|Pat Barker's Regeneration|
"Contraception and Its Role in Regeneration"
Abby Hiles (Spring 2003)
Contraception is a word commonly used in society today. With hundreds of types, brands, and methods of contraception available, it is hard to imagine a world without it or one in which it was against the law. However, decades ago at the turn of the 20th century, birth control was not easy to get or looked upon as socially acceptable. It was during the First World War that society began to see the emergence of contraception and its acceptance. Readers can also see its emergence in Regeneration on page 128, as Billy Prior propositions his new love interest by stating he "always paddles with me boots on," a reference to the fact that he, as an army man, always wears contraception when having intercourse. With this background, we can now see how Pat Barker uses this brief cultural reference to remind readers of the history of contraception for both men and women during the war and to suggest how people can find emotionally fulfilling and loving personal relationships through sex, a main theme in the novel.
Many men during the war were soldiers. With the constant travel and movement of their platoons, soldiers did not stay in one place or, for that matter, with one girl. Consequently, during the First World War, condoms were handed out to soldiers as a preventative measure against the spread of venereal disease (Robb 65). Because soldiers would sometimes have many partners, condoms became a necessity to carry. Lesley A. Hall wrote, "It is often stated that condoms gained, as it were, a certain currency through being distributed to troops," by soldiers trading them back and forth to decrease, once again, the spread of disease. Currency suggests that condoms became of value, almost to that of money, during the war. This increase of casual sexual intercourse led many members of the medical community to worry about its possible consequences. An increasing amount of doctors and feminists became concerned about VD spreading amongst the troops, so in 1914, the National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases was formed to help fight its spread (Hall). The formation of this alliance forever changed the history of contraception as now women became a part of its growing support and widening acceptance.
Perhaps acceptance would not have come at all if women were still at home, and not making their own living without men. With war booming, the women's contraception and birth control movement came as women began to take jobs and go out into the work place, thus increasing their independence. Women now had a need for birth control just as much as men, as women exercised their own right to deal with their own sexual needs and desires. In fact, women "learned about contraception from their workmates in factories, shops, and offices" (Robb 65), thus further exemplifying that contraception was taking a hold of common society and its use was spreading. Contraception also came in different forms as the use of oral and other types of birth control began to emerge with the fights of some very important women's activists. Margaret Sanger, a nurse, published a magazine called "The Woman Rebel" in 1914 to stimulate women thinking for themselves (Bullough and Bullough). Following Sanger's lead, many other women stared fighting for legal birth control during the war. In 1915, Mary Ware Dennett started the National Birth Control League, with the mission to demand laws to be changed about birth control (Bullough and Bullough). By the same token, Marie Stopes, a Scottish feminist, was also inspired by Sanger's work and published her second book, Wise Parenthood, advocating the use and spread of birth control for women ("Marie Stopes"). With many strong women leading the pack, contraception stopped being the man's responsibility and women took the lead in promoting legal birth control.
In Regeneration, Pat Barker mentions contraception, like many other social and political taboos, to make a statement about its significance in society at that time. Contraception is first mentioned in chapter 12 as Prior is on the beach with his current significant other, Sarah, and they are about to have sex for the first time. Sarah coyly asks if, as an uniformed soldier, he can take anything off for them to go swimming, and Prior responds no: "I always paddle with me boots on," an obvious insinuation to contraception and having sex with a condom. Its appearance in the novel is an indication that Prior wishes to be safe, if they are indeed going to have sex. He also is indicating his sense of humor about this serious subject by using slang. After all, at this time, with the raging spread of sexually transmitted diseases, Prior was not going to take a chance on this lonely Munitionette, even if she does seem innocent.
As the scene continues, we see that Sarah is not as innocent as Prior thinks in the ways of love and sex. After his mention of "paddling with [his] boots on," he watches her as he is sure that she does not catch the significance of his comment and that she probably thinks that he really is talking about boots and wading in the water. But Prior is mistaken as Sarah, obviously learned in the ways of contraception from her fellow coworkers and friends, replies to him, "Boots have a way of springing a leak," thus signifying that she is also up to date on the latest slang for contraception and that it isn't always that trustworthy. She, by catching his joke, also signifies that she can also find this subject humorous, despite its current stigma. By including Prior's comment and Sarah's response in the novel, Pat Barker gives the reader insight into an extremely controversial topic at the time, and lets the audience know that it was not just men who knew about or supported the use of contraception, but that women were well versed in it as well.
Prior's reference in this scene to contraception suggests he is only interested in sex, but, in the novel as a whole, his character shows the possibility of finding complex relationships through sex. Readers follow the young second-lieutenant on a roller coaster of a relationship, with the seemingly conventional Sarah, as they explore not only the physical side but, in the end, the emotional side to personal relationships. By starting their relationship off with physical intimacy and sex, contraception plays a large part in developing the theme. The characters must communicate with each other to decide on the use of birth control to prevent not only disease but pregnancy. After all, with an officer going back and forth from war, and without a wedding ring on her hand, Sarah would be left with quite a bit of responsibility if she were to get pregnant. Another repercussion besides pregnancy could be abortion. At this time when birth control and contraception are not highly looked on or trusted, the possibility of pregnancy and abortion are high. So Prior and Sarah's discussion and decision to use contraception is obviously an intelligent one as it signals the possibility for further communication between them and keeps the possibilities mentioned above virtually non-existent.
Starting Prior and Sarah's relationship with sex is a way to integrate not only the cultural stigma related to birth control and contraception, but was also a way to introduce Prior's past sexual experiences. As stated before, at the time of the First World War, there was an appallingly high rate of venereal disease spread from soldiers sleeping around. Prior's character obviously was one of these soldiers as he was the one who presented to Sarah that he always wore contraception during sex. In fact, earlier in the novel Prior and Rivers have a conversation about Prior's past sexual experience. Prior mentions a time when he and the other officers and soldiers went to a brothel for a good time and he was vague about whether or not he took part in the activities. Rivers starts to ask him if he did, too, when Prior states, "I never pay," suggesting to us that he did have encounters with the prostitutes. Although he may not have paid, it suggests that Prior does have past sexual experience. This conversation with Rivers brings the theme to light as we see that previously sex and/or physical intimacy had not brought personal relationships to Prior. They had just been sex partners and that is all. So, as readers see the scene with Prior and Sarah on the beach, the audience must realize that it is not the first time a sexual encounter has happened, and that Prior does not expect, at this time, to fall in love with Sarah. After all, she is not the first one he has had sex with. However, after their sexual experience with each other, something more comes of their initially physical relationship. When they see each other in the future, it is not just for sex but for emotional comfort as well, and by the end of the novel, they are a part of each other’s lives both physically and emotionally.
Contraception, although only briefly mentioned, develops a major theme in the novel. Personal relationships sometimes do start out physically and sexually, and as illustrated in the relationship between Prior and Sarah. By seeing these two characters begin the courting process, go through the choice to use birth control, and then fall in love, the reader's understanding of Prior and Sarah’s relationship, and the importance of sex in that relationship, help shape contraception’s significance to the novel.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 2003.
Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. “A Brief History of Population Control and Contraception.” Free Inquiry. 14.2 (1994): 16-7
Hall, Lesley A. “Angus McLaren, Twentieth Century Sexuality.” 1999. 12 Apr. 2003. <http://homepages.primex.co.uk/~lesleyah/mclaren.htm>
Hall, Lesley A. “History of Condoms.” 2003. 12 Apr. 2003. <http://homepages.primex.co.uk/~lesleyah/acbcond.htm>
“Marie Stopes.” 2003. Spartacus Online. 12 Apr. 2003 <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/b33.htm>