Our second workshop ‘Aristotle’s Masterpiece’

Our second Sex in Six Objects workshop explored the sexual culture of nineteenth-century Britain.

This workshop asked: how did pornographic and medical writings offer the Victorians a source of education in sexual matters? And how do we learn about sex today?

The workshop took place on 16 April from 2-3:30pm and was facilitated by Dr Sarah Bull from the University of Cambridge.

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The workshop facilitator, Dr Sarah Bull, brought along a variety of original books and facsimiles, for example:

– A big, heavy tome entitled Haydn’s Dictionary of Popular Medicine and Hygiene: A Companion for the Traveller, Emigrant, and Clergyman, as well as for the Heads of all Families and Institutions (1877), which covers a great many things, from a very brief description of the “vagina” to a lengthy section on “ketchup”.

– Various newspaper clippings from Ward’s New Catalogue of Parisian Novelties and Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, both from the 1850s.

– A copy of the miniature medical work The Works of Aristotle, the Famous Philosopher (1860) – not actually written by Aristotle but shamelessly attributed to him to make the book appear more authoritative and exciting – a wildly popular medical work that some people considered pornographic. Pictures include a tame courtship scene, nudes and triplets in the womb.

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Sarah began by explaining what she finds particularly exciting about these texts, and the questions that she asks herself when researching them: How were medical books about sex published and advertised? Where was the line, for the Victorians, between science and pornography? Was it a blurry one?

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Sarah then invited everyone to page through the books in their own time. Particularly strange, to modern eyes, were the newspaper listings from the 1850s that promised – albeit in coded language – to send books that would tell the reader all there is to know about sex. The Victorians were as fascinated by sex as we are today, but strict obscenity laws make it tricky to openly advertise books that discussed these issues. Sarah showed us how to decode the advertising language: “curious”, for example, was a code word for “sexual”.

Once we’d had a bit of time to find our feet with the material, we gathered around to discuss our responses.

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One of the issues that came up in the conversation was a comparison of how the Victorians talked about sex, and learned about it, compared with how we do these things today. Another thing was what the materials told us about what excited the Victorians, and also what made them nervous or scared, about sex. Young people today also have a range of reactions to sex—we talked about how effective or desirable it is to formally teach Sex Education in schools. The participants commented that a workshop like this, based around real, interesting material rather than just hypotheticals, would be a good addition! We also talked about the ways pornography – in Victorian times and today – portrays female pleasure. One thing the participants noticed was that pornography often doesn’t seem to focus on female pleasure – and sometimes it doesn’t even mention it at all.

The workshop facilitators wanted the discussion to be led by the curiosity and ideas of the participants, so we didn’t try to steer the conversation in a particular direction. Participants commented that they liked the openness of the conversation.

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As a way of evaluating the effectiveness of the workshops, we started with a word association exercise. We asked participants: “Which TWO words come to mind when you think of the word ‘sexuality’?” The results were really intriguing, from “nymphomania” to “misunderstanding”. At the end of the workshop we repeated the exercise. Responses were much more nuanced, describing the “constructed” and “enacted” nature of sexuality, showing awareness of the “anatomical” “scientific” and “medical” history of sexuality, and even using specialist terminology, such as “inversion”, a word originating in the second half of the 19th century to describe homosexuality. We are extremely grateful to the workshop participants who contributed to an excellent conversation and took the time to fill in our feedback form. Here are just some of the ways in which the participants said they would describe the workshop to people of their own age:

“Lots of interactive objects to inspire thoughts and conversation”

“Exploring sexuality through time”

“Interactive, dynamic, and open”

If you’re interested in holding a similar workshop using objects from the history of sexuality as a conversation starter, these medical textbooks would be a great choice. The great thing about the workshop material: these books are very cheap! Because they had such a large readership – they do say sex sells! – and were printed in vast numbers to meet demand, it is easy to get hold of a copy that can be handled by workshop participants, and replaced if spoilt. Please get in touch with us through our contact form if you would like to know more!

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