Historical sex objects to feature in classrooms

An 18th-century chastity belt and phallic Roman amulets are to be used to enrich sex education for secondary school pupils.

Ivory okimono of a copulating couple © Science Museum, Wellcome Collection

An 18th-century chastity belt and phallic Roman amulets are to be used to enrich sex education for secondary school pupils.

In an attempt to help students discuss challenging topics, researchers from the University of Exeter are to launch a new taster course for schools that teaches sex education through the examination and discussion of ancient artefacts.

The Sex and History project will see youngsters aged between 14 and 19 discuss illustrations of objects from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome. Between 1900 and his death in 1936, the billionaire pharmaceutical giant amassed more than a million objects from across the globe for his museum of medical history. More than 1,000 of these are sexual in nature.

The items chosen for the project – which include an ivory copulating couple, a porcelain doll representing the goddess of compassion, and a 19th-century carving of a clamshell – have been stored for decades in the vaults of the Science Museum at Blythe House, and have never been on public display.

The project is being led by professor of history, Kate Fisher, and Classicist Dr Rebecca Langlands. Prof Fisher told History Extra: “Through our research, Rebecca and I have explored how people have used the past to make sense of sex in later periods.

“We are using objects from the past as a means of discussing issues that concern young people.

“We visited the store room in Blythe House, and found that Wellcome had collected an extraordinary number of beautiful sexual objects from all over the world. There are more than 1,000 in the collection, from which we have chosen around 20 for the project.

“After piloting the project in Devon and Cornwall, we realised how amazing historical objects are at stimulating high quality, quite unembarrassed discussions about important sexual issues such as consent, pornography and power within relationships, that teachers tell us they find difficult to address in a classroom context.

“It works partly because the objects are very powerful – they speak about cultural diversity, and give the impression that sex has been talked about for centuries, so it’s OK to do it.

“But it’s also about distance – pupils are talking about different places, and different cultures. They are not having to reveal anything about themselves."

Discussing the chastity belt, Prof Fisher said: “The idea is that it came from the Middle Ages, when a knight going away to the crusades would ‘lock up’ his woman. It stimulates discussions about power, control and consent in relationships.

“The story about the medieval knight is probably completely made up – the belt dates from the 18th or 19th-century, so we are really looking at a Victorian imagining of the cruelty of the medieval world, which isn’t what students expect to hear about the Victorians.

“And the phallic Roman amulets highlight the disjuncture between their society and ours. Sexual imagery was then on display for everyone to see – including women and children.

“But it was not to make a statement about sex. Probably, Romans would install large model penises outside their homes because they believed it would bring good luck.”

Turning to the ivory copulating couple, probably made in 19th-century China, Prof Fisher said: “This object is powerful because of the limited information we have about it. It puts the onus on the students to do their own interpreting about what it might have been for. Students are really interested in the idea that such sexually explicit material might have been part of sex education or health instruction. 

“One theory is that it was used in a trunk bottom – that is, when a girl got married [the time period is not known], her parents would pack a trunk of things she would need in her new, married life, and at the bottom place an object relating to sex education.

“Another idea is that it might have been a tool used by doctors to talk to their patients about their sex lives, at a time when good sex was considered crucial to your longevity.”

The first training session for teachers is in Exeter on 30 April, and they will subsequently begin to use the resource in their classes across Devon and Cornwall.

The items being used in the project are also on show at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter, in an exhibition titled ‘Intimate Worlds: Exploring Sexuality through the Wellcome Collection’. This is the first dedicated display of Wellcome’s sexual material.

The exhibition, which raises questions about modern attitudes towards fertility, contraception, pleasure and power relations, will run until 29 June.

To find out more about the exhibition, click here.

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