What is the history of sexuality?

The history of sexuality as an interdisciplinary scholarly discipline, has received a significant institutional boost and focus since January 2014. The founding of the History of Sexuality seminar at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), University of London, in January 2014, marks a recognition that the field has grown enormously during recent years. The seminar reverses the absence of sustained seminar provision in London in this field. More than this, the seminar, sponsored in conjunction with the Raphael Samuel History Centre, London, has been a major focus for the new and highly successful and popular scholarly blog, NOTCHES: (Re) Marks on the History of Sexuality. Numerous speakers at the IHR History of Sexuality seminar since its inception have published blog entries on NOTCHES, and the blog site and the seminar series itself have been received with critical international acclaim.

A postcard from the collection of sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London)
A postcard from the collection of sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing used to promote a recent IHR Seminar talk (Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London)

While the history of sexuality is a diverse area of study that refuses straightforward categorisation, it nonetheless focuses broadly on men and women as sexual beings in the past, on the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality through which sexual selfhood has been experienced, and, moving beyond this binary, on other historical expressions of gender identity and sexual experience. The History of Sexuality seminar at the IHR has so far explored historical perspectives on themes as varied as sexual reform and identity-based movements, sexuality and urban space, medical and criminological discourses on sexuality, and representations of sexuality. It also explores the historiography of the field, along with those varied methodological and theoretical approaches to the study of the sexual past that have shaped the history of sexuality as a sub-discipline. Finally, the seminar provides a forum for an exploration of the intersections between the history of sexuality and other related academic practices – including those of gender, feminism, psychoanalysis, and the study of the emotions.

NOTCHES: (re)mark on the history of sexuality
NOTCHES: (re)mark on the history of sexuality

One of the ambitions of the seminar and its sponsors has been to foster doctoral students and early career researchers working in this field. To this end, Birkbeck College, University of London, with support from the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, hosted a workshop/masterclass, ‘What is the History of Sexuality?’ Birkbeck sponsored the workshop in recognition of the founding of the History of Sexuality seminar at the IHR in 2014; and scholars involved in the launch event, and also some of the conveners for the IHR seminar, were key participants in the Birkbeck workshop. The workshop brought together doctoral students from across the world, and was an opportunity for their innovative and highly original research to be critiqued and developed through discussion with internationally recognised and established scholars in the field. Also, the workshop had at the end of its proceedings a public event at Birkbeck, where the findings of the day were discussed by a round table panel, thereby giving the emerging scholars who participated in the workshop unique exposure for their work to a broad-ranging London audience. Publication of some of the findings from the Birkbeck workshop commences today at NOTCHES, and this article is also an introduction for them. The NOTCHES series is guest-edited by Victoria Russell, doctoral candidate in History at Birkbeck, and one of the contributors to the workshop and to the series.

The papers given by doctoral students at the Birkbeck workshop were very broad ranging, eclectic in scope and originality, and genuinely represent the future of this field, broadly conceived. Significant themes in the workshop were challenges to the now-established idea of the history of sexuality itself. Various papers moved away from and disrupted the often-rigid categories of enquiry in extant historical scholarship – such as homosexuality, heterosexuality, Eurocentric concepts of gender, and so forth.

There was discussion of historical ideas such as the psychological androgyne among radicals in England in the early nineteenth century, and the implications of this for historical periodisation and conceptualisation of gender and sexuality throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. Transsexuality also is a much-neglected area of research, which has clear implications for questions of identity and gender. Discussion of transsexuality centred on the shifting historical concept of the transsexual person in twentieth-century China, and also the ways in which issues of transsexuality are neglected or obscured by the historiography of design, and by museums and art galleries in Britain, in spite of policy developments that aim toward gender and sexuality equality. Questions of social class and sexuality were discussed, with a specific focus on working-class women’s sexuality in early twentieth-century Yorkshire. Also, examination of the shifting representations of the female body in myth, fosters disruption and transgression of the supposed fixity of gender, providing new critical tools in this approach. Paedophilia, and the neglect by scholars of this pressing and disturbing issue, was discussed through examination of historical representation of child sexual abuse and murder since the 1960s. LGBTQ rights, and the extreme difficulties for scholars in Russia to write the history of sexuality in that context, was a salient reminder that although the history of sexuality is well established and a respected scholarly discipline in many developed countries, that in countries such as Russia, the problems facing the scholar in this field in regard to pursuit of research are fraught with difficulties and the discipline remains highly politicised, liminal, and threatened. Discussion of the fate of queer men in Victorian convict prisons in Britain, and of sex between men in the prison system, reminded us that UK historians in this field have done practically no work, other than to consider the fate of Oscar Wilde, on what happened to queer men convicted of sexual offences prior to decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, once these men were incarcerated. Also, the ‘trauma of gayness’ was discussed, in relation to capitalist modernity and shifting and divergent concepts of what it means to be a male homosexual in contemporary western society.

What is clear, from the success of the IHR’s History of Sexuality seminar and the NOTCHES blog, and from the work of young scholars in the Birkbeck workshop, is that the history of sexuality is vibrant, exciting, diverse, and provides critically incisive and important work that disrupts and problematises traditional historical fields of enquiry. Forty years on from the seminal interventions in the field by Michel Foucault, Mary McIntosh and Jeffrey Weeks, the history of sexuality has at last a much needed institutional focus in London. The IHR seminar and its companionate blog site NOTCHES rapidly have become established and highly regarded by scholars world-wide, and both look set to continue to provide much needed forums in this field for many years to come.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *