Reproducing a Sexually Healthy Nation: Venereal Disease, Sexology and Eugenics in Early to Mid-Twentieth Century India

Arnav Bhattacharya

University of Pennsylvania

Monday, November 6, 2023 3:30 pm EST

303 Claudia Cohen Hall
249 S. 36th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

For most of the 19th century sexual health was not considered to be a public health issue in India. Venereal diseases (VD) were mostly viewed as an issue among the British troops and legislations such as the Contagious Diseases Act (CDA), enacted to surveil and control the bodies of prostitutes was an attempt to manage the problem. However, by the late 19th century political pressure as well as moral outrage against CDA led to the repeal of the Act but VD continued to be a problem. While the surveillance and regulation of prostitution was unofficially continued ever after the repeal of the CDA, there came about a distinctive shift in the management of VD since the early 1900s. This period witnessed the development of newer diagnostic tools to detect diseases like syphilis and treat them using salvarsan. This talk will trace the history of the evolution of venereal disease treatment in the early to mid-20th century India and reveal how the emergence of the field of sexology resulted in an epistemological shift in the treatment of VD and in the overall approach towards sexual health. I will argue that sexology created an ideal of a sexually healthy body which resulted in the popularization of sexual health as a public health issue. Indian sexologists aimed to bring about a social and national transformation through the scientific and medical reformulation of the sexual and reproductive behavior of its citizens. I will reveal how a eugenic discourse of bodily fitness and racial superiority undergirded this vision of the sexologically healthy body. Besides, the sexological management of the body, this talk will also show how this new approach to treating venereal disease witnessed the participation of transnational actors such as the British Social Hygiene Council that launched a multipronged campaign to control VD through ad campaigns, circulation of educational pamphlets as well as the broadcasting of educational films. Simultaneously, there also emerged a thriving and competitive medical marketplace offering multiple cures for VD, but it came to be increasingly regulated by the colonial government as VD treatment centers were established in state hospitals following the principles of sexology and social hygiene. Through a study of archival sources, sexology manuals, newspaper reports and journals, this talk will explore the historical transformation in the management of VD in early to mid-twentieth century India and demonstrate how it brought together sexologists, social hygiene activists, Christian missionaries, physicians, and the colonial government.
Arnav Bhattacharya is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and is the visiting instructor in the Health Studies Program at Bryn Maw College, Pennsylvania. His dissertation titled From the Kamasutra to Scientia Sexualis: A History of Sexology in Modern India (1871-1975) explores the historical processes surrounding the production and circulation of scientific and medical knowledge on sex in colonial and post-colonial India. His dissertation argues that Indian sexology was a unique field that was not simply preoccupied with the taxonomical classification of sexual pathologies but was instead envisioned as a tool for the social transformation of the nation. His research has been funded by various research bodies and institutions within the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the American Institute of India Studies (AIIS), Huntington Library, Science History Institute and the National Academy of Education, Washington D.C. His most recent research article on sexology, obscenity and censorship is to be published in a special issue in the January 2024 volume of the Journal of the History of Sexuality.