Workshop: ‘Biological Discourses: Science, Sexuality, and the Novel around 1900’

This was a multi-disciplinary workshop held in February 2018.

Dr Charlotte Woodford (Cambridge) spoke on “Sexology and women’s sexual emancipation: Lou Andreas-Salome’s theories of female sexuality and her novella ‘Deviations’ (1898) as literary case study”

Abstract: This presentation examines Lou Andreas-Salome’s exploration of female masochism in her short story ‘Deviations’ (Eine Ausschweifung, 1898), focusing its literary engagement with the relationship between normal and abnormal female sexuality as a site of resistance against patriarchal norms. Against the background of contemporary sexual theories, this paper will examine how the author complicates the association of masochism in women with passivity – and hence normal sexual desire in women – through its engagement with fantasy and performance as a source of female sexual agency. The paper will show how Andreas-Salomé in this story attempts to shift the engagement with female sexuality away from the procreative norm and towards an understanding of sexuality as a source of self-fulfilment or self-exploration.

Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex (Cambridge) gave a paper on “Monism, Eugenics, and (the Limits of) Female Agency: Grete Meisel-Hess’s Novel Die Intellektuellen [The Intellectuals] (1911).”

Abstract: This paper discusses the German-Jewish author Grete Meisel-Hess’s 1911 novel Die Intellektuellen (The Intellectuals) in the context of post-Darwinian biologistic ethics and Wilhelm Bölsche’s literary aesthetics. Embracing Monist philosophy and following a didactic programme of providing positive models of behaviour in literature, Meisel-Hess endows her female protagonists with remarkable social and sexual agency and reproductive responsibility. An ambivalent picture emerges, however, as her Jewish characters’ life choices also reflect the restrictive aspect of biologistic ¬— and eugenic — thinking.

This seminar was hosted by the University of Exeter’s Centre for Medical History and the  Rethinking Sexology project, and was part of the Medical History and Humanities seminar series (details of which can be found here)

Workshop: Exploring the history of modern sex advice

This workshop, run as a joint endeavour between the Rethinking Sexology project and Exeter’s Sexual Knowledge Unit, explores the history of sex advice in the modern world. It features papers from Dr Ben Mechen (UCL), Dr Caroline Rusterholz (Birkbeck), and Linnea Tillema (QMUL/Uppsala).



Dr Caroline Rusterholz (Birkbeck)

Women Doctors and Sexual Disorders in England (1930s-1970s)

This presentation explores the expansion of birth control sessions in Family Planning Centres towards sexual advice thanks to women doctors in interwar England and onwards. In particular, this presentation analyses the way through which women doctors set up advisory sessions on sexual disorders and the way they shaped this advice, as well as their contribution to the medical understanding of ‘frigidity’ and ‘vaginismus’. It examines female doctors’ contributions in sex and medical manuals, scientific publications but also in sexual counselling sessions with their patients from the 1930s to the 1970s, and the extent to which these contributions reflected or challenged broader conceptions about heterosexuality and gender norms that prevailed at that time.


Dr Ben Mechen (UCL)

‘The Sexiest Primate Alive’: Naturalizing Sexual Liberation in the Long 1970s

Focusing on the best-selling work of the British scientists and writers Alex Comfort and Desmond Morris, this paper analyses the popularisation of biological and ethological understandings of human sexual behaviour in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In books such as Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967) and Intimate Behaviour (1971) and Comfort’s manual The Joy of Sex (1972), the analysis of man at the evolutionary or species-level, as well as insights gleaned from the study of other primates, were used to radically extend the sphere of the sexually ‘natural’.

Most fundamentally, such a perspective suggested that man should not hive off sexual expression as somehow secret or shameful; rather, as in other animals, it should remain integral to both existence and social life in general. More specifically, by demonstrating that most animal behaviour could be analysed in terms of its biological and social functions, it looked to open up for wider acceptance a host of existing behaviours proscribed by the conventions of Western society, including the channelling of naturally aggressive impulses through the “play” between couples of bondage and S/M, and the development and expression of homosexual desires, seen by Comfort as part of a common nature.

Yet, as critics of ethology and social biology, many of them drawn from a resurgent feminist movement, immediately recognised, such notions of man-as-animal – and man as sexual animal – did not just denaturalise the old codes of sexual restraint. They also, in their place, naturalised the liberal and “liberated” models of sexuality associated with the so-called Permissive Society – and implicitly rendered unnatural visions of women’s sexuality grounded not in the unquestioning embrace of “freedom” but instead the dismantling of patriarchy.


Linnea Tillema (QMUL/Uppsala)

Sensuous Women and Total Orgasms: Pleasure as a Project of Self Improvement in Sweden, 1960–1980.

In Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s, sexual reformers championed a variety of pedagogical programmes, all aimed at improving the ability of the individual, in particular women, to experience more intense pleasure in heterosexual encounters. The programmes were all centred on body-oriented, practical training, and typically included exercises in touching, breathing, moving, bodily awareness, and other sensuous techniques. I argue that these programmes were part of a new construction of sexuality that gained ground in the late 1960s, namely, the idea that sexual reactions could be “learned” and sexual experiences “improved” if only the individual made a serious and conscious effort to change them. To become a “sensuous woman” or experience “total orgasm”, participants were encouraged to engage in structured, goal-oriented work aimed at transforming the sexual self and one’s ability to form authentic relationship to others. Drawing on sexual advice literature, self-help books, and other sources, I discuss these reform programmes in relation to the problems they identified, the goals they proposed, and the work on the sexual self and on heterosexual relations they encouraged. In the 1960s and 1970s, as Sweden became an international symbol of sexual liberation and progressive sexual education, these programmes played an early, yet important role in the configuration of late modern reform programmes more generally concerned with the individual, and with individual self-optimisation. As such, they contributed to the late modern conception of the individual as personally responsible for her or his wellbeing, happiness, and personal development, more commonly associated with the neoliberal turn in the 1980s and 1990s.

Seminar on ‘Scientific Respectability and Popular Disseminations of Sex Research in Interwar German Film’

In October 2017 Dr Katie Sutton (Australian National University) spoke to us on ‘Scientific Respectability and Popular Disseminations of Sex Research in Interwar German Film’.

In the socially progressive and politically tumultuous interwar period, researchers in the German-speaking lands were world leaders in the study of sex. Increasingly, sexologists such as Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin and Eugen Steinach in Vienna were turning not only to photography as a seemingly more ‘scientific’ evidential medium than the narrative patient histories upon which they had once relied, but also the cutting-edge technologies of film. Followers of Freudian psychoanalysis likewise began to explore the potential of cinematic media at this period. Historians have noted the lack of research on how photographs function ‘as mediators between scientific and popular culture’ (Tucker, Nature Exposed, 2005). Extending this impetus to moving images, this paper will focus on two films, one documentary and one fictional, that deal with questions of deviant sexualities and personalities in ways that aligned with the important Weimar-era genre of the social hygiene film. The Steinach-Film (The Steinach Film, 1923), a documentary detailing Viennese physiologist Eugen Steinach’s pioneering sex organ transplant experiments into the workings of the sex hormones, explores the physiological basis for a potential ‘cure’ for homosexuality and other ‘intermediary’ sexual forms. G W Pabst’s Geheimnisse einer Seele (1926), written by Freudian followers including Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs, presents a thriller narrative as a means of popularizing the still-new methods and theories of psychoanalysis. This paper argues that sexologists and psychoanalysts not only worked with filmmakers to disseminate their research and methods to broader publics, but also used the medium of film to reinforce the scientific respectability of their still fledgling disciplines.

Dr Sutton’s research and teaching interests focus particularly on German 20th and 21st-century culture, literature, and history, from the social and cultural upheaval of the Weimar Republic to the German cinema revival of the 2000s. Dr Sutton is currently working on a monograph that examines the interdisciplinary relationships and debates between sexology and psychoanalysis from the turn of the 20th century through to the interwar period. She is the author of The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011, pb. 2013), which explored the widely-discussed ‘masculinization of woman’ in 1920s German popular culture, in areas such as fashion, sport, literature, cinema, and magazines produced by newly emerging sexual minorities.

This seminar is hosted by the University of Exeter’s Centre for Medical History and the  Rethinking Sexology project, and is part of the Medical History and Humanities seminar series (details of which can be found here)

If you have any questions about the event then please get in touch with either of the co-conveners: Dr Ina Linge ( or Dr Sarah Jones (

Workshop on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cultures of sexual knowledge

In 2017 we were delighted to be joined by:

Dr Amber K. Regis (English, Sheffield) who gave us the paper “‘The editor has reason to believe…’: un/finishing the Memoirs of John Addington Symonds”. 

Amber spoke on her new critical edition of John Addington Symonds’ memoirs. 

Professor Joy Dixon (History, British Columbia) spoke to us on ‘”The Gift of Sex”: Sexology, Social Purity, and the Production of Normalcy”. 

Joy is the author of Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England

This workshop was organised in conjunction with the Sexual Knowledge unit.

Interdisciplinary Histories Conference, 13th & 14th February 2017

Interdisciplinary Histories Conference

The conference keynote speakers Dr Des Fitzgerald (Cardiff University) and Professor Felicity Callard (Durham University) spoke on “Power and Affect in Interdisciplinary Space”

The first Rethinking Sexology conference examined dynamics of interdisciplinary exchange and collaboration from a historical perspective. It asked what can be gained by exploring moments, sites and traditions of dialogue across disciplines, fields of knowledge and forms of expertise in the past.

Interdisciplinary Histories Conference

Chris Manias (History, KCL) spoke on Histories of Palaeontology: Researching and Communicating between Disciplines”

One particular area of interest of the conference was late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sexual science: Western European sexual scientists, including those with medical training, articulated an inclusive vision for sexual science that involved diverse fields like anthropology, biology, history, literature, psychology, sociology and zoology.

Interdisciplinary Histories Conference

Robbie Duschinsky (Primary Care Unit, School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge) gave a paper on “Reappraising Infant Disorganised Attachment and ‘Fear Without Solution’: A Conversation Between History, Sociology and Social Work”

The conference also aimed to move beyond sexual science to consider alternative perspectives on how boundaries between areas of knowledge and expertise have been constituted, crossed and contested across history and to understand shifting definitions of terms like ‘science’ or ‘discipline’. It offered an opportunity for dialogue between scholars situated within and across (or outside of) a variety of disciplines and fields.

Interdisciplinary Histories Conference

Sarah Bull (History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge) and Will Abberley (English, University of Sussex) shared a panel on “Nature and the Production of Knowledge”

Interdisciplinary Histories Conference

Andreas Sommer (History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge) spoke on “Sexology and the Occult: A Career in Taboos. The Case of Albert von Schrenck-Notzing”

At the conference, we considered questions about interdisciplinary working, including:

  • How has exchange across disciplines, fields and areas of knowledge changed and shifted across e.g. cultural, historical, linguistic and national borders? How does this relate to changing definitions and understandings of ‘science’?
  • What methodologies can we use to understand exchange and collaboration across disciplines and fields in the past and present?
  • What are the benefits and challenges of writing ‘disciplinary’ histories?
  • Can historical perspectives on exchange and dialogue in the past inform collaborative working practices today? How?
  • What can we learn about our own disciplinary mindsets and methodologies by studying their emergence and intersection with other disciplines and fields in the past

Interdisciplinary Histories Conference

Donna Drucker (Technische Universität Darmstadt) spoke on”Developing American Sexual Science in Early Twentieth-Century New York”

Download the full conference programme here. 

This was a Wellcome Trust-funded Conference, Hosted by the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter.

For more details please contact the organisers, Professor Kate Fisher and Dr Jana Funke.

Photos by TJ Zawadzki.

Global Perspective: Dialogues between West and East on History of Medicines

L0004700 Watercolour, Chinese doctor feeling the pulse of a patient. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A doctor taking the pulse of a woman patient, seated at a table. Her wrist is supported on a small red bolster. The doctor touches the pulse only with his finger-tips, without looking at the woman. Watercolour by Zhou Pei Qun, ca. 1890. Watercolour 1890 By: Pei Qun ZhouPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Watercolour, Chinese doctor feeling the pulse of a patient, Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images


Organised by the International Center for Studies of Chinese Civilization, Fudan with the Rethinking Sexology project, University of Exeter.

Date: 2nd – 3rd September 2016.

Location: International Center for Studies of Chinese Civilization, Fudan.

For full address click here.


Wood and glass pillow book, China.

Wood and glass mirror box with erotic images, 19th century, Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

This workshop is divided in five main discussion topics:

     1, A Global Perspective: Rethinking of the medical history writing

     2, Disease and Health: Different Cognition between West and East

     3, Acupuncture in China ,America and Europe, the Past and Present.

     4, Use of the Same Drugs by Different Medical Traditions around the World

     5, Sexology, Gender and History of Medicine

Please see the Provisional Programme here.

For more details please contact the organizer Gao Xi, History Department, Fudan University: 

Seminar: Lisa Downing (University of Birmingham)

Lisa Downing. Image Lisa Downing

Lisa Downing, Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality at the University of Birmingham, visited Exeter in 2015 to speak on ‘How Do I Love Me? Let Me Count the Ways…. On Female Narcissism, a Problem in the Psy Sciences’. All welcome. Full abstract and speaker biography below.

Part of the Centre for Medical History seminar series at University of Exeter.



Throughout the history of the psy sciences, there has been very little theorisation of, or published clinical data on, female manifestations of excessive selfishness, self-regard, or self-absorption — i.e. those traits that are pathologised in medical discourse as “narcissism”. Accounts that do exist are often characterised by contradictions, paradoxes and traces of gender bias. In the foundational texts of psychoanalysis, for example, we have Freud’s formulation of the re-routing of “inappropriate” primary female auto-eroticism into a more “properly feminine” secondary narcissism via motherhood and the pride a woman takes in her children. In the American psychiatric tradition, it is notable that there is a lower incidence rate of female patients diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), characterised by grandiosity and an egoistic lack of empathy. Where instances of female NPD are discussed in the literature, it is usually in the context of the deleterious effects of female narcissism on the nurturing of children (echoing Freud’s preoccupation with adult women as mothers rather than as selves). Throughout examples that cross national, linguistic, and historical boundaries, psy discourses appear to refuse to recognise exaggerated manifestations of female self-regard. My contention in this paper is that the shortage of scholarly consideration of narcissism in women is a facet of a larger cultural phenomenon in which women’s relationship with the whole concept of self is imagined differently from that of men, and is problematised. The material in this paper is part of a book project I am undertaking which considers the cultural, political, philosophical, and psychological meanings of female selfishness in the modern period.

Lisa Downing – Biography 

Lisa is Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality at the University of Birmingham, UK. She is the author of numerous books, articles, and chapters on modern critical theory; sexuality and gender studies; and the history of psychiatry, criminology, and sexology. Authored books include: Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth-Century French Literature (Legenda, 2003), The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault (Cambridge University Press, 2008), The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer (University of Chicago Press, 2013), and Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts (co-authored with Iain Morland and Nikki Sullivan, University of Chicago Press, 2015). She is currently editing a volume entitled After Foucault for Cambridge University Press, and writing a monograph about female selfishness.