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Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease

Sex Education Conference

International Conference

Sex Education of the Young in the Twentieth Century:
A Cultural History

16th to 17th April, 2005 at Collingwood College, University of Durham


Dr Lutz Sauerteig (CHMD, University of Durham) and
Professor Roger Davidson (School of History and Classics, University of Edinburgh)

Sponsored by the Wolfson Research Institute (University of Durham), School of History and Classics (University of Edinburgh), and the Society for the Social History of Medicine

Please click here for the Conference Programme.

Please click here for a Conference Report (by Dr Gayle Davis, Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Glasgow)

The mid-1970s marked a turning point in the historiography of sexuality. Michel Foucault both de-naturalised and historicised 'sexuality', which was increasingly interpreted as an historically contingent practice closely connected to power relations, values and culture. Within this framework of analysis, researchers in a variety of disciplines subsequently explored the formation and experience of sexuality in relation to class, gender, and race as well as to medicine and science. Issues such as homosexuality, prostitution, venereal diseases, masturbation and sexual abuse have attracted increasing attention. Thus, much is now known about the social construction of what have been perceived as 'deviant' or 'dangerous' sexualities.

However, to look only at liminal experiences of sexuality and to study mainly discourses of exclusion affords only a limited historical perspective. In contrast, the history of sex education also enables us to gain valuable insights into the social construction of what the State and civil society has defined as 'normal' sexuality. Yet, the history of sex education has only recently attracted the full attention of historians of modern sexuality.
This international conference and its associated volume will bring together researchers from a range of fields such as the history of medicine, the history of education, and the history of sexuality as well as from sociology, to discuss the cultural history of sex education within a comparative perspective.

Sex education will be treated in the broadest sense to incorporate all aspects of the formal and informal transmission of sexual knowledge and awareness to children and adolescents. It will, therefore, not only address officially-sanctioned and regulated sex education delivered within the school system, but also sex education obtained within the private sphere of the family, and from peer groups and the media (including youth magazines, films, TV and radio programmes). More specifically, the conference will approach the history of sex education from three different directions.

  • The Social Politics of Sex Education:

    The archives of the central and local State document the discourses surrounding the provision and regulation of sex education, and there is a range of literature produced by pedagogic discourses on the 'appropriate' content and conveyance of sexual knowledge.

    The social politics of sex education have generated a cluster of key questions as to who should deliver sex education (e.g. doctors, clerics, teachers, the parents, the peer group), as to where sex education should take place, as to how much anatomical and biological detail of reproduction should be conveyed, and as to what kind of sexual ethics should be taught? Many of these issues circle around the classic dichotomy of public and private; between the rights of parents to educate their children themselves and the public task of the State to preserve and control the health of its citizenry.


    The Content of Sex Education:

    The different forms of textual and illustrative material employed for sex education allows for a broad range of questions to be asked on the making of the sexed body and gender. Sex education material provides historical records on how 'heterosexual' activities were constructed and of the degree to which concepts of the body and sexuality, transmitted to the young, were gendered. Accordingly, a number of papers will focus on the content of the various forms of sexual 'enlightenment'.
  • Experiencing Sex Education:

    By exploiting the evidence from sources such as sex surveys, questionnaires, and oral history, we would also seek to scrutinise what children and adolescents knew about sexuality and the sexed body, from where they got their knowledge, and how they perceived and experienced the different agencies and 'knowledges' involved in sex education.

For further information, please contact Dr Lutz Sauerteig: