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Sexuality, Society and the State in Britain, 1914-2000


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Professor Julia Laite
  • Assessment: two 2500-word essays and a three-hour examination

Module description

Ideas about sex and sexuality underwent immense and controversial change in twentieth-century Britain. Women were granted the right to vote, but feminists were divided over fundamental issues related to sexuality; men continued to enjoy more sexual and social freedoms yet ideas about masculinity and male sexuality were hotly debated. Rising rates of venereal disease and, later, the advent of AIDS came along with intense social and medical debates over how to cope with these problems. Police struggled to repress prostitution while promiscuity and sex outside of marriage sky-rocketed. Crusades against pornography were coupled with campaigns for better sex education. Campaigns to prevent and punish sexual abuse developed amid new psychological and social understandings of sexual function, heredity, and the family. Homosexuality was criminalised and subsequently decriminalised; and, after the 'sexual revolution', still more questions arose about the rights of gay and queer people and the social and cultural position of women.

In this module we focus on the period between 1914 and 2000, and explore, in rough chronological order:

  • how questions about sexuality were defined and discussed in popular culture
  • how the state intervened in these debates
  • what these changes and controversies meant for men and women living during this tumultuous time.

You will read a variety of secondary sources, and for each topic will analyse primary sources, ranging from published articles, books and reports, to government and personal correspondence, to police files and court records (as well as the very first issue of Penthouse magazine). This is intended to give you a first-hand look at some of these debates and experiences, help you reflect upon their own encounters with gender and sexual politics, and enable you to explore the opportunities and challenges for researching gender and sexual history.