Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

What’s Sex Got to Do with It? Gender, Sexuality & Eugenics

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Medical Humanities Event

Who this event is for

  • Everyone

Location

The Green Room, Headington Hill Hall, Headington Campus, Headington Hill site

Details

The Centre for Medical Humanities, Oxford Brookes University, presents the 2nd Annual HRE Workshop: What’s Sex Got to Do with It? Gender, Sexuality & Eugenics.

Reproduction, and its control, is critical to eugenic theory and practice, a situation which has long led historians of eugenics to consider important aspects of gender and sexuality in their work. Still, however, there remains considerable unchartered territory. For example, despite the issue frequently appearing in the news, there is little work on sex selection, a major concern of many eugenicists historically. The close association between eugenics and the sexual control of the entire life cycle, including the prevention of aging and death, has also yet to be comprehensively reflected in scholarship. The fate of those whose bodies and/or life cycles did not accord with prescribed modes of expression similarly deserves more concerted attention. It is important to understand how eugenicists approached the 'regulation' of sexuality and the 'demarcation' of boundaries between various 'male' and 'female' members of the nation or 'race'. Following the success of the inaugural HRE workshop in 2018 which explored the issue of population in historical perspective, the 2nd annual HRE workshop will therefore seek to assess 'where we are at' as a field in broaching gender and sexual themes and identify new directions and cutting-edge research which includes but moves beyond reproductive fitness as the primary vector of thinking about eugenics and sex.

 

Agenda

12.30 pm - 1pm        Registration and light lunch

1pm - 1.15pm           Welcome and introductory comments (Ross Brooks)

1.15 pm - 2.45 pm    Panel 1

2.45 pm – 3 pm        Tea / coffee

3 pm – 4.30 pm        Panel 2

4.30 pm – 4.45 pm   Concluding comments (Marius Turda)

(Panels will consist of 2 x 30 min papers and 30 mins discussion)

 

Panel 1 - chaired by Ross Brooks

Historiographical Gaps in the History of Eugenics with Richard Cleminson, University of Leeds. 

This intervention, delivered in workshop style rather than as a formal paper, examines three areas that still require attention from scholars of eugenics. The first addresses the question of the organization of sexuality as envisaged by eugenics. Instead, however, of focusing on population questions, maternity and the optimization of the "race" through reproduction, it centres on non-reproductive sexuality and its status within eugenic thinking. Evidently, eugenics was dedicated to the sphere of reproduction and it may well have been suspicious or condemnatory of non-reproductive sexuality, but what was its stance specifically on homosexuality? Perhaps surprisingly, many national eugenics movements had little to say about this subject. Can this be considered a paradox? What were the reasons for a near silence on homosexuality in some eugenics movements? The second issue addressed here returns to the question of so-called "hard" and "soft" eugenics by focusing on the value of advice, either by priests or doctors, within the Portuguese and Spanish eugenics and race hygiene movements. What religious and political dimensions did eugenic advice, rather than coercion, take in Iberia? Third, the presentation discusses the relevance of regional eugenics organizations and their relation to broader national and international dynamics. The case study of the Catalan Eugenics Society (1935-1937) is drawn upon to illustrate this complex set of relations.

 

The Science of Sexual Pleasure: Eugenics and Sex Advice, 1910-1940 with Sarah Jones, University of Exeter. 

Ideas about the importance of sexual pleasure and fulfilment became increasingly central to sex and marriage guides in the early twentieth century. As well as accessing details about chaste dating rituals and the practicalities of reproduction and parenthood, readers of these hugely popular texts could now find graphic information about the benefits of mutual orgasm, descriptions of techniques and positions, and arguments about the centrality of great sex to a strong marriage. At a time when many public discussions of sex were still subject to censorship, science played a key role in legitimising such explicit content. The authors, who were often doctors or sexual scientists themselves, claimed authority for their work using ideas drawn from a range of scientific disciplines like anthropology, biology, anatomy, and psychology, as well as from the increasingly influential field of eugenics.

This paper will look specifically at the use and adaptation of eugenic material in such scientific sex advice. Examining popular prescriptive literature produced before 1940, it will argue that ideas about ‘racial fitness’ and ‘racial development’ were key to justifying this new, explicit, and potentially controversial focus on the erotic possibilities of marriage. Interrogating the blurry divisions between sexual science, sex advice, and obscenity in early twentieth-century Britain and America, it will also explore bigger questions about how and why sexual science became ‘popular’ at this time.

 

Panel 2 - chaired by Marius Turda

From Napoleon to Mussolini: Italian Eugenics and Italian Fascism on Sex, Sexuality, and Genderwith Maria Sophia Quine, Oxford Brookes University

Taking the form of a general outline to encourage discussion, this contribution will use the case study of Italian eugenics (1919-?/never formally disbanded) to explore briefly some of the many problematical areas within the history of eugenics and to underscore the importance of future research into questions pertaining to the overlapping, but discrete fields of sexuality and gender, their complicated inter-reactions over time and across borders, and their relationship with the collective organization and regulation of reproduction, biology, family and identity by community, society, religion, science and the state, within a national, comparative, and transnational context. If that is the remit of on-going study into eugenics, then historians will be busily occupied for decades to come, especially as there is still much work to be done on filling in the gaps in our understanding of the workings and impact of first-wave eugenics (1912-1945) in different countries and the development and evolution of new eugenics (post-Holocaust and post-Nazi-Fascism), with its focus on the perfectibility of human beings, the medico-sciences of ‘agelessness’, and reproductive technologies to assist fertility and eliminate disease.

Three topics will be discussed:

  1. The emergence of ‘sexuality’ as a social construct and object of scrutiny and control. Here, the nineteenth century is critically important. So too is it for our understanding of the origins of eugenics, even though the lineage and trajectory of eugenics, beyond Galton, can be somewhat ‘murky’ in many accounts still.

  2. The Interplay of Eugenic Science and Political Power. The impact of eugenics will be briefly examined in Italy, where, under Italian Fascism, eugenics became the official ideology of the state.

  3. Eugenics could be out of step with long-term processes of cultural, legal, political and/or social change. One of the challenges facing historians is to account for the disconnections and disjunctions that occur. For example, in Italy, the antinomies of eugenics, and its relative discomfort with issues surrounding sexuality, and masculinity and homosexuality, particularly, left space for the Fascist Dictatorship to persecute homosexuals in the years 1936-1939.

 

Eugenics in Late Nineteenth-century Bengal: Exploring Attitudes towards the Science and Myth of Reproduction with Souvik Naha, Durham University

The modern history of eugenicist agenda in India can be said to have begun in the early twentieth century with the formation of several associations and publication of books aimed at educating expecting parents. While neither the country nor any of its constituent provinces adopted any eugenic policy towards engineering a better breed of progeny, the idea of improving one’s genetic stock, and sex selection of offspring in particular, had been a salient feature of Indian domesticity in colonial times. A section of Indian eugenicists drew inspiration from Social Darwinist and Neo-Malthusian concepts, whereas another section emphasised Indian distinctiveness in their proposition for a science of hereditary transmission that was influenced by ancient Indian religious traditions. My paper traces the origin of eugenicist thought in India, Bengal in particular, further back, in the late nineteenth century, by examining a novel from 1877 written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and the writings of Swami Vivekananda, a renowned Hindu monk, from the 1890s. It will analyse how a section of Bengalis approached the idea of sex selection for progeny, and how important the notions of race and masculinity in contemporary Bengali society were to the inception of a vernacular template of eugenics.

 

Speaker Biographies

Richard Cleminson
Richard Cleminson is Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Leeds. He has worked on the history of sexuality with particular reference to the reception of thought on sexuality in the labour movement, the history of eugenics and medico-social thought on homosexuality and "hermaphroditism" in Iberia. His forthcoming book examines the intersection between anarchism and eugenics in Argentina, England, France, Portugal and Spain.

Sarah Jones
I completed my PhD at the University of Exeter in 2015, with a doctoral project that looked at sex radicalism and sexual science in fin de siècle periodicals.  I am currently a research fellow at the same institution, where I work as part of the Wellcome-funded Rethinking Sexology team (http://rethinkingsexology.exeter.ac.uk/). My current work explores the links between sexual science in Britain and America, and how scientific discussions about sex were shaped by transatlantic exchanges. Secondly, it explores the 'popular' life of sexology in print, looking at how debates and ideas from sexual science were used in journals, magazines, and the news.

Souvik Naha
Souvik Naha has a PhD in History from ETH Zurich. He has taught History at West Bengal State University, Kolkata, and is the editor of the journal Soccer & Society. He has published extensively on the history of colonial and postcolonial South Asia, sport, politics and visual culture. His forthcoming book will examine the mediatisation of cricket and its impact on public culture in modern India.

Maria Sofia Quine
Maria Sophia Quine retired from teaching as a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History in the Department of History, Queen Mary, University of London. She currently holds a Senior Research Fellowship in the History of Race, Fascism, and Eugenics, in the Centre for Medical Humanities, Oxford Brookes University. For the purposes of the workshop, the following of her publications are most relevant: Italy’s Social Revolution: Charity and Welfare from Liberalism to Fascism (2002), on Italian Fascist race and population policy; and “Racial ‘Sterility’ and ‘Hyperfecundity’ in Fascist Italy: The Biological Politics of Sex and Reproduction” in Fascism 1 (2012), 92-144, on sexology, eugenics, and assisted conception in Fascist Italy.

 

History of Race and Eugenics (HRE) Working Group

The History of Race and Eugenics working group (HRE) was founded in 2006 by Dr Marius Turda. We stage regular seminars on a broad range of topics associated with the history of race and eugenics, as well as other events including workshops and film screenings. For more details, contact Ross Brooks, Director of HRE, at ross.brooks-2017@brookes.ac.uk