man) expressed their thanks to Green College – which merged with Templeton College in 2008 – in the acknowledgements section.
Its editor in 1983 was Gillian Lockwood, who is now a leading specialist in fertility treatment. She has been contacted for comment.