History seminars at the IHR

History of Sexuality Seminar

Convenors: Anna Schaffner (University of Kent), Chiara Beccalossi (Oxford Brookes), Alison Oram (Leeds Metropolitan University), Craig Griffiths (Queen Mary), Christopher M. Waters (Williams University), Heike Bauer (Birkbeck), Jana Funke (University of Exeter), Julia Laite (Birkbeck), Jane Mackelworth (Queen Mary), Justin Bengry (Birkbeck/McGill), Claire Hayward (Kingston University), Matt Cook (Birkbeck), Sean Brady (Birkbeck), Sarah Toulalan (University of Exeter)

Venue: From Autumn 2014, Holden Room, 103, first floor of Senate House.  From 5 May, Room 304 in the IHR, third floor.

Time: Tuesdays 18:00.  Please note, 17:30 on 10 March and 17:15 for all later dates.

The seminar series is convened by the Raphael Samuel History Centre. All seminars are open to all and there is no need to register in advance. If you have any questions about the seminar please contact Craig Griffiths at: c.griffiths@qmul.ac.uk

You can subscribe to the seminar mailing list online

Some podcasts from this seminar are available online

Summer Term 2015
DateSeminar details
5 May 'Even Menuhin has to practice the violin daily': The Joy of Sex and the sexual self in 1970s Britain

Ben Mechen (UCL)

In 1974, the biologist, physician and writer Alex Comfort published in Britain his 'gourmet guide to love making', The Joy of Sex. Encyclopaedic in scope and avowedly liberal in mood, Joy's recipes for the 'starters', 'main courses' and 'sauces and pickles' of satisfying sex, from oral sex to bondage and discipline, along with its illustrations of a hippyish young couple in the throes of passion, would make it a global bestseller and an enduring icon of the 'sexual revolution', whilst confirming Comfort as Britain's 'Doctor Sex'.

But what precisely did Joy say, how was it read by contemporaries, and what might this tell us about sex and sexuality in 1970s Britain? This paper attempts an answer. Setting Comfort and Joy in their historical contexts, it begins by arguing that Joy influentially outlined a new, counterculturally-informed version of the 'fully-realised' sexual self: improving and experimental, free of unnecessary 'hangups', determined in the pursuit of mutually orgasmic pleasure, firm in the belief that good sex and the good life were inseparable, and, crucially, advisable by 'sexperts' like Comfort.

This vision of the sexual self is used, in the rest of the paper, as a means of further uncovering the complexity of Britain’s 'sexual revolution'. Did Joy relieve sex of its norms and pressures, as it claimed to do, or simply reformulate them? Was its vision of sexuality open to all, or only those who could afford the time, space and resources counselled by Comfort as the preconditions for gratifying sex? And for all its talk of sexual mutuality and equality, and even the universality of bisexual desire, did Joy remain fundamentally sexist and heteronormative in outlook? With answers to questions like these in mind, the paper concludes by arguing that The Joy of Sex is a valuable resource for understanding the chronology and character of Britain’s postwar sexual liberalisation, and in particular its limits.


Reproduction, eugenics, and the fight for free love at the fin de siècle
Sarah Jones (Exeter)

In the final years of the nineteenth century, radical free love advocates the Legitimation League began to publish their journal, The Adult.  The journal was dedicated to the discussion of the reform of sexual relationships, and contributors debated ways to make a system of total sexual freedom a practical possibility. One of the key problems facing those debating what a meaningful and workable free love relationship might look like was the question of reproduction. Women’s physiological role in the production of children represented a barrier to many of those discussing the possibility of free love, as it rendered complete sexual equality problematic. This paper will examine the dialogue occurring around reproduction here, as it demonstrates in microcosm the instability of ideas about gender that were positioned at the heart of free love debate. This paper will show that authors with opposing viewpoints on 'The Woman Question' manipulated or reinterpreted gendered ideas about the female body and its reproductive function to support different radical sexual aims.

Please note:  this session takes place in Room 304 in the IHR and begins at 17:15

26 May The De-Naturalization of Sexuality in 21st Century Psychology

Peter Hegarty (Surrey)

Do the psy- disciplines inevitably discipline and punish, naturalize differences, and individualize in the service of normativity?  I will argue that they don’t, by describing psychologists’ attempts to retain authority over the contested terrain of sexuality in recent decades.  Since the 1990s, scholars have increasingly claimed that the psychological category of ‘sexuality’ is on the one hand biological, and on the other hand, historical.  Here I tell the story of how psychological theories of sexuality have adapted and changed in this changing disciplinary landscape, as the human experience of sexuality was itself in rapid flux.   I argue that psychologists de-naturalized sexuality without historicizing it in the 21st century, aligning narratives drawn from biology, and by incorporating an ahistorical notion of sexual fluidity from feminist critics of biology.  The view that LGBT people are first and foremost a stigmatized minority is the current consensus in psychology, wherein it remains legitimate to consider nature/nurture as covering the range of ways that sexualities take their psychological shape.  I will conclude by considering the stakes in such ahistorical thinking for psychological theory and its capacity to support diverse flourishing as the psychological sciences cede ground to the neurosciences and questions about the sexualization of culture loom large.

Please note:  this session takes place in Room 304 in the IHR and begins at 17:15

16 June Stopes v. Ellis: A Critically Queer Take on Normal Sex

Laura Doan (Manchester)

In the early twentieth century the sexual lives of ordinary Britons were regulated and governed not by a powerful ideological system called 'normal' but by norms of morality, class-based standards of respectability, and ideals of self-control.  For decades queer studies has struggled to account for the operations and logics of these other relationalities and modes of social regulation due to its formulation of queer as a site of resistance to normality.  This is why I welcome the recent call to rethink 'queer theory without antinormativity' (Wiegman and Wilson, 2015).  This reorientation of the queer analytical framework points to new opportunities in accounting for the historicity of terms such as norm, normal, normative, and heteronormativity. 

In this paper I want to think about what a queer critical history of normal sex might look like.  Historians of sexuality have sometimes credited marital advice literature at this time with disseminating a modern way to think and talk about the sexual, as developed in the writings of sexologists who understood people’s behaviors, pleasures, desires or fantasies as normal or abnormal.  Yet Marie Stopes, in her bestselling advice manual Married Love (1918), did not simply reproduce the findings of sexologists but drew on the scientific methods of the biometricians in her attempt to normalize the natural.  Scrutinizing her own bodily sensations and emotional disposition, Stopes used time series analysis to demonstrate her theory of the Law of Periodicity of recurrence of desire.  Thinking about Stopes’s methods in discerning a naturally occurring curve of normal female sex-impulses in relation to the methods of Havelock Ellis points to constraints in the sexological project in producing the desiring subject as normal.  I then trace the impact of Stopes’s attempt to measure desire by turning to a few of the thousands of letters she received from ordinary readers who became partners in the great scientific project of normalization.

Please note:  this session takes place in Room 304 in the IHR and begins at 17:15