Teaching the History of Sexuality with Difficult Images

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The next blog in our Emotions and Ethics series is written by Dr Sarah Jones. Following a research fellowship with the Rethinking Sexology Project at the University of Exeter, Sarah joined the University of Bristol as Lecturer in the History of Sexuality and Gender in January 2020. Her historical work looks at ‘popular’ sexual science in the early twentieth century, but she also undertakes research into creative and innovative pedagogical practice.


Teaching the History of Sexuality with Difficult Images

Teaching the history of sexuality can be a complicated process. We have to ensure intellectual rigour, of course; acting as guides through decades of rich scholarly debate, navigating complex theories, and working with students to think about a wide variety of different kinds of primary material. At the same time, though, the seminar room can often be a space for deeply personal reflection and discovery: Timothy Stewart-Winter has written on the need to handle the ‘confessional impulse’ when teaching a topic that feels so ‘natural,’ intimate, and innate to many students. Even further, classrooms in which issues such as gender, sex, sexuality, and the body are being interrogated are often intensely political spaces; spaces where discussions of the past have real ramifications for the way students understand and respond to these same issues in the present.

Images, and especially photographs of different kinds, have always been an important tool for me when I try to navigate this complex space. My students have often reflected on how affected they have been by ‘looking history in the eye,’ using sources that they say make the past, and the people who lived that past, feel more tangible, or somehow more human. Time and time again they remark in class feedback that photos make for more immersive teaching sessions, where they feel they are coming face to face with the history I am pushing them to think about. Depending on the sources and topic being covered, their reactions can be joyful or amused. Often, however, visual materials provoke feelings of discomfort, shame, or outrage – all responses I make space for and even encourage, and ask them to interrogate. While this is by no means without its flaws and some historians might prefer a more ‘objective,’ detached room, I am great advocate of using sources to help find a balance between the academic, the personal, and the political – giving students the resources to think through issues in the past, but also to reflect on what looking at the past can teach us about ourselves.

Recently, though, I’ve been starting to address the ethical ramifications of this kind of pedagogical approach. As I stated in the paper, I am becoming increasingly uneasy about reproducing images of sexualised bodies in my seminars and lectures. In particular, by putting these kinds of images out there, I am aware that I may be unwittingly replicating the power structures around race, class, and gender they were originally meant to serve. How, then, should I go about balancing the pedagogical power and importance of such images with such ethical dilemmas? I am keenly aware (and very frustrated) that I didn’t have any satisfying answers to offer in my paper. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to engage with a group of generous scholars who are explicitly engaging with such issues around the emotional and ethical uses of historical images. The seminar as a whole was such an excellent opportunity to think about how we, as historical researchers, work with and respond to images that we might think of as difficult or sensitive: I hope my contribution also encouraged those present (and whoever might watch this back) to start further conversations about how such insights might also change our practice as educators, too.

A great blog series on the 'ethics and emotions' of working with photography 👇 https://twitter.com/AboutFaceYork/status/1291315469891309568

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