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Sparing the doctor’s blushes: the use of sexually explicit films for the purpose of Sexual Attitude Reassessment (SAR) in the training of medical practitioners in Britain during the 1970s
  1. Robert Irwin
  1. Bath Spa University, Bath, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Robert Irwin, Bath Spa University, Bath, UK; r.irwin{at}


The general reluctance of medical practitioners in postwar Britain to ‘speak of sex’ during healthcare consultations increasingly became a matter of professional concern in the wake of legal reforms and social changes during the 1960s affecting sexual expression and reproductive health, and a growing optimism in the early 1970s concerning the treatment of sexual difficulties. In the mid-1970s, largely as a result of the work of Dr Elizabeth Stanley, Sexual Attitude Reassessment (SAR) seminars were introduced from the USA into some medical schools in Britain, usually as a part of courses that were intended to help students develop the attitudes, knowledge and skills needed to facilitate the discussion of patients’ sexual concerns and to treat ‘simple’ sexual problems. SAR seminars entailed the showing of sexually explicit films as a stimulus for exploring, in small discussion groups, the sexual attitudes and beliefs of students, and the potential impact of these on future professional practice. Drawing on publications by Dr Elizabeth Stanley as well as archival materials, this article examines the aims of SAR seminars, the rationale provided for their inclusion in the undergraduate medical curriculum, and the ‘permission-giving’, educative approach to sexual counselling that SAR seminars supported. It also explores some of the barriers to the more widespread use of such seminars in medical education in Britain at this time. The behaviourally informed ‘permission-giving’ approach to sexual counselling promoted by Stanley and others is also considered alongside the more psychoanalytically informed ‘interpretative’ form of sexual counselling provided by some Family Planning Association doctors from the late 1950s onwards. This comparative analysis reveals contrasting perceptions concerning the role of medical practitioners’ emotions in sexual counselling and elucidates some of the reasons for the fragmented and limited development of this aspect of medical practice in Britain.

  • medical education
  • sexual medicine
  • psychotherapy
  • history
  • public health

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study. Not applicable.

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Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study. Not applicable.

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  • Contributors RI is the sole contributor.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.