Histories of ‘a loathsome disease’: sexual health in modern Britain

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From Victorian preoccupations with prostitution and degeneration to our present-day problems with antimicrobial resistance and inequalities in access to care, sexual health has been riddled with gendered, racialised, politicised and class-based meanings. Historians writing from within an increasingly diverse collection of subfields have explored how British attitudes towards, and interventions in, sexual health have changed over the past two centuries. In so doing, they have also addressed a wide range of themes in British social life, politics, gender and sexuality. This article surveys this extensive historiography, highlighting important shifts and reflecting on where historians might fruitfully turn next. Inevitably, there are problematic silences in the scholarship. Historians, overwhelmingly reliant on records compiled by health authorities and the state, have tended to write top-down histories of sexual health. The lived experiences of ordinary people, especially those on the margins of society, remain frustratingly elusive. Moreover, the same sorts of inequalities that historically undermined care and denied patients a voice continue to shape health outcomes. As such, this article not only surveys the historiography but also makes the case for the important role that historians can play in supporting positive changes in attitudes towards sexual health and the delivery of healthcare today.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12716
Number of pages16
JournalHistory Compass
Issue number3
Early online date22 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thank you to Elaine Leong for commissioning this piece, to Lloyd Davies for his close editing and to Hannah Elizabeth for their comments and helpful suggestions on readings. This work was supported by a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship (MR/V022806/1). 1

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Authors. History Compass published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • Venereal Disease
  • Prostitution
  • Shame and Stigma
  • Eugenics
  • Socialised Healthcare
  • Medical Technologies
  • Doctor–Patient Relationship
  • History

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History


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