Our co-director, Professor Kate Fisher, and Engaged Research Fellow, Dr Jen Grove, work with Professor Rebecca Langlands (University of Exeter) on the Sex and History project. This award-winning initiative works in collaboration with museums, schools, youth groups and sexual health charities, using objects from past cultures to empower people to discuss sexuality more easily.
This approach draws upon and speaks to our research on the early sexual scientists, whose understanding of sexuality and gender was informed, not only by their medical backgrounds, but by artistic, cultural and historical materials and evidence, including historical artefacts. In this way the Sex and History project answers calls in the UK and worldwide for young people’s sex education to address non-biological aspects of healthy sexual development, such as relationships, consent and self-esteem.
This project responded to some of the themes and personalities in the Institute of Sexology exhibition at Wellcome Collection, informed by their own experiences as young trans people. The aim was to create a lighted hearted response to some really complicated ideas, in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy.
Each person designed their own Transvengers character who travels back in time to challenge key sexologists and their ideas – many of which continue to shape society’s thinking about sex and gender today.
The writers presented work which illustrates how radically different sex is for different people and invites us to consider sexuality from different perspectives, sometimes confronting cultural and religious taboos.
Jana discussed how literature contributes to our understanding of sexuality alongside scientific and medical research. The early pioneers of sexology research reached out beyond medical disciplines to understand our sexuality and in turn literary writers used ideas from science and medicine. She argued that this multi-disciplinary approach is important for contemporary research. Alongside brain scans, measuring hormone levels and genetics, literature helps us understand other dimensions of sex, the psychological, the social and the emotional.
This discussion considered the way in which, from asexuality to sex addiction, there is huge variety in our experience of sexual desire. Both the temptation and the conflict it can create are enduring themes central to Western literature, yet sexual attraction has been little researched until recent decades. The panel suggested we are still largely in the dark about many facets of attraction, so having little or excessive desire can be difficult experiences.
Jana joined Dr Helen Mathers (Open University) to talk about some of the issues raised by the work of the early sexual scientists featured in the exhibition, in particular 19th century prostitution, the definitions of sex work and the ‘victim narrative’.
In 2015 our co-director Dr Jana Funke ran a series of workshops in The Institute of Sexology galleries at the Wellcome Collection. She examined photographs from late 19th and early 20th century sexual science publications to explore how these sex researchers used and interpreted photographic evidence.What role did such photographs play in allowing individuals to explore their own gender identity and sexuality? Read Jana’s write-up blog of the event.
A Problem in Greek Ethics, A Problem in Modern Ethics and “Soldier Love” indicate that John Addington Symonds responded carefully to social anxieties regarding the influence and corruption of youth and placed increasing emphasis on presenting male same-sex desire as consensual and age-consistent. Situating Symonds’s work in the social and political context of the 1880s and 1890s, the article opens up a more complex understanding of Symonds’s reception of Greece. It also offers a new reading of his collaboration with Havelock Ellis by arguing that Symonds’s insistence on age-equal and reciprocal relationships between men strongly shaped Sexual Inversion. This shows that concerns about age difference and ideals of equality and reciprocity began to impact debates about male same-sex desire in the late nineteenth century – earlier than is generally assumed.
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