SPECIAL SUBJECT 24: The sex age: gender, sexuality and culture in 1920s Britain (suspended until further notice)
A strong and swiftly rising tide, that of the mind and matter of London in the 1920s. And borne up with it, of course, was the swelling spring of Sex. Everywhere sex problems, sex doctrines, sex plays and sex books. The Sex Age was become well established. [Leonard Rossiter, The Sex Age (1928)]
The myth of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ or the ‘Sex Age’ is a powerful one, told and retold by commentators at the time and ever since. Twenty years after Rossiter published his satirical novel, Douglas Goldring remembered ‘an uninhibited fling’, a ‘psychological compensation’ for the horrors of the Great War. In this ‘strange, excitable decade’ British society, culture and politics was obsessed with sex. This was the decade of the sex manual and open discussions about birth control; of flappers ‘running around talking about libidos and orgasms’; of ‘painted boys’ and mannish women. This was the decade when newspapers rarely failed to contain reports of anxious public debates about Britons’ sexual practices, morality and ‘vice’. In the 1920s, sex was ‘everywhere’.
Why? This course starts with that simple question. Through a close study of primary sources we will explore experiences and understandings of sex and sexuality in 1920s Britain. Looking at films, photographs and music, oral testimonies, romantic fiction, police files and marriage guidance manuals, we will ask what sex meant in the lives of individual men and women, and to British culture and society as a whole. Moving between the bedroom and the corridors of power, we will analyse what Britons did and how they thought about it, and how the nation’s self-appointed moral guardians tried to control that. The course focuses upon sexual practices usually—but not always—represented as marginal or ‘dangerous’. In considering the ‘modern woman’, male and female queerness, cross-dressing, inter-racial relationships, obscenity, prostitution and public sex we will engage critically with Stallybrass and White’s suggestion that ‘that which is socially peripheral is often symbolically central’. If this is the case, what can a study of sexual and gender ‘transgression’ tell us about British culture in the decade after the Great War? Drawing upon an increasingly vibrant historical, historiographical and theoretical literature, the course will also introduce key themes, concepts and approaches in cultural history in general, and in the history of sexuality in particular.
What’s this course meant to do?