This interdisciplinary project at the University of Exeter seeks to rethink the history of sexual science, the mainly Western attempt to understand sex scientifically that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. It critiques the assumption that ‘sexology’ existed as a primarily medical field of knowledge. The research reconsiders how modern understandings of sexuality were constructed by scholars from across the human, social and medical sciences who began to work together to understand the biological, psychological and cultural dimensions of sexual behaviour.


Fascinated by historical and cultural variation, and driven by social and political debates, for example, about racial difference, the nature of civilization, the dangers of degeneration, or the problems of ‘Victorian repression’, sexual scientists examined sexual practices across history and around the world to make sense of their own society.

The questions they posed contributed significantly to the creation of categories through which we still understand sexuality today: what was normal or abnormal? What was pathological or healthy? What was the role of nature and nurture?

These novel historical perspectives provide insights into the challenges and potential of collaboration across research fields, issues that are central to the future of the Medical Humanities.

Through this research, the project is learning to identify and understand the many different ways of studying, thinking and talking about sex. These insights into diverse and intersecting forms of knowledge will be used to intervene in debates about sex today. An ambitious public engagement and impact programme will work with non-academic partners and collaborators, for instance, museums, schools, youth groups, creative artists, the LGBT community and sexual health practitioners. These collaborations will lead to the development of new tools to improve sexual health and wellbeing.

Rethinking Sexology is a five-year Wellcome Trust funded Joint Investigator Award project (2015-2020). It is jointly directed by Professor Kate Fisher and Professor Jana Funke.

Find out about the core research team

Find out about the project collaborators 

Find out about the project research network 

Find out about the project Advisory Board

Rethinking Sexology is a Sexual Knowledge unit project.