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The history of sex in the city

Attitudes towards prostitution, homosexuality and gender issues throughout the twentieth century will be uncovered at a public conference with the help of a University of Sussex expert.

Dorothy Sheridan, Head of Special Collections and Research Services at the University, will appear at the lecture, Sex In The Archives, on 30th September, organised by the University of Liverpool. She will present extracts from personal diaries, letters and autobiographical accounts detailing the most intimate experiences of people’s lives.

The UK’s first-ever sex survey, part of the Mass Observation Archive based at the Falmer campus, will also be examined during the lecture and compared to more recent accounts of sexual experiences sent into the archive.

The sex survey was based on the candid responses of over 2,000 men and women in 1949 and was intended for publication in a national newspaper.

It included the views of the ‘man on the street’ with polls including answers from doctors, teachers and the clergy. The survey, which was ultimately deemed to shocking for publication, revealed that:

*One in five men said they’d had a homosexual experience;
*One in five women admitted to an extra-marital affair;
*One in four men admitted to having sex with prostitutes
Ms Sheridan says: “People were much more judgemental about sex and sexuality in previous decades while today there is more freedom to debate these issues. There is a tendency to believe that sex was invented in the sixties, but in the thirties and forties there was a huge amount of experimentation and a loosening of social constraints.

“This lecture is about alerting people to the interesting things that can be found in archives, their value and the matters of life and death that they contain.”

Documents detailing the life of Victorian feminist Josephine Butler and her campaign for the welfare of prostitutes will be shown during the one-day conference. Audiences will also hear how they can use archives to trace the activities and attitudes of their ancestors at specialist centres, such as the Liverpool Records Office. Other speakers on the day include Alan Crosby, Honorary Research Fellow in the School of History at the University of Liverpool and Economics Archivist Sue Donnelly, who will talk about gay and lesbian archives.

Caroline Williams, head of the University of Liverpool Centre for Archive Studies, said: "Documents such as the survey of sexuality from the Mass Observation Archive are so important because they reveal a great deal about human nature, religion and social policy and how much - and in some cases how little - our attitudes toward sex have changed."

The Mass Observation Archive results from the work of the social research organisation, Mass Observation. The organisation was founded in 1937 by three young men, who aimed to create an 'anthropology of ourselves'. They recruited a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. Teams of paid investigators went into a variety of public situations: meetings, religious occasions, sporting and leisure activities, in the street and at work, and recorded people's behaviour and conversation in as much detail as possible. The material they produced came to the University in 1970 and is a varied documentary account of life in Britain.

The lecture, Sex In The Archives, will be held on Saturday 30th September at Liverpool Medical Institution, Mount Pleasant at 2pm. Entry to the event is free but tickets are required. To book tickets please call Lizzie Woulfe on 0151 794 2414.

Jessica Mangold | alfa
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