The trouble with sex is….. well, first up I am very British, I don’t mean that in a ‘UKIP‘ way, but in a stiff upper lip, blushing, ‘can’t possibly talk about that kind of thing’ way. How do I begin to visit an exhibition about S.E.X. when I am slightly worried I might spend the whole time eyes averted? How do I write a blog if I haven’t really looked at what is on display? Don’t get me wrong I am no prude, but honestly and truly, men’s bits and women’s privates? I am not sure where to start.
So what do I do? Why, I take a friend, a good friend, male, (nearly) 10 years younger than me, Australian, gay and proud. Then I can ask him to look at all the bits and pieces and let me know what he thinks. He is all sciencey, for goodness sake he has a Darwin tattoo, he can observe with clinical detachment, but I am all about the history and blushing of course, all emotions and furtive glances. I am really excited about going now because we are two different people, and I can’t wait to see where our different outlooks lead us.
The exhibition is not what I expected, the salacious titbits I have seen in the papers have led me down a certain path. I am expecting objects that provoke a reaction, the secret and the shocking. Really the ‘Institute of Sexology’ is all about people, not just the people having sex (or not, as the case may be) but those who have studied sex across the generations in the last 150 years. From Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Reich, Marie Stopes and Alfred Kinsey, the curator introduction sets the tone when you realise that the study of sex is a hard-fought-for freedom. I had not considered the bravery needed to focus on a topic that affects our psychological and physical well-being when faced with the Nazi book burners of Magnus Hirchfeld’s Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin and the poisonous protest letters sent to Marie Stopes.
On entering the exhibition you are faced with dark, subdued tones, nothing showy, we are not in a cheap sex show (not that I would recognise one of course). I love the heavy curtains, you feel as if you are in the sanctuary of the bedroom with all the secrets it holds. The ‘Institute of Sexology’ is divided into sections, we move from the well-thumbed collections of Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis in the ‘Library’ to Freud’s ‘Consulting Room’, we find Alfred Kinsey and his 18,000 sexual histories in the ‘Classroom’. In the ‘Lab’ we meet William Masters and Virgina Johnson, psychological studies making way for in-depth analysis of the physical; heart rates, brain activity, blood pressure and organ size. Finally we arrive at the ‘Home’ where the analysis of sex reaches a more widespread basis with Natsal (National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles) studies.
To my instant relief I find safety in the first thing I see, Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration from Salomé, I am a massive fan of his work and feel no need to avert my eyes. They are so sensual in a graphic novel way, I just love the sinuous lines. My companion draws my attention to the work by Eadweard Muybridge, whilst the running horses may be familiar I don’t ever remember seeing this work of ‘Two women kissing” before. Apparently the content would have been sanctioned because of the photograph’s aura of objective authority. A good excuse to remember for the future. It is the visual juxtaposition that makes you think, the laced up Victorian ladies and gentlemen with rather more on their mind then their blank faces and black and white facsimiles betray.
It was not always obvious what you see before you, a strange scientific looking box turns out to be a vibrator. Developers of vibrators were the first to adopt electric power, not sure it is a fact that will come up in Trivial Pursuit but one for the memory banks all the same. There is, in fact, a fantastic variety in this exhibition: audio, video, books, objects, letters, and even wasps. But it is the letters that I find most captivating (also fairly safe ground when confronted with an array of Roman phallic charms). I love the choice of words in the 1943 letter from John Gayer-Anderson (real name, honest), he offers the Wellcome Museum his ‘pornographic Graeco-Roman pieces’ but wonders whether they have a ‘private room’ for objects which are ‘difficult to place’, but ‘of very considerable anthropological interest.’
My favourite letters are the ones sent to Marie Stopes on the publication of her controversial book ‘Married Love’ in 1918. She ruffled feathers as an advocate of sexual love in marriage that didn’t stop at procreation. Her views on contraception and a woman’s right to decide when to have a child provoked all kinds of reactions. What I love is seeing the range, from downright outrage, to confused women asking for advice and a real gem of a letter from ‘a happy husband and father’ offering his own words of wisdom.
“Go back to your own Country and preach your dirty methods there. Decent English people are disgusted at your filthy suggestions in “Married Love”.
“I lie on my back, she lies upon me with her left leg between mine and my left between hers. Then I turn partly on my right…..”
“Why not recommend the only clean way is self-denial which elevates as only sacrifice can…”
My companion and I read the letters, we then sat and listened to the audio transcripts on iPads, the voices really bringing the sentiments to life. We laughed, watching each other faces as these voices from the past and their strident views reached out to us from the past, their tentative first words on a taboo topic, or their own proclamations of what married love should be. We shared the best bits, pointed out something not to miss, I loved the way the tech interpretation which I have often seen as a solitary experience, headphones on, worked best when we shared our interaction with what we heard and saw.
I am fascinated by Marie Stopes and seeing her picture staring out at me, the video of her on holiday in Portland, Dorset was simply wonderful. I first came across her connection with Portland when we visited the little museum there. She started the museum and was the first honorary curator, I have seen the accession register written in her own hand, her letter donating the museum for the good of the local children. I find her wide range of interests and knowledge captivating, but she is a contradiction to me with her belief in Eugenics, her correspondence with Hitler, I don’t understand this woman but I am drawn to know more.
The curators at the start of the exhibition told us that often this study of sex was an intensely personal journey, the sexologist are attempting to understand themselves. You can really see this with the analytical way Marie Stopes explores her own sexual desires with the ‘Tabulation of symptoms of sexual excitement in solitude”. There is certainly a thoroughness and detachment and, in a way, an earnest seeking out of the inner self that I can’t help but admire.
By this point in the exhibition I had completely forgotten my (I am reluctant to use the word inhibitions) reticence on entering the exhibition. My companion and I had laughed and pointed out objects but we had also talked about the pressures of modern society, what it is to be a heterosexual woman and a homosexual man, our own completely different experiences. It was refreshing to do this, I loved that my companion brought to my attention connections that passed me by, he directed me to the Kate Bush video Cloudbusting where Donald Sutherland plays Wilhelm Reich and Kate Bush his son. Reich’s book in the exhibition is also in the pocket of Sutherland. These conversations added immeasurably to the experience.
The Wellcome Collection offers you an invitation to ‘Undress your mind’ with this exhibition, certainly every time I come to visit them they push me to open my mind. I don’t know anywhere else that challenges me in this way. They have a unique remit that the Institute of Sexology typifies, pushing those boundaries and taking you along for the ride. I recommend you go, but I passionately recommend you go with a friend. Talk about sex, laugh, point, blush if you must. We really don’t do it enough (talk that is).
Whilst I am not quite at the point of Havelock Ellis who encouraged his friends to write their own sexual autobiographies I have no hesitation in encouraging you all to go. But not just to see and look, the Institute of Sexology is about an interaction, a conversation, by taking my friend and experiencing it with him I have wholeheartedly entered into that spirit.
By the time I left the sanctity of those soft grey drapes my blushes were well and truly forgotten. Sex sells and the Wellcome Collection are giving it away for free, make sure you are first in line, because like your first time, it will certainly be something to remember.
With thanks to Tyrone Curtis my partner in (sexology) crime.
The Institute of Sexology runs from 20 November 2014 – 20 September 2015 it is free but at busy times timed tickets may be in operation. For more information please visit the website