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Thesis title: Evolution’s Closet: The New Biology and Homosexuality in Britain, 1885–1967
Start year: 2017
My research project explores approaches to homosexuality, with reference to non-heteronormative bodies and sexualities more generally, which were developed within the biological sciences in Britain in the wake of Charles Darwin’s momentous The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) through to the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 70s. This timeframe covers the period when “any act of gross indecency” between males was illegal in Britain, outlawed by the infamous Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 which remained in force until the Sexual Offences Act 1967.
Whilst certain socio-political, legal, and medical (mainly psychiatric) aspects of this long period of criminalisation, and the protracted process of decriminalisation, have previously been explored by historians, the diverse ways in which biologists and biology shaped attitudes towards the law and the wider cultural milieu relating to sexuality in Britain through the period has received barely any attention. My thesis will rectify this. It will demonstrate that whilst the major sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Magnus Hirschfeld had only marginal impact on elite and popular attitudes towards variations of sex development and sexuality in Britain, scientists from a variety of biological sciences-evolutionary biology, reproductive physiology, experimental zoology, genetics, endocrinology, agricultural science, veterinary science, and ethology-concerned themselves with developing new knowledge about sex variations and succeeded in impacting on prevailing attitudes through academic and popular publications, including Britain’s newspapers. Approaches were diverse and often contradictory and were invariably infused with fashionable eugenic ideologies and agendas. New discoveries in genetics and endocrinology in particular generated some profoundly homophobic medico-scientific responses such as hormone treatments and suggestions of prenatal interventions. But increasingly through the twentieth century such approaches vied for hegemony with new, alternative approaches which viewed biology as potentially liberating, an alternative to homophobic models of homosexuality and a gateway to assimilating same-sex relationships within metanarratives of evolution and nature and thereby justifying legalisation of homosexual acts between men.
2021 will mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Descent. The occasion presents an opportune moment for historians to reassess the ways in which modern understandings of sex differences and sexuality have both shaped, and been shaped by, evolutionary biology and allied sciences. My project will therefore make a timely contribution to diverse historiographical fields – history of science and medicine, history of sexuality, gender history, and modern cultural history – and help to provide greater historical context for today’s socio-political debates pertaining to designer babies, sexed brains, “gay genes”, marriage equality, and same-sex parenting.
Sexuality, homosexuality; heterosexuality; bisexuality; sexology; biology; sociobiology; zoology; ethology; genetics, endocrinology; evolution; eugenics; biopolitics; sexual revolution; law reform; Britain; Charles Darwin
History of science and medicine in Britain (nineteenth and twentieth centuries); sex determination, sex selection, sexology; eugenics; anthropomorphism and zoomorphism; sexual revolution.
I pursue a sideline in Oxford’s rich queer history. I am currently collaborating with the University of Oxford to create a new app-based LGBTQ+ city trail to accompany the forthcoming “No Offence” exhibition at the Ashmolean.