Ivory figurine, China, 19th Century from the Wellcome Collection © Science Museum-Science & Society Picture Library

Sex and History: Talking sex with objects from the past

A ground-breaking initiative from the University of Exeter, the Sex and History project, is offering schools a new way to tackle difficult topics in sex education.

Led by Professor of History Kate Fisher and Classicist Dr Rebecca Langlands, Sex and History has produced a new “taster” teaching resource for secondary schools, which offers an effective way of addressing some of the most difficult issues in sex education - through the examination and discussion of ancient artefacts.

Designed for young people aged between 14-19, the resource utilises objects such as an 18th century chastity belt, Roman phallic amulets worn by soldiers and children, and an ivory copulating couple from late 19th century China, amongst others. The artefacts are from the vaults of the Science Museum, collected by Sir Henry Wellcome from across the globe and have never been on public display.

Professor Fisher and Dr Langlands' extensive research has shown that by creating a safe environment and using these historical artefacts to discuss how sexual practices and conventions have changed over the course of history, today’s young people can be encouraged to discuss their own views, ideas and concerns about sex.

As Dr Langlands explained, the objects were found to be the perfect catalyst for getting young people to talk openly about the issues that mattered to them when it came to sex. She said:"They immediately kick started conversations with young people in a way that is usually very difficult to achieve in a classroom context. Traditionally sex education can be uncomfortable for teachers and pupils alike, and the availability of internet pornography poses new challenges. Young people are often well aware of the biological facts of reproduction, STIs and contraception, but lack the opportunity for discussion of important wider social issues such as body image, love, consent, and intimacy.”

The new teaching resource, designed in partnership with the Relationships and Sex Education Hub (RSE Hub), is linked to a stunning new exhibition of historical artefacts ‘Intimate Worlds’, at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter. This will be the first ever dedicated display of Wellcome’s sexually related material.

Professor Fisher explained: “These intriguing artefacts from ancient cultures act as a productive and challenging stimulus, but they also provide a safe distance to discuss sensitive subjects. Using them encouraged young people to find new ways of discussing relationships and sex without embarrassment. They were talking about history, about places and times far away. It was no longer sex education or about putting them in the spotlight, but it was about broader cultures.”

As part of the Sex and History project a group of Exeter College students aged between 16 and 17 were involved in a workshop that used illustrations of the sexual objects from the Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection as a basis for exploring ideas around sex and sexual relationships.

Laura Kerslake, a lecturer in Ethics at Exeter College was impressed by the way students openly discussed the sex related objects and their significance. She said:“The objects allowed them to talk about sex without feeling self-conscious or thinking about themselves. Especially because they are ancient erotic objects, not a modern cultural image, but from different cultures that are far removed from young people’s own lives, which helps to make them feel safe whilst participating in the discussion. This approach takes the embarrassment out of it and reduces the possibility of students putting up barriers to learning.”

“It’s also a great way to help teachers who may be faced with a wall of silence when teaching sex education. What was nice was seeing them looking at the different language they use to talk about sex and body parts, some of the students don’t have that vocabulary so it’s a way of getting them to talk about it and understand the terminology.”

The ‘Intimate Worlds’ exhibition opens on the 5th April and showcases an extraordinary range of objects from the Wellcome Collection relating to human sexuality, including Chinese erotic glass painting, Greek vases and African fertility dolls. Despite the challenging theme, ‘Intimate Worlds’ is no "shock horror" display. Instead, this is precisely the kind of serious educational and socially beneficial exhibition that the original collector, pharmaceutical billionaire Sir Henry Wellcome dreamed of for his collection.

The exhibition provides an insight into the cultural diversity of attitudes and practices towards sex and prompts questions about modern attitudes towards censorship, the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, control of sexuality, fertility and contraception, pleasure and power relations. The exhibition runs until 29 June at RAMM in Exeter.

The Sex and History project has received funding from Museums Libraries and Archives, The Wellcome Trust, REACT Pump priming; Catalyst Fund and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

There is a free training event for teachers and professionals who work with people aged 14 and above around sex, relationships and sexual health on Wednesday 30 April, 16:30 - 18:30 at the RAMM, Exeter. It is entitled 'Sex and History' teaching resource, Key Stages 4 & 5.

Date: 3 April 2014