Sexual Health Week

This week is in the UK, an awareness event promoted by FPA, a charity for promoting sexual health and open discussion. Here at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, we house the Percy Skuy collection of historical contraception devices, and seek to tell the story not only of contraception in America, but also the long-standing fight for birth control (and continued issues of access).

James Ashton, The Book of Nature, Dittrick Museum Skuy Gallery

At the front of the gallery, we take a look at the reproductive and sexual body, from Aristotle’s Masterpiece to books by James Ashton and Charles Knowlton. Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy (1832), deemed “obscene” for its frank discussion of sex for pleasure and birth control, landed him in hot water. He was arrested twice, but the book lived on, and helped to change the conversation around a “taboo” topic.

Other sections of the museum describe the notorious Comstock Act of 1873 (Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use), made contraception illegal in the USA, and which led to harrowing health

Diverse formulations and packaging of birth control pill products.

consequences from unwanted pregnancy to venereal diseases. Black market devices and pills offered unreliable and sometimes dangerous alternatives, and Comstock’s definition of  obscenity and pornography meant books were burned and useful, frank conversation repressed. Thought the act was at last repealed, vestiges of the law remained into the 1990s. [1]

Arguments about who had a right to control women’s reproduction, and what sexuality was for (that is, pleasure or merely procreation) continue today. Through the Skuy Gallery, we at the Dittrick hope to do our own small part in encouraging open discussion of healthy sexual practice. Come and see up–or visit out online exhibits here.

[1] Comstock Act, The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, <https://www.britannica.com/event/Comstock-Act&gt;

Published by

Brandy Schillace

Historian and author Brandy Schillace, PhD, is Editor for Medhum Fiction | Daily Dose, Research Associate and Public Engagement at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, as well as Managing Editor of the medical anthropology journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.

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