CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Sylvie Burgnard’s work is situated at the intersection of history and sociology. She puts forward an analysis of knowledge about sexuality at a given time – the 1970s – and place: Romandy, or the French-speaking part of Switzerland, specifically, the city of Geneva. Her analysis is based on public and private archives as well as medical publications, women’s magazines of the time, and a few interviews. She set out to account for four distinct types of discourse on sexuality: sexology, sex education, family planning (in Switzerland, the relevant institution was the Cifern, Centre d’information familiale et de regulation des naissances [Centre for family information and birth regulation]) and activist discourses, both feminist and gay. The first part focuses on the emergence of sexology in this part of Switzerland. Studies of sexuality developed timidly at first and were grounded in gynaecology and psychiatry. But sexology in Geneva was launched by an unexpected event. In 1970, a private citizen named Maurice Chalumeau bequeathed over two million Swiss francs for the creation of a sexology institute in the hope that its researchers would be able to scientifically “legitimate” homosexuality. In fact, the research thus subsidized quickly came to centre on sex in heterosexual couples. The aim was to determine the “proper” sexuality and to encourage it. In terms of practice, this was defined primarily as coitus between spouses; couples were told to avoid abortion, etc. This choice of “legitimate” research subjects enabled the actors in this field to legitimate themselves. Meanwhile, types of sexuality considered “pathological” (homosexuality, sex between young people or between old people, etc.) and that had once between studied medically were gradually neglected.

2Brugnard then turns to family planning at the Cifern, particularly the issues of abortion and contraception. She shows how that institution’s vision centred once again on the couple and the promotion of a certain family ideal that had to be preserved. Clearly the institute was not in tune with women’s contemporaneous demands for “freedom” and an improvement in the female condition. One of the Centre’s missions was to keep abortions to a minimum (though the procedure was legal under some conditions), and contraception was understood as a tool for “responsible” couples only. Young women who came to the Centre of their own volition seeking information on contraception for “preventive” purposes were met with astonishment. Here again, the couple, not sexuality, was at the centre of this discourse, especially as the Cifern soon adopted a psychosocial perspective.

3The author then turns to sex education, gradually institutionalized from the 1960s to the 1980s. Here the point was to make adolescents aware of their “individual responsibility”, a 180-degree turn from the view at the start of the century emphasizing concern for the community. Sex education classes did present contraception methods (again in the framework of the couple) and the mechanisms of reproduction; no mention was made of pleasure. As the author points out, “sex education in no way derived from the dissident movements that arose out of’68 or were in favour of ‘sexual liberation’, nor from 1970s feminist battles”. Rather it represented an attempt to limit the effects of such social change, emphasizing as it did both fundamental differences between men and women and the centrality of the couple, put forward as a “prerequisite” to any sexual experience.

4In the last part of the book, Burgnard switches perspectives, turning to discourses aimed not to maintain and regulate the social order but to subvert it; i.e., feminist and gay activist discourses. In those discourses, sexuality appears not as a drive to be controlled but rather a social construction and therefore a political issue. The author shows how the Mouvement de liberation des femmes (MLF; women’s liberation movement) in Geneva focused its demands on private life, sexuality, the intimate, and in so doing ran afoul of earlier Swiss feminist movements that were still fighting for women’s right to vote at the federal level (granted at last in 1971) and whose members feared that the newcomers would discredit them. Together with MLF-Geneva demands for abortion and contraception rights and feminist movement discourse calling into question the centrality of heterosexual coitus, promoting self-help practices, etc., homosexual demands emerged aimed at “dismantling heterosexuality”. Brugnard presents several examples of battles waged by the various activist groups (for media visibility, in opposition to the Certificate of proper conduct and morals, etc.), bringing to light the specificity of these discourses, which, contrary to the first three (sexology, sex education and family planning), drew on the actual experiences of the women and men who uttered and used them.

5The conclusion efficiently recalls the outline of the work while indicating points that the various discourses have in common. The theme of change, for example, resounds like a threat in the first three types of discourse and a demand in the last, a demand for individual responsibility – a notion that emerged as central over the period. The author also highlights the fact that these discourses on sexuality did not suddenly appear in the 1970s but drew instead on knowledge disseminated and statements made at the beginning of the twentieth century. She concludes with a plea for preferring circumscribed studies on the recent history of sexuality – studies of which there are still too few, in her opinion – over a sociological or historical approach to sexuality based on the opposition “liberation vs. repression”.

6Sylvie Burgnard’s work is interesting in several respects. First, it provides a number of perspectives on the same topic, whereas often only one is explored in any depth. Her description and analysis of contradictory discourses give the reader a sense of the complexity of the subject and highlight the diverse range of actors who produced and disseminated them, actors whose positions, motivations and legitimacy implied different perspectives: scientific, preventive, and social, activist, dissenting and demanding of new rights. Furthermore, each section of the book begins with a historical overview that situates each type of discourse in long-range history and explains its genesis. Last, the use and cross-referencing of different types of sources produces rich, varied material and makes the book a pleasure to read through.

7However, those sources are not without weaknesses, as Brugnard herself points out. First, the discourses produced seem excessively “smooth”, as printed documentary material (the majority of sources) only seldom integrates disagreements and internal power balances. Second, little if anything is mentioned about how these discourses were received. The author analyses the school textbooks used in sex education, for example, but this does not tell us how students or their parents reacted to that material. Also, was there a reason for limiting the analysis to the four discourses chosen, and why was nothing said about the religious perspective? Though the author recalls that the influence of religion is weaker in Geneva than elsewhere in Switzerland, it seems reasonable to assume it was not entirely absent there.

8The book remains a fascinating study; each type of discourse is contextualized and finely analysed. And it informs not only on sexuality in Geneva in the 1970s but also and above all on the social and political issue it represents.

Uploaded on on 11/01/2017
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