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Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies


Cultivating Sex. Anthropology and Aesthetics in Arabic Sexual Science, 1900–1940

The first decades of the twentieth century saw the rise of Arabic scientific publishing on sexuality. While many of the contributors to this field were medical doctors, the field of Arabic sexual science moved far beyond providing a medical account of sexuality, and constituted a multi-perspective approach to the study of human sexuality. As was the case for European sex research in the same period, evolutionary biology and ethnography strongly informed scientific approaches to sexuality.
In my PhD project I investigated how biology and ethnography were used in Arabic scientific writing on sex between 1900 and 1940, and how this knowledge contributed to an entanglement of sexual science with narratives of civilizational rise. My dissertation traces how sex researchers writing in Arabic reacted ambivalently to processes of racial and cultural Othering that played a crucial role in European sexual science. That is, by adopting the civilizational models found therein yet refusing the position as Europe's Other, and positioning their own societies as engaged in a process of civilizational ascent. My study thus shifts the focus in the history of sexual science away from history of medicine toward integrating it into the intellectual history of the nahḍa, the movement of a renewal of Arab culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century often translated as ‟Arab Enlightenment” or ‟Arab Renaissance.”
Under the particular lens of ethnography and evolution, my analysis of several dozenz of monographs and selected contributions to popular science journals, my analysis showed that Arabic sex research had a particular preoccupation with questions of aesthetics, sensory experience, and emotional faculties, which were presented as crucial for the development of a natural yet cultivated sexuality.