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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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!



Our first workshop ‘AIDS and You’

Our Sex in Six Objects project was off to a great start with our first workshop exploring the history of AIDS and HIV educational material for young people from the 1980s and 1990s. The workshop took place on 2 April from 2-3:30pm and was facilitated by Hannah Elizabeth from the University of Manchester.



‘Sharing Sex Toys: SAFE or UNSAFE?’

The first thing you notice about the ‘AIDS and You’ game is that it doesn’t beat around the bush. It even comes across as quite risqué, considering it targeted an audience of 11 to 16 year olds. It was developed in 1988 to teach children and young adults about how to prevent the transmission of HIV. But is it really possible to turn information about HIV and AIDS into a fun and entertaining game?

The AIDS and You game won’t necessarily give you an answer to this, because – well, to be quite honest – it isn’t the most entertaining of games. It was devised by the British Medical Association (BMA), the professional association for doctors in the UK, which didn’t necessarily comprise a group of savvy game developers. The game was meant to be non-competitive: the players have in front of them a stack of cards, each presenting a scenario, and have to decide if the situation is SAFE or UNSAFE. The UNSAFE card is illustrated with mean-looking squished little creatures, like walking bogies – just so you can recognise the AIDS virus, if you ever happen to see it. In 1994, the BMA also released ‘AIDS and You’ as a computer game – probably about a decade too late, if they wanted to compete for teenagers’ attention against other computer games.



But despite its dubious success in its aim of edu-taining the youthful masses, the game offered an excellent start to our Sex in Six Objects workshop series. In a group, we discussed how we might be able to update and improve it.

Some really obvious hiccups in the original game included:

  • Never mentioning homosexuality: the game was published just as Section 28 was introduced, which prohibited the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and pretty much made it impossible to talk about a HIV and AIDS key population: gay men.
  • Implying that HIV-positive people are solely responsible for the public’s health and safety: after playing the game once from the pupils’ position (they are all assumed to be HIV-negative), the class is asked to re-evaluate all situations from the point of view of an HIV-positive person. Whilst such situations as ‘having a baby’ and ‘donating sperm to a sperm bank’ are considered SAFE for HIV-negative people because they don’t risk contracting the virus, these scenarios are considered UNSAFE for the HIV-positive person because they expose others to the risk of infection.


Other suggestions that the workshop participants came up with:

  • Add a semi-translucent card that represents a condom: how does the scenario change from UNSAFE to SAFE?
  • A lot of vocab was left unexplained: do 11-year-olds know what is meant by the term ‘sex act’? Or even what it means to engage in ‘sex acts which tear or cut the skin’? The game is all about informing young people before they begin to be sexually active (sweet but naïve when we consider the game targets 16-year-olds), whilst desperately trying to not actually mention anything sexual.
  • Get rid of the SAFE/UNSAFE cards (or at least its stigmatising terminology): all situations that are considered UNSAFE can be made SAFE: using intravenous drugs can be made safe in terms of HIV transmission through needle exchange programmes; having condomless sex can be made safe through PrEP or if the HIV-positive partner is on HIV treatment.


All in all, we found the game to be a great conversation starter on such topics as sexual orientation, stigma, and alternative places for RSE and health education (Why not as a game? …If it were actually well-designed). And it works well in combination with other educational material from the 1980s and 90s, too. Hannah also brought along a collection of sex education books from the 80s and 90s and we also had a look at the Wellcome Library’s ‘Picturing AIDS’, a pocket-sized collection of AIDS posters (you can explore their amazing collection of HIV and AIDS posters here).


If you are interested in holding a similar workshop using objects from the history of sexuality as a conversation starter, the ‘AIDS and You’ game would be a great choice. Get in touch with us through our contact form if you would like to know more!


All photos by Diana Patient.