The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.

The discipline of sexology epitomises key aspects of the fin de siècle cultural climate, a highly charged transitory period between Victorianism and Modernity that is characterised by concerns with the links between subject and social order, and related preoccupations with broader issues of civilisation and national strength. Recent scholarship, focusing on the discursive overlaps between sexology and other fin de siècle fields of investigation, has highlighted the discipline’s complex influences, pointing out that the sexual subject emerged alongside a range of gender, class, national and racial identities. However, while the gender politics of sexology in particular have been closely scrutinised (especially in relation to masculinity), relatively little attention has been paid to descriptions of non-European sexual practices within the sexological texts. This paper explores the significance of the often overlooked representations of African sexual practices, specifically female sexuality, in key sexological works, arguing that they reflect fin de siècle attitudes to both race and women. Late-nineteenth century sexologists including Richard von Krafft-Ebing, author of the influential Psychopathia Sexualis, made reference to polygamy in Africa, and in so doing articulated contemporary anti-Islam sentiments that were tied in to imperial anxieties. Within these texts where the role of women in society was read as an indicator of ‘civilisation’, the perceived maltreatment of women in Islam was presented as proof of Islam’s non-civilised state, although in keeping with Victorian racial hierarchies Islamic influences were ranked above the unchecked ‘savagery’ of those African societies that had yet to be converted to monotheism. The early twentieth century saw a shift from discussions of marital relationships in Africa to accounts of African female sexual practices. For instance the work of Iwan Bloch and Magnus Hirschfeld and the multi-authored anthropological study Woman feature unusually explicit descriptions of sex between women and women’s use of sex toys. Around the same time, British women who travelled to Africa, notably the adventurer Joan Rosita Torr Forbes, started to record their observations on African customs such as clitoridectomy and issues such as the female age of consent, mirroring ongoing feminist concerns. The paper argues that an examination of the representation of African sexual practices offers new insights into key tropes in fin de siècle British culture, highlighting the interconnections between Victorian ideas of race, women, the politics of colonialism and empire, and emergent sexual theories.

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