Center for Global Islamic Studies

Domesticating the Obscene: Translating Sex and Medicine in the Late Ottoman Empire

Seçil Yılmaz 
Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania 
Despite the fact that it had existed in Ottoman society since the sixteenth century, syphilis became a major public health concern in the second half of the nineteenth century as a result of increased mobility, particularly among soldiers, Muslim immigrants, and seasonal workers traveling throughout the Ottoman countryside. The disease provoked fear, shame, and secrecy as Ottoman physicians devised socio-medical regulations and prescriptions that reshaped gender roles and sexual norms in the society. This talk provides a glimpse of Ottoman physicians’ and psychiatrists’ formulations of marriage, love, and sexual desire as a medical phenomenon in the burgeoning medical advice genre addressed to the Ottoman general readership in the late nineteenth century. Along with syphilis and gonorrhea, Ottoman physicians aspired to bring love, desire, marriage, and family under the aegis of a developing medical expertise. As early examples of Ottoman sexology, new hygiene manuals for marriage and love, which were often translations from French best-sellers, reveal the ways in which talking, writing, and even drawing about sex was subsumed by a medical and scientific epistemology and language, insulating the subject of sex from associations with the obscene.

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