Professor Kate Fisher
I am a social and cultural historian, and I am especially interested in supervising students in the following areas:
- History of Sex and Sexuality
- Oral History
- Medical Humanities
- Uses of the Past, Reception and Historiography
My research focuses on the history of sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
My first book, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960, won the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize in 2007 and my second book, co-written with Professor Simon Szreter of the University of Cambridge, Sex Before the Sexual Revolution, was named Guardian Book of the Week in 2011. You can hear me discuss the book on Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed.
Since 2006, I have been working with Professor Rebecca Langlands on the Sexual Knowledge, Sexual History Project which explores 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. Visit the project webpages.
In 2015 Rebecca and I launched the Sexual Knowledge Unit, together with Drs Jana Funke and Jen Grove, to bring together scholars from across the humanities, social sciences and biomedical sciences who are engaged in research about sex, gender and sexuality and who investigate the construction and authorisation of sexual knowledge. You can find out more on the project website
As part of this unit, I am involved in a number of major projects.
1. I co-direct, with Dr Jana Funke, Rethinking Sexology, a Wellcome Trust funded project which seeks to explore the cross-disciplinary exchange between medical and non-medical forms of knowledge at the heart of early sexual science. You can find out more on the project website.
2. I l co-direct the Bodies, Knowledge and Identities subtheme as part of the College of Humanities' Medical Humanities Theme with Professor Rebecca Langlands and Dr Jana Funke. We are exploring Medical Humanities frameworks to address challenges around the medicalisation of sex, the understanding and treatment of transgender in clinical and non-clinical settings and the development of sex therapies. We are working with researchers in the Humanities, Social and Health Sciences to explore present-day challenges in this field.
3. With Professor Rebecca Langlands I direct Sex and History, an award-winning and innovative approach to improving young people’s well-being and sexual health which uses objects from past cultures as a stimulus for discussing sex and relationships. The Sex and History Project has received positive media attention, it won an award for Outstanding Social and Cultural Impact at the Exeter University Impact Awards (2011) and was put forward for an EngageU award for European innovation in university public engagement.Visit the project webpages.
My research focuses primarily around the history of sexuality.
Twentieth Century Sexual Experiences (Marriage and Birth Control) in Britain
I work on the twentieth century social history of sexual attitudes and practices, especially within marriage. I have published two monographs exploring these themes: My first book, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960, won The Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize in 2007 and my second book, co-written with Professor Simon Szreter of the University of Cambridge, Sex Before the Sexual Revolution, was named Guardian Book of the Week in 2011. You can hear me discuss the book on Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed.
In 2015, I was awarded a Wellcome Trust Joint Investigator Award to direct a 5-year project on “The Cross-Disciplinary Invention of Sexuality: Sexual Science Beyond the Medical, 1890-1940” together with Dr Jana Funke.
The research reconsiders how modern understandings of sexuality were constructed by scholars from across the human, social and medical sciences who began to work together to understand the biological, psychological and cultural dimensions of sexual behaviour.Fascinated by historical and cultural variation, and driven by social and political debates, for example, about racial difference, the nature of civilization, the dangers of degeneration, or the problems of ‘Victorian repression’, sexual scientists examined sexual practices across history and around the world to make sense of their own society. The questions they posed contributed significantly to the creation of categories through which we still understand sexuality today: what was normal or abnormal? What was pathological or healthy? What was the role of nature and nurture? Thus the project sheds new light on the evolution of a range of categories that are central to understandings of human behaviour in the modern world. The project will also raise broader questions about the dynamics of cross-disciplinary exchange and seek to intervene in debates about sexual health and wellbeing today through an ambitious public engagement and impact programme
Sexual Knowledge, Sexual History
In collaboration with Professor Rebecca Langlands (Department of Classics & Ancient History), I am exploring the ways in which, 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). This research interrogates the 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. Rebecca and I have written about the way people (including scholars, museum curators, writers and tourists) have responded to the sexually explicit material from Pompeii and Herculaneum over the centuries. A co-edited volume Sex, Knowledge and Receptions of the Past, including articles from scholars in a range of disciplines, investigates the way that the past is used as an authority in the construction of knowledge about sex.
Approaches to Sex Education
In collaboration with Professor Rebecca Langlands and Dr Jen Grove, drawing on the experiences of the Sex and History Project, I am exploring the value material from the past, such as historical artefacts depicting an aspect of sex or sexuality, in generating open conversations with young people about sex in a variety of settings, including schools, pupil referral units and museums
I supervise projects in modern social and cultural history, the medical humanities, gender and sexuality in nineteenth and twentieth century British culture, the history of birth control and contraception, sexology or sexual science, the history of sex and sexuality, memory and oral history, and the reception of the past in relation to sex and the erotic. I particularly welcome proposals relating to:
- The history of family life
- The history of birth control and contraception
- The development of sexual science and the medicalization of sex
- The history of sexual knowledge
- The history of sex education
- The history of sex reform or sexual politics
- The history of pornography and erotic collections
- Sex and museums
- Modern sexual identities and the classical past
- Anthropology and the history of sexuality
Hannah Charnock, ‘Sex, relationships and domestic life 1940-1970’, ESRC funded (2013)
Kayleigh Nias 'The history of physiotherapy' AHRC funded (2012 - )
Sarah Jones, ‘Sexual radicalism and free love in the late 19th and early 20th centuries’, GWR funded (2011-)
Past postgraduate students include:
Pei-Ching Chen, ‘The Plebeian Cross-Dressing Woman in C18th and C19th Britain’ (completed, submitted 2011)
Victoria Bates, '"Not an Exact Science": Medical Approaches to Age and Sexual Offences in England, 1850-1914'. (AHRC funded, submitted and examined 2012). Victoria is now a lecturer in Modern History at the University of Bristol.
Jennifer Grove, The collection and reception of sexually-related antiquities in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain and America.
External impact and engagement
Sex and History
Rebecca Langlands and I direct the Sex and History Project, an award-winning and innovative approach to improving young people’s well-being and sexual health. It uses objects from past cultures as a stimulus for discussing sex and relationships.
Stemming from our research, which explores the ways in which, throughout history, people have turned to the past to make sense of sex in their own presents, Sex and History reconstructs such productive engagements with the past, to open up new ways of thinking about sex today. Our research found that encounters with historical material provide eye-opening and empowering examples of cultural diversity which can expand horizons, open up new ways of thinking and legitimate alternative ways of being. Learning about what people from across time and place have thought about desire, arousal, intimacy, gender, body image, beauty, power and control provides both an arresting focus for discussion, and a safe distance from sensitive issues, that can have a transformative effect.
Sex and History uses museum visits, object-based workshops and games to add a new, rich dimension to sex education. It empowers young people to make healthy choices about sex and relationships and provides a wider social and cultural framework for the assimilation of biological and practical information about sexual health. The methodology is particularly effective in tackling those tricky subjects outside of the biological, such as relationships, resilience, attitudes, life-choices and pornography and the media. Following the development of a sex education resource pack (the Talking Sex Pack), developed with Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, trialled in 20 schools in Cornwall, we are currently collaborating with the RSE hub on the production of a new resource for teachers, and with Sophie Sampson on the use of classrooms games to get young people engaging with a range of historical evidence.
Sex and History also works with museums and the cultural sector to enhance the relationship between young people and heritage and to shape social change. We focus on the production of creative interpretations of historical objects (including film making, soundscapes, dance, animation intergenerational discussion and exhibition curation) of demonstrable cultural, artistic, social and educational value, using a model of participation and co-production that has the capacity to transform mental, social and physical wellbeing and economic resilience.
We have received funding from Museums Libraries and Archives, The Wellcome Trust, REACT Pump priming; Catalyst Fund and the AHRC.
We have worked with a wide range of partners including: Age Concern; Barnardos; Eddystone Trust; Effervescent social alchemy; Exeter Foyer; Groundwork SW; Platform 51; Plymouth City Museum; Plymouth Youth Service; Russell-Coates Art Gallery and Museum; Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter; Royal Cornwall Museum; Truro; RSE Hub, The Science Museum, Wellcome Collection.
You can find out more about our past projects here:
We have a number of exciting on-going projects and events. Please contact us for more details:
- ‘Intimate Worlds’ Exhibition at RAMM, Exeter, 5 April to 29 June 2014
- ‘Hold’, cross-generational project
- Sex and Relationships Education
The Sex and History Project has received positive media attention, it won an award for Outstanding Social and Cultural Impact at the Exeter University Impact Awards (2011) and was put forward for an EngageU award for European innovation in university public engagement.
Some of the historical objects used in the Sex and History project are going on display at Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum in 2014.