IHR History of Sexuality seminar series: Venereal disease in the UK and in the Soviet Union

Tuesday 30 April, Please note the slightly later start time of 5.30pm.

We have two papers, by Anne Hanley (Birkbeck) and Siobhan Hearne (Durham), on efforts to tackle venereal disease in the UK and in the Soviet Union. Please find their abstracts below.

We are meeting at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Rose Room – Room LG6 (basement), on the corner of Keppel Street and Malet Street – directions here.

Sex, Health and the State: Britain’s VD Service, 1918–1948, Dr Anne Hanley (Birkbeck, University of London)

The interwar years were a watershed moment in the treatment and prevention of VD. In 1916 the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases laid down a comprehensive series of recommendations, representing the first systematised state intervention for three decades to prevent the spread of infection among British civilians. What followed were free, universal healthcare provisions. At the heart of this new scheme was a nation-wide network of clinics, which offered unprecedented diagnostic and therapeutic services while also promising confidentiality. It was part of a pragmatic shift towards socialised healthcare—a shift that marked a slow (but nonetheless fundamental) reconceptualisation of the state’s role and responsibilities in the care of its citizens. Having declared VD a national emergency, health authorities viewed the new scheme as integral to safeguarding the nation’s future. This paper explores how the VD Service facilitated the emergence of new forms of sexual knowledge into mainstream social and political discourse. The success of the new scheme hinged on its disentanglement from older, unpopular health policies and entrenched moral prejudices. The National Council for Combatting Venereal Diseases (later the British Social Hygiene Council) therefore became responsible for the circulation of new ideas about sex and sexual health. They organised campaigns of instruction and prevention in an effort to neutralise the stigma and culture of silence surrounding VD. In exploring these new approaches to sexual health, this paper also reflects on how ordinary men and women experienced illnesses that were so inextricably bound up with assumptions about deviant behaviour and bad character. In so doing, it helps to reposition patient experiences at the centre of healthcare history.


VD in the USSR: Science, Sexuality and Social Control, Dr Siobhan Hearne (University of Durham)

The elimination of venereal diseases was high on the agenda from the outset of Soviet power. From early 1918, politicians, doctors and public health experts presented venereal diseases as barriers to the construction of socialism. Not only did syphilis and gonorrhoea threaten society by jeopardising individual health and economic production through absence, they represented remnants of the decadence and corruption of the former bourgeois capitalist society. In the 1920s, health propaganda campaigns emphasised that individuals had a societal duty to take responsibility for their own sexual health, and provided information on the epidemiology, treatment and prevention of venereal diseases. Government-led commissions organised mass cultural education programmes to define exactly which sexual behaviours and practices were appropriate for the New Soviet Person. Within the first decade of its power, the Soviet government established venereological research laboratories and dispensaries across major cities. Social control was at the heart of Soviet attempts to eliminate venereal diseases. The 1926 Criminal Code criminalised individuals who transmitted venereal infections and the Ministry of Health had the authority to forcefully examine and treat people suspected of having a venereal disease if they refused voluntary treatment. Although the wording of this legislation was tweaked several times, it largely remained in place until 1991. Soviet officials celebrated their apparent success in drastically reducing rates of infection and championed the Soviet Union’s approach to ‘solving’ the problem of venereal diseases, which they defined as more ‘humane’ and ‘rational’ than in the West. However, they grossly exaggerated their achievements, as venereal diseases posed a serious public health problem throughout the history of the USSR.  This paper will examine the gulf between state ambitions and realities in the Soviet state-led campaign to ‘struggle with venereal diseases’ (bor’ba s venericheskimi zabolevaniiami) in the 1920s and 1970s. In this paper, I will focus on the Lenin/Stalin and Brezhnev eras, two periods that differed significantly in terms of political, economic, and social circumstances. In doing so, I will demonstrate how the Soviet state’s rigid focus on the issue of individual responsibility and policing sexual morality, rather than on medical developments and structural change, thwarted their attempts to eliminate venereal diseases.



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