Organized Session

Expertise and Private Life in the 20th Century: Science, Communication, and Sexual Subjectivity

Organizer

Teri Chettiar

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Chair

Isabel Gabel

University of Pennsylvania

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Session Abstract

A major development in Europe and North America in the second half of the 20th century was the rising use of expert knowledge in everyday intimate life for solving sexual problems and making reproductive decisions. This panel explores the mobilization of scientific expertise-whether genetic, psychological, medical, or sexological-in helping non-specialists to make reproductive choices, interpret the results of genetic tests, make decisions about treatment and birth control, and understand sexual difficulties. Not only have these encounters between experts and non-experts often been highly personal and private in nature, they were often directed-whether implicitly or explicitly-at forging new kinds of intimate relationships and new kinds of informed modern sexual subjects.

This panel focuses on the rich and varied histories of sexual and reproductive science communication in fields specializing in genetics, fertility, birth control, and psychosexual counseling, all of which have been impacted by fast-changing technologies and highly charged politics. Attending to the translation of expert knowledge (which is often highly technical) within these intimate communication encounters offers us insight into the emergence of new modes of scientific interaction and creation of new forms of private life in the second half of the 20th century.

Presenter 1

When Expertise Precedes Science: Counseling for Donor Insemination in Belgian Fertility Clinics in the 1970s and 1980s

Tinne Claes

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Abstract

Psy specialists entered Belgian fertility clinics in the 1970s in response to widespread anxieties about the mental stability of applicants for donor insemination. They became responsible for the selection of "suitable" candidates, that is, intended parents who would be able to manage the upbringing of a child that was not 100% biologically theirs. In the 1980s, their task was broadened to include the selection of "suitable" lesbian parents, two identities that many still considered to be contradictory. "Psy" specialists came to bear major responsibilities: they decided who was worthy of parenthood and counseled those deemed suitable on the challenges ahead. Quite a weighty task, given the fact that there was not yet a single empirical follow-up study on the psychological repercussions of donor insemination due to the importance attached to absolute secrecy.
This situation might appear absurd, but in fact is characteristic of frontier science. In fields known for fast-changing technologies and swift clinical applications, such as reproductive medicine, performances of expertise are often required before there is time to gain any. How does scientific expertise work before one can actually claim to know anything? Through an analysis of psychological assessments and counseling for intended donor parents, this paper not only contributes to scarce research on intersections between psychology and reproductive medicine, but also aims to gain insight into larger questions about scientific expertise.

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Presenter 2

Risk, Responsibility, and Transformations in the Parent-Child Relationship in Reproductive Counseling in West Germany

Birgit Nemec

Heidelberg University

Abstract

In 1970s West Germany, a confluence of developments contributed to a new culture of parental risk and responsibility surrounding prenatal health. In the wake of the Thalidomide crisis, new understandings of risk emerged surrounding the maternal environmental and social factors contributing to a child's healthy development. At the same time, the legalization of selective abortion gave parents new options when facing high-risk pregnancies. As a result, genetic counseling took on a growing importance in the decision-making process surrounding reproduction, contributing to new epistemologies of risk and responsibility in child development.
Focusing on the impact of genetic counseling in transforming understandings of the meaning of the parent-child relationship, this paper explores connections between the rapid emergence of genetic counseling in West Germany in the 1970s and the growth of a "disability awareness" movement. Headed by German geneticists, and supported by high-ranking politicians and the pharmaceutical industry, this movement focused on "advancing prevention and early diagnosis of child defects," and contributed to public fears of disability. By the mid-1980s, genetic counselors routinely noted that a significant proportion of amniocenteses conducted were "without a detectable increased risk." In response, the rise of a critical movement advocating the rights of disabled people mobilized against the growing "fear of the disabled child," and challenged the questionable ethics of genetic screening processes. This paper examines how the parent-child relationship was transformed through the exchange and negotiation of knowledge between experts, women, parents, social and activist organizations, political and legal decision makers, and industrial sponsors.

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Presenter 3

Intimacy Expertise and the Making of Queer Relationships During Britain's Sexual Revolution

Teri Chettiar

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Abstract

This paper examines the creation and mobilization of psychosexual counseling services by British LGBTQ activist organizations during the 1960s and 1970s. Although post-WWII psychological initiatives like marriage counseling and aversion therapies had contributed to the social and legal marginalization of LGBTQ people, beginning in the early 1960, activists supporting homosexual law reform looked to psychosexual counseling as a powerful tool for progressive social change. This paper reveals how earlier post-WWII conceptualizations of "psychological health"-which had explicitly promoted monogamous heterosexuality as the basis for emotional health-provided a surprising basis for conceiving of positive de-pathologized queer sexualities in the 1960s and 70s.
Seeking to remedy the many emotional problems that homosexual, bisexual, and trans populations faced, gay liberation activists saw in sexual counseling a promising long-term solution to the harmful legacy of social exclusion and internalized homophobia. However, as this paper demonstrates, many features of Britain's dominant constellation of sexual values were retained as psychological goals, including the valorization of stable intimacy and pathologization of promiscuity. At the same time, the meaning and markers of psychological "health" were expanded and revised. This paper reveals that sexual counseling aimed at queer men and women, in its pursuit of resolving the emotional suffering uniquely experienced by sexual minorities, focused on cultivating clients' psychological capacity to choose and sustain lasting intimate relationships. Moreover, I argue that this goal was connected to broader political objectives related to homosexual equality and socio-sexual liberation that have since been forgotten.

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Presenter 4

You Know What I Mean: Sexual Health Organizations as Expert Advice Columnists

Saniya Lee Ghanoui

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Abstract

In the 1940s and 1950s sex education moved from the medical sphere into the sciences, exemplified by the publication of the Kinsey Reports and the Masters and Johnson study. In this paper, I argue that during this transition publics on both sides of the Atlantic began to associate prominent sex education and hygiene organizations with expertise that they could not get from local physicians or clinics. This paper examines letters written to sex instruction organizations, including the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) and the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU), with a view to understanding how these organizations came to be seen as recognized experts on topics such as sex, birth control, and fertility as well as love and marriage. Letter writers acknowledged their distrust of medical professionals, instead placing their faith in organizations with which they had no intimate connection beyond public reputation. The organizations themselves, moreover, were concerned with promoting the idea that sex was an object of scientific study that was not only (or even primarily) reserved for physicians. ASHA and RFSU actively fostered these intimate communications with a view to establishing their public role as preeminent sources for sexual information. Although the majority of letters remained private, several were published in organization journals and newsletters. The letters challenged many common social perceptions of sexuality and revealed that Americans and Swedish people alike sought scientific information on their health, bodies, and disease directly from sex instruction organizations.

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