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Tutor: Elise Smith

Activism, Sexuality, and Venereal Diseases

The threat of disease has long overshadowed intimate encounters and infiltrated the ethics of sexual liberation. In this session, we will consider the role that venereal disease has played in the health of individuals, communities, and nations through two case studies: the implentation of the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain and India, and the early association between AIDS and homosexuality. Both cases attracted a significant response by activists, although they reveal differing attitudes about what role the state and medical establishment should play in mitigating such diseases.

Seminar Questions

To what degree has venereal disease been associated with sexual deviance?

Have public health concerns offered states an effective means of controlling sexual activity?

What role has morality played in responses to venereal diseases?

Has curbing instances of venereal disease been historically seen as a private or public responsibility?

How have activists influenced public responses to venereal diseases?

Required reading

Peter Lewis Allen, The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present (University of Chicago Press, 2000), ‘Chapter 6: AIDS in the U.S.A.’, pp. 119-156.

Steven Epstein, Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge (University of California Press, 1996), ‘Chapter 1: The Nature of a New Threat’, pp. 45-78. [e-book]

Philippa Levine, ‘Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Politics of Empire: The Case of British India,’ Journal of the History of Sexuality 4 (1994), 579-602. [e-journal]

Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge University Press, 1983), ‘Part II: The Contagious Disease Acts, Regulationists, and Repealers,’ pp. 67-148. [e-book]

Further reading

AM Brandt, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880 (Oxford University Press, 1985)

Steven Epstein, Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge (University of California Press, 1996).

David Evans, ‘Tackling the “Hideous Scourge”: The Creation of the Venereal Disease Treatment Centres in Early Twentieth Century Britain,’ Social History of Medicine 5 (1992), 413-433.

Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight against AIDS (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Anne R. Hanley, Medicine, Knowledge and Venereal Diseases in England, 1886-1916 (Palgrave, 2017)

Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race & Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (Routledge, 2003)

Evan Lieberman, Boundaries of Contagion: How Ethic Politics Have Shaped Governmental Responses to AIDS (Princeton University Press, 2009).

Richard A. McKay, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Roger Davidson and Lesley Hall (eds.), Sex, Sin and Suffering: Venereal Disease and European Society since 1870 (Routledge, 2001).

Michael Worboys, ‘Unsexing Gonorrhoea: Bacteriologists, Gynaecologists, and Suffragists in Britain, 1860-1920,’ Social History of Medicine 17 (2004), 41-59.