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Sexual Knowledge, Sexual History

This interdisciplinary, collaborative research project is developing a new direction for the history of sexuality, applying the approaches and methodologies of the emerging discipline of Classical Reception to the study of the ways that ideas about sex and sexuality have developed in recent centuries.

We are exploring issues such as why and how people throughout history have turned to the past in order to make sense of sexual experience, what kinds of authority the past has exercised in popular and scholarly debates about sexual practices, identities, civilization and morality, and how changing interpretations of past sexualities reflect historical shifts in the way sex is understood.

For instance, in making sense of sexual behaviour, Western society has often looked to a wide variety of past cultures and civilizations (from antiquity to the Far East, from primitive cultures to the Victorians). Our research interrogates this Western fascination with sex in the past and examines the various ways the past has been marshalled in debates about sex and sexuality - to challenge contemporary beliefs, to sustain sexual identities, in support of movements for sexual reform, or in reinforcing claims about universal human desires.

Sexual Knowledge, Sexual History is jointly directed by Professor Kate Fisher and Professor Rebecca Langlands and is a Sexual Knowledge unit project.

See more on the project webpages.

A major conference, 'Sexual Knowledge: Uses of the Past', was held on 27–29 July 2009.

This conference was sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, and was part of the launch of the Sexual Knowledge, Sexual History project run by Dr Rebecca Langlands in the department of Classics and Ancient History and Dr Kate Fisher in History within the Centre of Medical History at Exeter. The conference was interdisciplinary and explored through a wide variety of topics the overarching theme: how have discussions about sex and human nature over the centuries both been informed by and helped to shape ideas about past cultures and the interpretation of their material and textual legacies?

We brought together scholars from a range of different disciplines and from all over the world who have been working independently on different material and from different theoretical standpoints but addressing similar questions about sexual discourses and the way they draw upon the past. Delegates discussed, for example, the importance of myths about Victorian attitudes towards sex or early twentieth-century homosexuality for twenty-first century; the role of ancient Greece, as well as more modern icons such as Oscar Wilde, in emerging ideas about homosexuality from the 18th century onwards; the way that material remains such as Minoan painting and phallic objects from Pompeii are treated by scholars, museums and other interested parties – one paper discussed LGBT events held in London museums, another the arguments between lesbians and the inhabitants of Lesbos over the significance of the ancient poet Sappho and her legacy; 19th and 20th century uses of the categories of "primitive" and "exotic" and the use of such works as Kama Sutra and Arabian Nights in the development of British ideas about sex; the employment of historical paradigms in 18th century French libertinism and the use of French libertinism itself as a paradigm for later eras.

Beyond the formal papers and discussion of the scheduled conference programme, we were also keen to entertain our guests with the wonderful food and countryside that Devon has to offer. The gala dinner was therefore held in the award-winning Riverford Farm Kitchen in Buckfastleigh, while a trip to Castle Drogo on the Tuesday afternoon afforded the more intrepid visitors the pleasure of a rain-lashed walk in the woods, as well as a tour of this 20th faux-medieval castle, whose re-casting of history tied in nicely with the themes of the conference. On the Tuesday evening delegates were treated to an exhibition and film-screening that had been prepared by a group of post-graduate students on the subject of modern depictions of the chastity belt: "'The Key to the Greatest Treasure in All the World': Chastity belts on Film", while the feast that evening was provided by Exeter’s Plant Café.

The conference helped to forge many new relationships between scholars in different fields and institutions and we hope that it will lead to new collaborations. A number of papers have been revised and submitted for inclusion in a planned edited volume, and we are planning a follow-up workshop in the next academic year.

Sexual Knowledge: Uses of the Past conference poster