It’s obvious that something has changed between sex and footballers. The questions are, what? and by how much?
The what question is simple. For the last year or so I’ve been researching for a book about the gradual amelioration of British urban life between 1860 and 1939, using three very familiar things (football, sex and transport) as yardsticks. And what’s changed between sex and footballers is pornography. And, to some extent, access, which I’ll come to, but porn is the main driver here: there is anecdotal evidence that people in their teens and twenties are increasingly influenced by porn in their approach to, feelings around, and beliefs about their sex lives. It would be surprising, after all, if they were less influenced, and surprising if footballers as a group weren’t to be included in that.
It’s a democratization of an older phenomenon. Perhaps it had more glamour when the names attached to it were Anais Nin and Henry Miller, rather than Titus Bramble. The change is not that kinds of sexual activity are new, but in who is best known for taking part in them. Porn, famously, stays at the technological cutting edge, and daguerrotype nudes appear within months of the process’s invention. There are Victorian stag films which would be completely familiar, if bafflingly silent and monochrome, to any of our boys who’ve made it to front and back of the News of the World. But we know that the participants are established sex workers: the idea that an ordinary citizen would film themselves, and then make that film available, only really arrived with the advent of the portable VCR camera and the internet i.e., with the arrival of privately-accessible porn.
How much is a completely different question. What we know very little about sexual activity in the Victorian and Edwardian period. The sources are unreliable and contradictory, and the historians of the subject are, for the most part, politically motivated.
Let’s get the whole Victorian/Edwardian masturbation thing out of the way at the start. I just don’t think it was the case that the United Kingdom was gripped by the belief that masturbation was a threat to mental health. The idea was present in some circles, but never universal in any one circle. The original idea came over from France (it’s in Diderot’s Encyclopedie) and spread from Paris, then the world centre of medicine, to Britain by way of young physicians who’d gone to France to study under the masters. At the time of the reform of the English public schools, the idea was brand new and had the backing of the best minds.
William Acton is the British author of the time who takes most of the blame for the idea’s spread. But his book – The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive System – is evidence in itself that masturbation fear was never universal, never generally accepted. Acton is aware of the gaps in the evidence trail between masturbation and mental breakdown, and his account of breakdown is in fact one of the first and best descriptions of the travails of adolescence. And he brings in alternative opinions – doctors who regard masturbation as a safe outlet; clergymen who regard human celibacy as an outlandish, unlikely and peculiar demand.
Nor did Acton paint it as a moral or religious issue. He had walked the corridors of the lock hospitals in Paris, and had seen more than most men what the new wave of sexually transmitted diseases could do to you. In the absence of any effective treatments, other ways had to be found. He himself supported the series of Contagious Diseases Acts which went through near-empty Houses of Commons late on hot summer nights: these set plain clothes units from the Met loose on garrison towns and ports, arresting any woman suspected of being a prostitute and subjecting her, on pain of imprisonment, to gynaecological examination.
The exact proportion of men in the British Army who were affected by sexually transmitted disease, in the age before antibiotics is unknown, but is thought to be between one third and one half. Although that will have been higher than in the general population, you can extrapolate that the possibility of contracting disease would act as a downward pressure on sexual activity overall, and extend that downward pressure through to the end of the nineteenth century.
Sexually transmitted disease is one reason, then, why Victorian and Edwardian footballers might have been less sexually active than their post-War counterparts. Masturbation fear isn’t.
What about the sexual culture from which Victorian and Edwardian players were taken?
The lives of Arthur Kinnaird and Quintin Hogg, who were both closely involved in the first unofficial internationals in the early 1870s, were almost certainly atypical. Their families were closely connected with Lord Shaftesbury, and both men had been personally influenced by the American evangelist Moody. Their Eton and Cambridge playing contemporaries, by and large, were not, and would have enjoyed 1860s London, the last real rakehell’s decade, to the full. Hogg himself campaigned against the sex industry in his early twenties – and was on the end of two murder attempts for his pains.
The professionals of 1885 and after came from industrial cities, and we have some decent first-hand accounts of the atmosphere in which they’d have been working prior to taking the game up full-time. Both Robert Roberts (growing up in Edwardian Salford) and the Hammerman Poet Alfred Williams (in Swindon Works in the time of Churchward) report the air turning blue with innuendo and foul language: Roberts’ account is crowded with rumours of extra-marital relationships and entertaining raids on brothels by mobhanded housewives (and he has one quite heartbreaking tale of a reformed prostitute who lived her last 25 years quite blamelessly, but who was forever after shut out by her neighbours).
Roberts’ account is particularly interesting because in his Salford, it’s the sportsmen who are the cock of the walk, the toast of the local pubs, and given the pick of the local women.
But exactly how much extra-marital activity was going on is almost impossible to tell. My own guess – and that’s all it is, a guess – is that there wasn’t much. Throughout this period, the educated opinion was that the poorer the area, the less respectable the behaviour of the inhabitants – throw in here phenomena such as illegitimate births, wife-selling, child prostitution and so forth. Even as late as the 1930s, Mass Observation went to Bolton and Blackpool expecting to find widespread extra-marital sex (they found only two instances, one of which included their own observer).
In fact, what little first-hand evidence of slum life survives points away from the poverty=sex equation, at least in the cities. Living ten to a room actually seems to have exaggerated the desire to act respectably: the children of the time, looking back in old age, could not remember ever having seen their parents unclothed, and generally do not remember any hint of sexual activity whatsoever. Girls and boys could grow up in Salford, by Roberts’ account, quite ignorant of the facts of life. Blue talk and malicious rumour seem, in Salford at any rate, to have taken the place of any or at least most actual..action.
The different accounts of Quintin Hogg and Henry Mayhew concur (and William Acton, writing in the 1850s, agreed) that the majority of women who entered prostitution in the Victorian urban environment did so because their breadwinner had died, leaving the wife destitute but with children to feed. Sewing, the other option, often did not pay enough to pay for food, shelter, heat and other essential costs, which was why the Hoggs and Kinnairds involved themselves in a large scale scheme to employ seamstresses at wages higher than the market could supply unassisted. The urge to be respectable overrode everything short of starvation, and even then, some chose to starve and the rest pleaded for understanding and mitigation.
In any case, the market for prostitution seems to have declined rapidly after 1870, as did the proportion of illegitimate births, and some opinion links both of these phenomena to the contemporaneous arrival on the scene of Charles Goodyear’s rubber factories.
Roberts remembers the effect of condom use in Edwardian Salford. It was just as you’d expect: the alpha males boasting to local women that they tested all their rubbers very thoroughly before use – no chance of the shame of pregnancy if you come with me!
So the sex lives of Victorian and Edwardian footballers would have been subject to conflicting pressures. Although they would have been the well-paid, sporting alpha males in their districts, disease, overcrowding and the demands of respectability would have acted as natural controls, whereas the arrival of relatively reliable contraception would have pushed things the other way.
What about the men themselves?
Again, the sources – at least as they’ve been used up until now – aren’t able to give a clear picture. Those players who went on into journalism, men like John Cameron, tended to play lip service to Arnoldian sporting values. Because they saw it necessary to deplore drinking and smoking, it’s reasonable to suppose that these were rife in the game. They don’t mention sex, nor eve hint at it, and neither do the critics and opponents of the game. When Chelsea F.C. were founded in 1905, the local newspapers were worried about gambling and fan violence, not sexual misbehaviour.
Until the 1930s, also, many top teams, especially Newcastle and Huddersfield, contained men who were vocally committed to Christianity and a teetotal lifestyle. Huddersfield’s great 1920s team had at least two lay preachers in its first XI. The evangelical campaigns that began with the Hogg and Kinnaird families ran long and deep.
It’s worth remembering, also, that footballers were relatively well-paid – until 1901, and the advent of the maximum wage, some were very well paid indeed, more and more each year. This helped them marry young – practically every player who died as a result of accident or disease (and many did) left a wife and family.
None of this translates into Edwardian versions of the famous modern nightclub scene, in which young, fit, wealthy footballers attract a competing crowd of women. It suggests only that a Victorian or Edwardian player would have had some additional access compared to his peers on the factory floor, but that there existed some very strong downward pressures that would limit the extent to which he would take advantage of it.
These factors probably remained in place until the late 1960s at the very earliest. Nightclub scenes of the News of the World variety do seem to be a relatively recent development, and it’s hard not to see it as a function of the players’ sheer earning power rather than the softer status playing alone can provide. It’s a shift from sex being available if you want it, to sex being practically thrust upon you every time you go out. I’m reminded of an anecdote about Manchester United from the 1990s. Team and board were out celebrating one of Ferguson’s early triumphs. They were clubbing, and there were women aplenty. But they weren’t mobbing the players. It was Martin Edwards, the millionaire chairman, who was receiving all the attention. Make of that what you will.