Opinion: Why Researchers Should Ask About Sex and the Body

Ignoring sex, sexuality, and fertility in research leads us to misinterpret the past and perpetuate silence.

Recently, a group of Auschwitz survivors was asked a basic question: How did the Holocaust affect your period? Although many had previously been interviewed by the Shoah Foundation, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Montreal Holocaust Museum, nobody had ever conducted in-depth interviews with them about their menstrual cycles in the more than seven decades since they survived the concentration camp — that is, until researchers from the University of Ottawa and Oxford Brookes University sought to learn more about women’s infertility after the Holocaust.

While scholars have studied the medical experiments that Nazis conducted on some concentration camp prisoners, these victims were a relatively small subset of that population. Researchers had not examined whether treatments inhibiting fertility were routinely applied to the general population of female prisoners, as some researchers now suspect.

Such an oversight isn’t unusual. Scholars frequently ignore questions of sex, sexuality, and fertility when exploring historical topics, likely due to institutional barriers as well as societal norms. Sex — and anything related to sex and the body — can be an uncomfortable topic for many people: viewed as unseemly or even dangerous.

What we are losing when we don’t ask about bodies, sex, and fertility is not only the truth about our history, but also the full story of humanity. When we don’t ask about bodies and sex, we perpetuate the silence and the shaming that occurs through society. This can lead to overlooking knowledge, misinterpreting historical events, and preventing people from taking action to correct wrongs.

Before Peggy J. Kleinplatz, a professor in the faculty of medicine at University of Ottawa, asked survivors about their menstruation, the common theory among historians was that periods stopped in concentration camps due to stress and malnutrition — even though women’s periods ceased within 48 hours of internment. (While malnutrition can cause periods to stop, the shift tends to occur over a period of several months rather than immediately. Stress can cause amenorrhea, but the extent and suddenness of its onset in the camps, wrote the authors of one 2007 study, “seems exceptional.”) When finally asked outright, the Holocaust survivors had a different story: They believed that Nazis may have put a substance in women’s food to halt menstruation.

In the article summarizing these findings, which was published in September in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Kleinplatz and her co-author, historian Paul Weindling, hypothesized that Nazis may have surreptitiously given the women hormones that stopped their periods, making them infertile during their time at the camps and beyond. The researchers also discovered that some survivors’ fertility may have been affected throughout their lives. Of the 93 women Kleinplatz interviewed, only three reported that they were able to have as many children as they wanted. Kleinplatz found that there was “a rate of 1.46 live births per female survivor in this sample during the ‘Baby Boom’ era in the Western world.” In comparison, American Jewish women had rates of 2.6 to 2.89 live births per person.

This finding has led to a new hypothesis on the Holocaust: Nazis may have engaged in a systematic campaign at concentration camps to stop Jewish women’s periods and destroy their fertility, a campaign that went beyond the already reported sterilization experiments on select women.

Oral history methods, such as those used by Kleinplatz and Weindling, help us uncover pieces of the past, including medical and science history, that we can’t get any other way — often because records were either lost or destroyed, or never taken in the first place. And the history of sex and sexuality is particular prone to such gaps in knowledge.

Scholars frequently ignore questions of sex, sexuality, and fertility when exploring historical topics, likely due to institutional barriers as well as societal norms.

Other new findings are coming to light about the Holocaust now that researchers are asking about sex. In her 2021 article in the Holocaust Studies journal, Na’Ama Shik found that until the 1990s, Israeli “interviewers of survivors rarely asked about the topic of sexual abuse. Sexual trauma had no place in a narrative where the survivor could come back to life and be part of the country’s rebirth.” Being a victim of sexual violence was, unfortunately, viewed as a weakness.

According to Shik, researchers also did not ask questions about sexual trauma during the Holocaust because they thought sexual abuse was uncommon since “rape was contrary to the Nazi policy of annihilation,” she wrote, and sexualrelations between Germans and Jewish people were forbidden by Nuremberg Laws.

However, once researchers asked women about sexual abuse, they found that rape was more common than initially thought, and it has become a part of the discussion surrounding the Holocaust, one that, Shik wrote, had been confined to “hunger, loss, gas chambers.”

But it’s not just history of the Holocaust that we’ve misunderstood because we’ve ignored questions about sex, particularly when it comes to minority groups.

Scholars have long ignored the experiences of southern Black queer women, but in 2018, E. Patrick Johnson, a professor at Northwestern University, published a book that compiled their stories. Johnson found that queer Southern women had a variety of experiences that had rarely been explored, such as their experience of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Such information is key to understanding how HIV and AIDS affected those communities, and can help shape future education and outreach to queer Southern communities.

Even among sex researchers, there are questions that have been considered too taboo to explore, such as whether women paid for sex. Researchers assumed they didn’t, so they never asked. But in the past 10 years scholars have asked women about purchasing sex and they’ve found that not only do women buy sex “but there are striking similarities between what men and women clients seek from commercial sex,” wrote Natalie Hammond, Sarah Kingston and Scarlett Redman in their 2020 book “Women Who Buy Sex.” Adding female clients into the conversation affects policy debates on the harms of prostitution, they argue. Meanwhile, because researchers haven’t adequately considered the practice, they have likely lacked insight into important aspects affecting women’s physical health, such as the spread of STIs, and their mental health, such as marital satisfaction.

Nazis may have engaged in a systematic campaign at concentration camps to stop Jewish women’s periods and destroy their fertility.

What we find when we ask about sex is sometimes messy and sometimes horrifying. But it also can be joyful. Not asking about sex leads us to misunderstand the past and the present — from why women became infertile during and after the Holocaust, to how queer people cope in repressive societies, and whether sex work should be regulated by the government to make it safer for workers and clients or even covered by health insurance.

We must ask because writings about sex, sexuality, and fertility rarely survive to make it into academic archives. While it’s been more than 70 years since Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering research on human sexuality and 60 years since William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s similarly groundbreaking work on sexual response, institutional review boards, which regulate research involving human subjects, can still make studying sexual topics difficult. A 2012 study found that 45 percent of sociologists had trouble getting sex research approved by the IRB.

When prudishness or the requirements of IRBs lead us to avoid asking questions about sex and the body or to make gendered assumptions, we fail to understand how to make evidence-based policies for the future, and fully understand the complexities of the past. It’s only through asking such difficult questions that we can discover the truth.

Some people would prefer that such topics are never discussed because they threaten the status quo and our current understanding of the world. That’s the very reason they need to be talked about.

Hallie Lieberman is a historian and journalist, and the author of “Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.”