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Press release

  • 7 September 2005
  • Sussex archive reveals secret sex lives of 1940s Britain

    Britain's first-ever sex survey, part of the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, is the subject of a revealing BBC documentary to be screened this autumn.

    The sex survey was based on the candid responses of just over 2,000 men and women in 1949 and intended for publication in a national newspaper. The survey is housed in the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, which catalogues the private lives of ordinary men and women and their attitudes to events and trends of the day.

    The survey included the views of regular contributors, with "man in the street" surveys and polls of doctors, teachers and clergy. The level of candour in the responses contradicts the perception of the age before the "Permissive Society" as being prim and proper. The survey, which was ultimately deemed too shocking for publication, revealed that:

    • One in five men said that they'd had a homosexual experience;
    • One in four men admitted to having sex with prostitutes;
    • One in five women admitted to an extra-marital affair;
    • One in three children were conceived outside of marriage

    The BBC film, entitled Little Kinsey (the report was published in 1949, a year after the groundbreaking American Kinsey Report on sexuality in the USA), draws on this archive material and features an interview with the University's Head of Special Collections, Dorothy Sheridan, who oversees the work of the Archive.

    Little Kinsey producer and director Steve Humphries, of production company Testimony Films, vowed to make use of this archival treasure after coming across the report while researching his DPhil at Sussex in the 1980s.

    Unlike the American Kinsey Report, which concentrated only on male sexuality, the sex survey also featured the opinions and experiences of women. Steve says: "I was most surprised at the candid views of married women, many of whom disliked or were disgusted by sex with their husbands. "

    The British report also differed from Kinsey in that fewer Brits admitted to affairs, homosexual experiences and visiting prostitutes than the Americans - whose "oversexed" GIs were often blamed by respondents for a decline in British morals in the aftermath of World War II.

    Steve says: "Dorothy Sheridan and her team helped enormously with the research. I think the Mass-Observation Archive is a national treasure, providing a unique insight into the lives of ordinary British people in the 20th century and beyond."

    Dorothy Sheridan says: "Once again it's a delight to see the Mass-Observation material reaching a wider audience. Sex (theoretical and practical) as a subject always fascinated the early Mass-Observers, but it took them nearly ten years before they dared launch a public survey."


    Notes for editors 

    • Little Kinsey is a Testimony Films production for BBC Four's Lost Decade season  and is due to be screened in the first week of October.
    • The Mass-Observation Archive specialises in material about everyday life in Britain. For more information see or call 01273 678157.

    University of Sussex Press Office contacts: Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email or



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