Recent research

Below are some examples of recent or ongoing projects led by or involving the RSSH Group. If you are interested in collaborating with us, please contact group leads Victoria Newton or Carrie Purcell, or the group member whose work most closely relates to your interests. Follow links on the People page for more information on individual researchers. 

Reproductive Bodylore: the role of vernacular knowledge in women’s contraceptive decision-making

Lead: Victoria Newton

Reproductive Bodylore: The Role of Vernacular Knowledge in Women’s Contraceptive Decision-Making is an interdisciplinary research project undertaken in collaboration with The Folklore Society and Public Health England (PHE). A lot of what we know about the body is communicated informally, through conversations with friends, with family, and with our wider social network. Informal narratives about contraception cross several folkloric genres - personal experience narratives, popular belief, contemporary legend and ‘friend of a friend’ stories. These narratives are important because they can reveal much about everyday understandings of health and the body, including perceived risk and risk-behaviours. The Reproductive Bodylore project thus explores how vernacular knowledge influences contraceptive choices and mediates experiences of reproductive control.

The project has two work packages and a dissemination stand.

Work package 1 is a qualitative secondary analysis (QSA) of over 140 transcripts from five UK research studies on women’s contraceptive use and experiences of reproductive control undertaken between 2010 and 2016. The QSA was completed between May and November 2020;

Work package 2 involved participatory research with 18 volunteer researchers who conducted 47 qualitative interviews with friends and family members using a topic guide developed from the findings of the QSA. These friends-and-family interviews were carried out in 2021 and analysed thematically.

Finally, the project culminated in a public engagement exhibition in London in October 2023. Visualising a series of non-linear life stages, the exhibition examined the stories people tell each other about contraception and the reproductive body and highlighted the active role these conversations play in decision making around contraceptive choice.

The project was funded by AHRC Grant Number AH/S011587/1.

The Gender Pain Gap in Women’s Reproductive Health 

Lead: Carrie Purcell

This project is designed to develop and implement a collaborative, innovative research agenda around sexual and reproductive health (SRH) related pain. By investigating how SRH-related pain is understood, experienced and managed – including unpicking its cultural acceptability – we aim to address a notable inequality in health and wellbeing.

Pain is prevalent and normalised in the SRH experiences of women and other people with a uterus. Gendered differences in experience, management and acknowledgement which render this pain invisible can be framed as a ‘gender pain gap’. Manifestations may be chronic (e.g. painful menstruation, endometriosis, adenomyosis, menopause-related vulvovaginal pain) or acute (e.g. medication abortion, intra-uterine contraceptive fitting, cervical smear tests, hysteroscopy).

Tacit expectations that acute pain will be endured throughout routine reproductive healthcare highlights deeply embedded, intersectional inequalities spanning gender, ethnicity, class, and disability. Cultural constructions of pain emerge through paternalistic biomedicine, practical health service constraints, limitations to intersubjective understandings of pain, and insufficient prioritisation of lived pain experience. Our mixed methods approach brings together stakeholders – including clinicians, academics, third sector, and those with lived experience – to establish and act on transdisciplinary research priorities in this emerging field.  

Developing contextually-sensitive Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) for out-of-school adolescents in refugee settings. 

Lead: Rebecca Jones

This project undertook qualitative research into knowledge, resources and access to SRHR among young refugees in Uganda, in order to improve the long-term design and delivery of sexuality education.

Refugee youth are particularly at risk of poor sexual and reproductive health (SRH). Sexuality education improves SRH outcomes and helps young people claim their sexual rights, but young refugees usually receive little formal sexuality education. When sexuality education is available, there are recurrent challenges to its effectiveness and implementation. These include acceptability and trust in messages, especially if these conflict with more widely available messages from family, peers, online and physical popular media, and cultural norms. Context-sensitive sexuality education therefore needs to consider which sources of information about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are valued by particular groups of learners, and the wider context in which young people live.

To ensure that the knowledge produced by the research was as useful and relevant as possible, the research was designed, carried out and analysed by young refugees (peer researchers), alongside staff from Ugandan NGOs and the Open University. The project focused on Uganda because it hosts the largest number of refugees in Africa, more than half of whom are aged 18 years and below.

CSE project report

LGBTQ+ perinatal wellbeing

Lead: Mari Greenfield

During the pandemic, mixed methods research found out about the experiences and wellbeing of new and expectant parents. Two world-first findings emerged, showing that pregnant LGBTQ+ people were more likely to consider ‘freebirthing’ (giving birth without a healthcare professional present), and that LGBQ women had higher rates of postnatal anxiety.

See Mari’s profile for publications relating to this project.

The Body Politic Learning Hub

Lead: Peter Keogh

The Open University is partnering with Alliance for Choice in Belfast to produce an online learning hub aimed at activists and others working in the areas of reproductive justice and rights, sexuality and gender. Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the hub will include a collection of oral history interviews, films and videos as well as structured learning on different aspects of activism in reproductive justice. The hub will launch in Spring 2024.

My Body, My Life

Lead: Lesley Hoggart

My Body My Life is a public engagement project, originally funded by the ESRC, designed to de-stigmatise abortion through abortion storytelling. Although one in three women in Britain will have an abortion during their lifetime, abortion remains controversial and stigmatised. Many who have an abortion internalise that stigma, and experience isolation and shame as a result. This may explain some of the negative aspects of abortion experiences, such as why some who have ended a pregnancy wish to conceal this. My Body My Life challenges this stigma by bringing real stories of abortion into the open. Creating a space in which anyone can share their story, the project contributes to opening up conversations about a spectrum of real experiences of abortion, and offers opportunities to talk, listen and understand, without judgment.

On the My Body My Life website, visitors can read stories of abortion in the words of those with first-hand experience. Originally collected as part of research on abortion conducted by the Open University (OU) and our collaborators, this research has grown into a broad public engagement project led by OU.

An evaluation of My Body, My Life found that the exhibition and resources improved awareness and understanding of abortion, influenced attitudes and behaviours, and provided emotional support. In addition, the booklet was considered to be a useful resource by health professionals.

Resources now include a website, travelling multi-media exhibition, and a booklet of abortion stories that is available at BPAS clinics across the country. My Body My Life has also been incorporated into the new charity Abortion Talk