Encouraging discussions about sex using historical objects

The Sex and History project, led by Professors Rebecca Langlands and Kate Fisher, uses historical objects as an effective way of getting young people to discuss subjects relating to sex. Issues it tackles include body-image, gender roles, consent and the impact of pornography on ideas of healthy relationships.

The project is responding to recent Department of Education guidelines drawing attention to the need for sex education to go beyond basic biological and contraceptive information. In 2014 the project launched its own free teaching resource pack, developed in collaboration with sex education specialists the RSE Hub.

The project developed out of the collaborative research project Sexual Knowledge, Sexual History directed by Professors Fisher and Langlands within the Centre for Medical History. Their research demonstrated that sexual choices and identities were often influenced by ideas about past cultures, and articulated with reference to the past. The duo conducted research into the impact of sexually-themed material found at archaeological sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Historical objects

They found that historical objects, such as European chastity belts, Roman phallic amulets and Chinese erotic carvings, can be a powerful and productive stimulus for the exploration of the sexual questions that concern many young people today.

Professors Fisher and Langlands, said: “The exploration of objects from past cultures helps create a distance that depersonalises discussion. The objects expand people’s horizons and help to open up new ways of thinking about sex. They also provide routes into discussions of key issues such as pornography, consent and body image and they serve to validate alternative ways of being.”

Since 2009, when they first founded the project, Professor Fisher and Langlands have collaborated with five museums and more than 30 schools in the South West, as well as sexual health and young people’s charities, sex education experts, youth services and arts organisations. They have run events including museum exhibitions and creative workshops.


The Exeter researchers worked with Effervescent, a social arts company, on Lust in Translation, which brought together vulnerable young people and older people to discuss subjects including first dates, promiscuity and sexual exploitation. Powerful films were produced emerging from these conversations.

Youth Worker Hannah Jordan said: “The end result was brilliant. The confidence built in individual young people has helped us [as a youth service] a great deal. Showing young people a different, more creative, way of looking at things was brilliant. The young people were surprised they achieved so much”.

This success has led to plans for further collaboration with Effervescent. The new project Hold will bring vulnerable people together to work on a creative project over a sustained period - an experience that could change their life opportunities. One outcome will be innovative displays of historical objects designed to engage the public in a dialogue about sex and relationships. Barnardo’s and the Wellcome Collection will also be project partners.

Sex and History led to the world’s first ever exhibition of erotic and sexually-related artefacts from the Sir Henry Wellcome Collection. Held at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum in 2014, the Intimate Worlds exhibition prompted questions about attitudes to issues such as censorship. Visitors were asked to reflect on their own culture and consider the value and significance of sex to them. Professors Fisher and Langlands co-curated the exhibition with former PhD student Jennifer Grove and curator Tony Eccles.

In 2011 Sex and History won the Exeter Impact Award for Outstanding Social and Cultural Impact.

You can find out more about the project on the Sex and History blog.