Julia Laite

Because there is a certain intimacy to writing for a blog, I feel there is a little more of myself that gets revealed in writing it than does when I am wearing my Journal Publications and Monograph hat. This has led me to reflect on some very important questions (see above).

Was sexologist Havelock Ellis sexy?

I’m using sexiness coyly here, deliberately not using sexuality, because what I am querying isn’t really a fixed (or even a fluid) sexual identity but rather our myriad relationships with sex as individuals and our relative personal interest in these relationships. Historians of sexuality are interested in many different issues, but many of us encounter sex–often explicitly–in our day-to-day researching lives. My own experience is usually fairly lacking in detail, but occasionally a raunchy titbit will emerge: the cost of buying anal sex in Buenos Aires in the 1910s, for instance, or an explicit prostitutes’ directory that has been tucked into a Metropolitan Police file. These archival moments bring to mind a piece that historian Lisa Sigel wrote for a great collection Jane Sexes it Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire, which reflected upon her work with the nineteenth-century pornographic text ‘The Autobiography of a Flea,’ where the flea is a voyeur, clinging to the body of a fallen woman. Painting herself as a kind of historical flea watching the explicit sex of the past, she grapples with the reception of her research into pornography. When asked whether or not she gets turned on by the porn that she is constantly exposed to during her research she replies, ‘I’m not the object of study, so it’s none of your business’.

Sigel has every right to respond with evasiveness, particularly in an academic world where research on sex is still too often received with chortles in lieu of respect and where anything that is about sex is assumed to ‘sexy’ (Jane Sexes it Up, for instance, is bizarrely filed under ‘erotica’ on amazon.co.uk). But of course historians of sexuality also need to query their own place–their own sexuality, sexiness, and sexual response–within their research and their writing.  We may not be the objects of study, but there is always something of us in what we write. We are embodied creatures, after all, and the vast majority of us experience sexual and emotional responses to material we encounter in our working lives that affects the way we interpret evidence in our subjective field.  And like it or not (Sigel doesn’t), our sexiness and sexuality–and even the very fact that we research sex–can also affect how others see our work and ourselves.

The sexualities of earlier historians of sexuality–found largely amongst the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sexologists–continue to feature in our assessments of them, and even influence how we read their work. Never a stranger to controversy, Sheila Jeffries’, in her 1985 Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1800-1930, strongly criticizes Havelock Ellis (among others) for his pathologization of frigidity and lesbianism, yet uses his urlagnia (derivation of sexual pleasure from watching people urinate) to critique his ideas about intercourse. This is very telling of the ways (especially given enough historical distance) that we consider the sexuality of scholars important (Jeffries’ own lesbianism has also figured in discussion of her work, of course). Should any of us enjoy the longevity of Ellis as a scholar of sexuality, will our own sexual practises become pertinent too?

Does our open (or hidden) sexuality affect our research? How so? And does it matter more or less than a political historian’s toryism or left-wing beliefs influencing his or her interpretation of the past? Perhaps more importantly, do (and should) our perceptions of other historians’ sexuality affect how we view their contributions to historiography?

These are controversial questions. But at the very least, reflecting on our own sexiness, our sexuality as lived, and the traces of it that get left behind in the historical record, can help us notice the silences and the profound incompleteness of our sources. It can help us to visualize the ‘twilights’, as Anna Clark has put it, through which we all move.

Despite these thoughts, our introductions here will only include the usual details. This blog has three editors: Julia Laite (that’s me) is a social and cultural historian of modern Britain based at Birkbeck, University of London, who frequently wears a history of gender and sexuality hat but whose work also touches on crime, migration, and labour.  Her first book, Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London, 1885-1960 came out in 2011. Justin Bengry, a postdoctoral scholar at McGill University in Canada but similarly based at Birkbeck, is a cultural historian of sexuality who works on the the relationship between capitalism and homosexuality in Britain, and is finishing up a book tentatively titled The Pink Pound: Queer Profits in Twenteith-Century Britain. Amy Tooth Murphy is an oral historian specialising in lesbian and queer oral histories and post-war lesbian history, with an emphasis on domesticity. She completed her PhD entitled, ‘Reading the Lives between the Lines: Lesbian Oral History and Literature in Post-War Britain’, at the University of Glasgow in 2012 and is currently based at the University of East London. We are joined by several regular and occasional contributors, and encourage anyone interested in reflecting on sex in the past to get in touch.

Notches was established in order to get people inside and outside the academy thinking about sex and sexualities in the past and in the present. Our goal is to achieve the widest breadth in terms of region, period, and theme so that Notches remains accessible and interesting to all. We look forward to sharing an exciting, vibrant, engaging, stimulating, and fun dialogue with you and our contributors across our posts!


Julia Laite, a lecturer in modern British history and gender history at Birkbeck, University of London, is a historian of women, gender, sexuality, crime, migration, prostitution, and occasionally lorries.  Her first book, Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London, 1885-1960 was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2011.



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NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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One Comment

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