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.