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Sexual Modernism, Women’s Writing and Sexual Science – Gendered Lives Research Seminar

3rd May 2017 @ 14:00 - 16:00


“Lesbian Identities” The Gendered Lives Summer Research Seminar welcomes Jana Funke from Exeter and Sarah Parker from Loughborough and focuses upon lesbian identity in the late Victorian and early twentieth-century periods. 

2-4 pm, Wednesday 3rd May 2017, MHL.0.07, Martin Hall, Loughborough University 

Jana Funke (University of Exeter), ‘Sexual Modernism, Women’s Writing and Sexual Science: The Case of Bryher and Havelock Ellis’

Sexual science and modernist women’s writing have often been seen as related but oppositional projects: sexual science has been viewed as a field mainly populated by men who tried to classify human sexuality on the basis of biologically defined identity categories and reinforced gendered and heterosexist views of sexual behaviour. Modernist women’s writing, on the other hand, has been celebrated for troubling allegedly ‘normative’ sexual scientific understandings of gender and queering the very concept of sexual identity. Even scholars keen to stress the empowering potential of sexual science have put emphasis on the ways in which female modernists ‘reworked’ or ‘reappropriated’ ideas derived from sexual science, thus overlooking the very reasons why sexual science and modernist women’s writing could exist in productive dialogue in the first place.

This paper works against such antagonistic views by examining the intellectual exchange between Havelock Ellis, the most eminent British sexual scientist, and literary writer Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman). Bryher and Ellis first met in 1919 and developed a friendship that also involved Bryher’s life-long partner, the modernist poet and novelist H. D. Ellis introduced both Bryher and H. D. to recent medical understandings of cross-gender identification and same-sex desire, which fed into Bryher’s early autobiographical novels Development (1920) and Two Selves (1923). Rather than pointing to a one-directional model of influence in which medical views are interrogated and reclaimed by literary writers, the case of Havelock Ellis and Bryher opens up a more nuanced understanding of exchange across disciplinary and gendered boundaries. The paper introduces the concept of ‘sexual modernism’ to capture this dialogue and to work towards a new understanding of sexual science and female, lesbian or Sapphic, and queer modernisms.

Sarah Parker, ‘Looking Femme: Femininity, Sapphic self-fashioning and photographic masquerades, 1890-1920s’

The majority of scholarship on lesbian representation in literature and visual cultures of the late-Victorian and early twentieth-century has tended to focus on gender transgression, drawing on the theories of sexual inversion developed by sexologists such as Havelock Ellis and Kraft-Ebing (who wrote of ‘the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom’).

This paper will instead look closely at the possibilities for recognising and reading lesbian (or as the subjects would describe it, Sapphic) femininities during this period. I will focus on three interconnected figures: Natalie Barney, Renée Vivien and Olive Custance, analysing their literary self-portraits (autobiography, roman à clef and poetry) and their playful engagement with photographic tableaux and masquerade. The question that unifies my paper is: what does it mean to look femme? This concern links to recent discussions regarding femme histories (see and also connects to my wider project on photographical representations of the woman poet during this period.


Jana Funke is a Senior Lecturer in Medical Humanities, based in the English Department at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on modernist literature and culture, the history of sexuality, sexual science and medicine, and feminist studies and queer theory. Books include The World and Other Unpublished Works by Radclyffe Hall (MUP, 2016), and the co-edited volumes Sex, Gender and Time in Fiction and Culture (Palgrave, 2011) and Sculpture, Sexuality and History: Encounters in Literature, Culture and the Arts (forthcoming with Palgrave, 2018). In 2015, Jana was awarded a Wellcome Trust Joint Investigator Award to direct (together with Kate Fisher) a major five-year project on the cross-disciplinary history of sexual science. Jana is committed to making her research accessible to wider audiences and collaborating with non-academic publics. Public engagement and impact work includes the Transvengers project (led by Gendered Intelligence); various contributions to the Wellcome Collection’s Institute of Sexology Exhibition and its engagement programme, Sexology Season; and Clay & Diamond’s Orlando: The Queer Element project.

Sarah Parker is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. Her first monograph is The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889–1930 (2013). Her other publications include articles on Michael Field, Amy Levy, Djuna Barnes and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her most recent article is ‘Framing the Woman Poet: William Archer’s Poets of the Younger Generation (1902)’ in Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens (Autumn 2016).

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3rd May 2017
14:00 - 16:00
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