Professor Kate Fisher

Research interests

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.

Sexual Knowledge, Sexual History

I co-direct an interdisciplinary project exploring am 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.

In collaboration with Dr. Rebecca Langlands (Department of Classics & Ancient History), I research the way both popular and academic ideas about sex and sexuality have been articulated from the 18th century to the present day with reference to erotic material from ancient civilisations. Rebecca and I have written about the way people (including scholars, museum curators, writers and tourists) have responded to the the sexually explicit material from Pompeii and Herculaneum over the centuries. A co-edited volume Sex, Knowledge and Receptions of the Past (OUP, forthcoming 2014), 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.

I am working with Dr Jana Funke on the multivalent part played by interpretations of past civilizations in late nineteenth and early twentieth century sexual science. It asks: what kind of evidence did sexologists see past cultures’ material and textual legacies as providing? What kinds of authority did the past hold for them? How did material from the past shape their ideas about sexuality and how did they view its relationship with other evidence, such as observations of animal behaviour or modern medical case studies?

This project pioneers a new direction for the history of sexuality by challenging our understanding of the culture of scientific knowledge during the period associated with the invention of modern sexuality and the medicalisation of sex. The growth in the explanatory power of science during the nineteenth- and twentieth century is often assumed to have created a rhetorical division between clinical forms of evidence on the one hand, and ‘cultural’ material drawn, for instance, from history or literature, on the other, with the latter increasingly seen as unscientific or subjective. However, this book demonstrates that sexual science authorised itself as an interdisciplinary field of knowledge. In particular, writers who sought to engage scientifically with sexual questions drew heavily on the past: they were obsessed with prehistoric forms of sexual behaviour; interrogated historical periods such as Ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages and Renaissance; and turned to non-Western cultures to gain insights into (supposedly) primitive and natural sexual practices and to engage with alternative sexual norms and morals. Such historical evidence was considered as valuable within a scientific framework and was central to the authorisation of sexual knowledge. For this reason, sexual science needs to be understood in relation to wider intellectual debates about historical evidence and methodology, which were rehearsed within medicine and science as well as in literature, classics, theology, anthropology and archaeology. Through an exploration of these interdisciplinary connections, the book offers new insights into the construction of sexual science and its position within a broader cultural and literary context.

I am writing a monograph exploring the centrality of the imperial and global context to the development of sexual science. It challenges the idea that sexology was a narrow medical field, concerned only with the psychopathology of sexual deviance. It argues that experts’ readings of global sexualities, shaped by imperial ideologies, altered their understandings of sexual behaviour. New approaches questioned whether it was a universal product of nature, and adopted ‘culture’ as an important category in understanding desires. These shifts changed the discipline, were deployed to consolidate and critique imperialism, and were harnessed in European sexual reform movements.

The Medicalisation of Sex? Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Sexual Science

The revisionary reading of the history of the medicalisation of sex developed in this book also serves to challenge reductive understandings of the relation between medicine, science and culture, which still restrict our ability to think and communicate across disciplinary boundaries today. To explore further these concerns, I am currently developing a large interdisciplinary and collaborative research project in the Medical Humanities with Dr Jana Funke (English) and Dr Rebecca Langlands (Classics and Ancient History). The project is entitled The Medicalisation of Sex? Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Sexual Science and brings together researchers from the Humanities, Social Sciences and Health Sciences to address some of the challenges surrounding the medicalisation of sex in the past and present.