Let’s Talk About Sex (and Reproduction): Counselling for Reproductive Health in Post-war Europe

12 December 2019 - 13 December 2019

SG1/2, CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT


Caroline Rusterholz (University of Cambridge)

Yuliya Hilevych (University of Cambridge)

Jenny Bangham (University of Cambridge)



Counsellors in reproductive health help patients and parents interpret the results of genetic tests, make decisions about treatment and birth control, and understand sexual difficulties. Counselling encounters are potentially highly emotional — provoking guilt, fear, confusion, relief and joy — and can powerfully impact individuals, families, extended families and communities. 

They also have rich and varied histories. In post-war Europe, counselling and communication practices in reproductive health have driven and been shaped by the ‘liberalisation’ of sexuality, the psychological turn, ethical and legal debates about reproductive autonomy and disability, discourses about race, gender and medicine, a growing need for patients to manage risks, and new definitions of responsible citizens and patients.

This two-day interdisciplinary conference focuses on three principal fields: sexual and birth-control counselling, infertility counselling and genetic counselling. It brings together historians, sociologists and current professionals to discuss how counselling has changed, how its practices have shaped reproductive health and what its histories can tell us about practices today.Among the presenters are Tracey Loughran, Angus Clarke, Elizabeth Anionwu, Naomi Pfeffer, Teri Chettiar and the founders of the British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA).

As part of the workshop, there will be a public lecture at 4.00pm on Friday 12th December by Kate Fisher (Professor of History, Exeter University):  ‘Sex Objects and Sex Education.’



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Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), the British Academy, the Cambridge Reproduction Strategic Research Initiative, the University of Cambridge's Faculty of History, and the Wellcome Trust.

Thursday 12 December 2019

08:30 – 09:00


09:00 – 09:30

Welcome and Opening

09:30 - 11:00

Session One 'Sexual Counselling in the Past: Teenagers and Spouses'

Caroline Rusterholz (Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge)

'Sexual Counselling and Teenagers in Postwar Britain in the Brook Advisory Centre'

Teri Chettiar (Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Illinois)

'Sexual Counselling for Married People in Postwar Britain'

Chair: Lesley Hall (Wellcome Library)

11:00 – 11:30


11:30 – 13:00

Session Two 'Infertility Counselling: History, Politics and Practices'

Jennifer Hunt and Jim Monach (co-founders of BICA)

'Fertility Counselling in the UK: the Emergence of BICA and Continuing Challenges'

Naomi Pfeffer (Emeritus Professor, University College London)

'The Politics of Infertility in Britain'


Chair: Yuliya Hilevych (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge)

13:00 – 14:00


14:00 – 15:30

Session Three 'Genetic Counselling: Words and Emotions'

Angus Clarke (Division of Cancer and Genetics, School of Medicine, Cardiff University)

'Factors influencing decisions about genetics and reproduction'

Elizabeth Anionwu (Emeritus Professor of Nursing)

Bringing sickle cell disease into view: a personal account

Chair: TBC

15:30 – 16:00


16:00 – 17:30

Public Lecture

Kate Fisher (Professor of History, Exeter University)

'Sex Objects and Sex Education'

Friday 13 December 2019

09:30 – 11:00

Session 4 'Sexual Counselling: Past Practices'

Robert Irwin (Bath Spa University, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Counsellor)

'Sparing the Department of Health and Social Security's Blushes: The Use of Sexually Explicit Film Material for the Purpose of Sexuality Attitudes Reassessment (SAR) in the Training of Medical practitioners and Psychosexual Therapists during the 1970s'

Ester Mcgeeney and Rachel Thomson (Department of Sociology, University of Sussex)

'Young Women Speaking Out About Sex: Making Public Problems from Private Troubles in Social Research in the 1980s'

Chair: Lucy Delap (Department of History, University of Cambridge)

11:00 – 11:30


11:30 – 13:00

Session 5 'The Emergence of Self-help Groups around Infertility'

Tinne Claes (Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Department of History, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)

Title TBC

Yuliya Hilevych (British Academy Newton International Fellow, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge)

'From Fertility Awareness to Infertility Consciousness: Emergence of Infertility Awareness and Self-help Movement in 1970s – 1980s Britain'

Chair: Nick Hopwood (HPS, University of Cambridge)

13:00 – 14:00

Session 6 'Genetic Counselling: Risks and Responsibility'

Birgit Nemec (University of Heidelberg, Germany)

'Future Parents, Genetic Counselling, and Transformations of Parent-Child Relationships in West Germany'

Susanne Doetz (University of Magdeburg, Germany)

'Counselling without Counsellors: Genetic Counselling in the GDR as a Medical/Biological Practice'

Chair: Jenny Bangham (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge)

15:30 – 16:00

Final Discussion

16:00 – 17:30

Public Lecture

Tracey Loughran (University of Essex)

'Intimacy at a Distance: Emotional Labour and the "Psychological Turn" in British Problem Pages, c. 1960-1990'