OHS Conference Preview: Let’s talk about sex

Posted on 08/07/2015 by


Oral history interviewing is endlessly fascinating but, as oral historians know, it is hard work, particularly when we have to broach a difficult subject or ask a tricky question.

Professor Kate Fisher (above), director of the Centre of Medical History at Exeter University and one of the keynote speakers at this week’s conference of the Oral History Society, knows more than most about asking tricky questions. As a historian of sex and sexuality and author of two prize-winning books, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 and Sex Before the Sexual Revolution, she has spent much of her career asking people to reveal the most intimate parts of her lives.

Surprisingly, she says that she has not found it all difficult to get people to talk about sex.

“I don’t go up to someone and say ‘I would like to have a sex chat!’” she says. “When I talk to people I’m asking them to tell me the bits about their lives that they care most about. They’re talking about their family, their husbands, their wives, their courtship. That’s what we talk about when we talk about sex,” she says.

“Some of the questions I ask are not the questions I would ask immediately upon meeting my next-door neighbour or visiting my grandmother. I’m gearing myself up to ask questions that do not come naturally to me,” she says.

She has become adept at recognising when her interviewees want to stop.

“People are good at signalling when they’re uncomfortable,” she says.

Fisher first became interested in studying sex and sexuality as an undergraduate when she undertook a few oral history interviews with men, which showed that birth control and contraception are not merely “women’s issues.” She expanded on this in her first book.

“One of the starting points for my research was the belief that we need to look at what men think as well as what women think when examining how people managed their sex lives and birth control choices. When people study the use of contraception they tend to assume that it was a women’s issue. Historical shifts in the amount of birth control used are seen to indicate that women’s power was increasing. I found that this doesn’t match up to the oral history evidence,” she says.

“I spent a lot of time giving men a voice,” she adds.

The second big theme of Fisher’s work focuses on “rethinking the idea of repression and sexual silence”.

“There is a common assumption that the generations before the 1960s were inhibited about sex, they didn’t talk about it and this was the cause of many unhappy relationships. The idea is that partners didn’t discuss sex together, they didn’t know what to do and fumbled around and as a result had less pleasurable experiences,” she says.

Her interviewees, most of whom married in the 1930s, revealed that not talking about sex could have its own pleasures.

“Couples learned together and there was what some described as a kind of innocent spontaneity to their sexual lives. Some derived great pleasure from this,” she says.

Fisher used material from the Mass Observation Archive housed at the University of Sussex, as well as letters written to Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer. But Fisher adds: “There’s no doubt that oral history came into its own on this topic.”

Oral history has not played a part in her most recent research projects but she hopes to return to it.

“I miss it now I have been away from it. I’m ready to do it again,” she says.

  • You can hear more about Kate Fisher’s work at this week’s OHS conference, which focuses on the oral histories of science, technology and medicine. It takes place at Royal Holloway, University of London this Friday and Saturday, 10 and 11 July. For more information click here. Follow the hashtag #ohsconf2015 for live Twitter updates.
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