“A mistaken policy of secretiveness”: Venereal disease and changing heterosexual morality in Lancashire, UK, 1920-1935.

Francesca Patricia Moore


In the interwar years in the mill town of Rochdale, in Lancashire, UK, the percentage of the population accessing treatment for venereal disease rose from 0.08% in 1920 to 0.29% in 1932. Concern began to grow during this period, and public health campaigns were deployed in an effort to tackle the problem. Archival research indicates that these events were intended to instil a new “modern” approach to sex in the town and to inculcate a “new sex morality” of frankness and responsible behaviour. This paper uses the problem of venereal disease as a lens to examine the shifting historical geographies of heterosexuality. The changing sexual culture in the town is the focus of the paper, with an analytical spotlight directed at on the discursive production of venereal disease as a new bio-political, public and inter-generational concern. The paper also examines the way in which, as part of the “new sex morality”, the family functioned as an important channel of sexual and social discipline. The advent of a belief in parental responsibility for accurate and adequate sex education led to changing parenting philosophies. The paper finds that bio-political concerns about the health of the town, and by extension the nation, were a significant impetus for making sexuality and sexual health a public matter.


venereal disease, sex education, public health, Lancashire, bio-politics

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