My Website

Showing posts with label sex. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sex. Show all posts

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Gender, Sex and Sexuality in 20th Century British History: save the date!

New Directions – Gender, Sex and Sexuality in 20th Century British History
Tuesday 8 April 2014, University College London
With a keynote address by Professor Laura Doan, University of Manchester
Call for Papers
This one day workshop looks to bring together scholars, at any stage of their career and working on any aspect of gender, sex and sexuality in 20th century Britain, and to provide a forum for both the presentation of new work and the beginning of a dialogue about the past, present and future of the field.

The workshop addresses the field at a critical juncture in its development. The decades since the publication of Jeffrey Weeks’ Sex, politics and society (1981) have seen histories of gender, sex and sexuality become increasingly central to historians’ understanding of 20th century Britain. There has been a corresponding march through the institutions: no longer regarded as involved in a fringe pursuit, scholars of gender, sex and sexuality have found homes in departments; non-specialist periodicals have watched and sponsored new research with interest; and the UK’s major presses have published groundbreaking work, exemplified by the inauguration of Palgrave Macmillan’s ‘Gender and Sexualities in History’ series in 2009.

Alongside this professional maturation, events in wider society have demonstrated the continued power of ideas about gender, sex and sexuality to shape popular understandings of British history. Indeed, the recent past, whether as a dark age of intolerance or, conversely, a golden age of “family values,” has loomed  heavily in debates about equal marriage, the Savile affair and the “sexualisation” of childhood. The voices of
historians have been present in some of these debates. Yet in others they have been largely absent, even when scholars from other disciplines – sociology, education, gender studies, science and medicine – have been prominent.

The workshop therefore asks participants to consider “where have we got to, and where do we go from here?” What contributions have we made, through British examples, to understandings of gender, sex and sexuality in history? What contributions have we made, through a focus on of gender, sex and sexuality, to understandings of 20th century British history? Finally, what contributions have we made to understandings of gender, sex and sexuality in Britain outside our profession, both in other disciplines and, importantly, the wider public conversation? And in all three cases, what contributions, in new and ongoing work, might we make in the future?

To help address these questions, the workshop organisers welcome proposals for papers presenting new work on any aspect of gender, sex or sexuality in twentieth century British history as well as those that reflexively engage with the past, present or future of the field. The organisers particularly welcome papers looking at non-marginal experiences, as well as those looking to challenge marginal/non-marginal distinctions altogether. We are also especially interested in contributions from postgraduate and early career scholars.

If you are interested in presenting a paper at the workshop, please email a short proposal (max. 300 words) and CV or short bio to by 1st September 2013. If you would like to discuss possible topics before submitting a proposal, please get in touch at the same address. Registration details for non-speakers will be publicised later in 2013 at
Kevin Guyan and Ben Mechen, UCL History (organisers)

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Sex in the local record office

Found via that invaluable historian and documenter of LGBT history and its sources, Rictor Norton, a useful little page from the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre on sources for LGBT history in local record offices.

I am particularly interested to note that they recommend caution in assumptions that lunatic asylum records will be a fruitful source  - my own impression from the records of private lunatic asylums held in the Wellcome Library is that any such cases were few and far between, and such instances as I've come across of individuals incarcerated where there appeared to be some same-sex component to their behaviour manifested other issues which must have contributed probably even more strongly.

The sexual practice that crops up most frequently in records of C19th asylums is (as one might predict) self-abuse, mostly in terms of the strategies for its prevention.

One of the reasons why I would not expect men who had been engaging in same-sex activity to be found in poor law and voluntary asylums would be that non-elite men would have been primarily subjected to the various criminal and vagrancy penalties and thus be dealt with within the judicial system rather than the emergent discipline of psychiatry.

The situation is somewhat fuzzier if one considers the class which could have afforded to keep family members perceived as deviant in a private institution. Nonetheless, as already mentioned, these constitute a statistically meaningless number of cases (this is borne out by Charlotte Mackenzie's meticulously detailed analysis of the copious surviving records of Ticehurst House in the Wellcome Library, published as Psychiatry for the Rich). Perhaps the disgrace of having a certified lunatic in the family, and its impact on, for example, the matrimonial prospects of other family members, led those who could afford it to seek other expedients to contain potentially scandalous relatives, for example sending them to live abroad as 'remittance men'.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Angus McLaren, Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees, and Test-tube Babies in Interwar Britain (2012)

I am woefully behindhand in writing up this book, which is very much the kind of fascinating and very accessible read we have come to anticipate from McLaren. It pulls together a number of concerns of the interwar era, predominantly in the UK, demonstrating the influence of underlying issues around reproduction, and the allied areas of sex and gender, in a range of fields not normally seen as connected.

McLaren plausibly suggests that alongside clearly speculative science fiction texts, social theorists and commentators and those producing programmes for action that should also be considered as creating 'science fictions' based in ideas about the possibilities of science and anxieties around modernity.

While eugenics in the interwar era has been the subject of much heated debate, McLaren presents us with a compelling case that broader and less focused anxieties around reproduction, population, its quantity and quality were pervasive and popping up in places where perhaps they would not be expected. It also provides a new take on the responses to 'modernity' more generally during the same period. He makes the important point that even proponents of apparently conservative agendas were not so much restoring an ancient order as creating a new one along the lines which appealed to them, however rhetorically based in notions of tradition and conservation.

As well as speaking to existing historiographical debates around science, reproduction and breeding, it also constitutes a work which scholars of science fiction, particularly British science fiction, could usefully study. I think it was Brian Aldiss who suggested that post-World War II British sf was haunted by images of senility and sterility in the era of the end of Empire. McLaren's work suggests that this theme already pervaded the British imaginary well before then.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

More cross-postery

Sex, religion and royalty: also dairy farming: post on the Wellcome Library blog about Lord Dawson's papers and his involvement in the moral panic of 1932 about condom vending machines. With pictures! 


A Different Kind of Nurse: Wellcome Library blog post about a notebook of lecture notes kept by a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, some time around World War I


And this isn't one of mine, but I wish it was: one of my colleagues connects Library holdings of the Krafft-Ebing papers and Sacher-Masoch's correspondence to The Velvet Underground: Shiny shiny, shiny boots of leather, managing to get sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll into a single post. Hats off!


I haven't yet managed to write up as a blog post my impressions of a newly catalogued manuscript recipe book from the early C19th century that could have belonged to the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, but this may yet appear.


 On a rather different note, my annual round-up of reading highlights and other cultural pleasures of the year appeared on Ambling Along the Aqueduct. 


Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Adrian Bingham, Gender, Modernity and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (2004)

A very good piece of work, looking specifically at the popular dailies of the period and their extremely polyvocal take on issues of gender. Makes a good point about the papers positioning themselves as about 'modernity', and issues of feminisation of their presentation and the types of things they dealt with, even beyond the actual women's pages. Not just about reinscribing traditional gender roles - some of that but because there are so many people writing in any given paper on any given day with different slants what they were getting across was a good deal more complex.

Even if there was a tendency to be 'yay modern girl - particularly in a bathing suit', with the increasing use of eroticised photographs of attractive women. But did get serious feminist voices out there too, even if there was often an agenda of drumming up sales-gleaning controversy.

Also has good chapter specifically on representations of masculinity and attitudes about men (which also comes up in the war and peace chapter  - the contrasting figures of the decorated hero who says never again, the shell-shocked veteran, and the languid foppish postwar male who hadn't fought).

Monday, 20 June 2011

Looking back at the Berks, before it all fades entirely

Panels I attended:

'The True Sex? cases of gender ambivalence and their impact in Europe'; four papers, one on the various later  redeployments of the tale of Phaethousa the bearded lady in the Hippocratic corpus; two on cases of 'hermaphroditism' in late C19th Denmark (covering some of the same material but with a different slant); the case of Lili Elbe and her (posthumously created) autobiography Man into Woman. This was a tightly run panel that worked well. Papers very much about how society uses stories of gender ambivalence for various purposes.

'Healthy babies, healthy families: generations of health care in South Asia': this also had four papers, but could have done with rather stricter moderation as the session ran out of time - it was already at time when the discussant started to comment. This was a pity, because they were all very interesting pieces in themselves: the politics of milk and infant welfare in early C20th Madras; reconstructing ideas of masculinity and fatherhood in late C19th Bengal; the role of A Pillay and the Bombay-published International Journal of Sexology within mid-C20th sexology; the time and place-specific nature of a post-Partition translation/version of the Kama Sutra


'Love, Desire, Community and Friendship: reconsidering female same-sex relationships in the early to mid C20th': this was the panel I organised and spoke on. I think it went well - the room was encouragingly full, we all kept to time, and there was good discussion. But what would I know.

'Leatherwomen's histories: international perspectives from academic and public historians': 'international' in this context actually meant the USA and Canada (and I think one of the participants had worked on curating materials in Mexico) - however, it was clear that there were distinctive differences in history and that the crisis points were not the same in these two close and fairly culturally similar milieux. Panel also shed some light on the development of communities which seemed of much wider application (from a small group looking outward, or defining itself against that larger world, to a larger but less cohesive, even riven, group). Also, issues of marginalisation of certain categories within already marginalised groups.

'Contesting the boundaries of Christian sexuality': unfortunately one panelist had dropped out (English Catholics, contraception and the response to Humanae Vitae), but the two that were left worked very well together - one on Mary Scharlieb and her emphasis on the importance of sex education in the context of social purity, and  the other on D Sherwin Bailey's elaborate theology of marriage produced at more or less precisely the mid-point of the C20th. V useful.


The Sunday morning sessions were all round-tables with precirculated papers. I hadn't actually managed to read any of the papers, but I went to the excellent and wide-ranging 'Motherhood and the State in the waning age of Empire', which covered a broad geographical range and raised a lot of exciting questions about mothering, invisible labour, the role of the state, NGOs, race, class, colonialism, ambivalence responses to apparently coercive and colonialising practices, the impact of wider global phenomena on policy, etc etc etc.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Marcus Collins, Modern Love: An Intimate History of Men and Women in Twentieth Century Britain

Okay, it's not really an 'intimate history' in the way that Szreter and Fisher's Sex before the Sexual Revolution is, or Kate Fisher's early work on birth control, or even, dare I venture, my own Hidden Anxieties. It's a touch distanced, it's more about rhetoric and reports and representations than lived (hetero)sexual experence.

There are some good useful case-studies in this book. Collins has delved into the archives of organisations offering various forms of marital counselling to rather different constituencies in more or less the immediately post-war era (though he doesn't seem to know that the Marriage Guidance Council started in the 1930s, though it went on hiatus during the early war years),  and found some fascinating material. I also greatly liked his investigation into the phenomena of same-sex and mixed sex youth clubs and the shifts and changes and unforeseen outcomes of various developments (though is he serious about somewhat marking down girls in the 50s for not somehow militantly reclaiming the space within mixed clubs that was taken over by boys and their interests?) But there's valuable material there. His analysis of the short period in the rise of glossy soft-porn men's mags when they were pro some kind of women's lib is intriguing, particularly in the light of some of the material in Mort's Capital Offenses about new ideas of womanhood.

However, I am not convinced by his rather rigid lump categorisation of people writing about marriage. I'm not sure 'radical feminism' is a helpful way of thinking about social purity feminism (which was hardly monolithic), and I am simply bewildered by the people he plonks into the interwar classifications of 'Christian mutualists' and 'sex reformers'. Given that quite a lot of the mutualists were not Christian (Collins specifically describes the secularist, Jewish by origin, Eustace Chesser, as a 'Christian': and there were elements in Chesser's rather diverse agenda which allied him with the interwar sex reformers as much as with e.g. Griffith or Mace of the Marriage Guidance Council) and that some of the prominent 'reformers' were just as much about mutualism, but a mutualism of both partners having other lovers, this seems unduly simplistic, even as a heuristic device.

Also, it's all very hetero, which is perhaps reasonable, but if you are looking at mutualism, a case can be made that writers on marriage were often quite benign on the subject of female-female couples, who were seen as embodying an ideal egalitarian form of relationship. This focus becomes particularly egregious in the concluding section, given that the C21st has seen, it may be argued, the spreading of the mutualist couple ideal to same-sex couples via civil partnership. I also felt the work as a whole rather ignored the impact on sexual mores of STDs - the burgeoning sexual revolution of the 60s/70s was underpinned by penicillin as much as the Pill, and the retreat from it from the early 80s surely owed something to the rise of herpes, the AIDS/HIV panic, the awareness of a range of other STDs, and the development of the paradism of safe, or safer sex.

However, useful, both for the case studies, and for provoking thoughts and ideas around the subject.