At the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition ‘The Institute of Sexology’, visitors must surreptitiously part a curtain to peer at a rosy clay vagina set inside a bifurcated case. Made in the early twentieth century as a teaching aid for health professionals, the Gynaeplaque sits behind a glass pane covered in fingerprints where people have erroneously reached out to put their hands inside. The abiding fascination with laying one’s hands on the hidden ‘truths’ of the sexual body, of rendering sexuality and its psychological corollaries tangible and knowable, forms the drive of the discipline of sexology. This scientific study of human sexual behaviour grew distinct with the work of the German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in the late nineteenth century, whose seminal work Psychopathia Sexualis explored the ‘perversions’ of non-procreational sex.
This exhibition is full of such cheeky nooks and crannies, many of which focus on sexology’s attempt to open up the female body in particular and render its fantasies, pleasures and problems recordable and understood. In another of the low-lit rooms, a barely noticeable sign at groin level instructs you to open a drawer, wherein lies pages of ink drawn, thoroughly labelled vaginas, with inquisitive fingers inserted at various angles. These are the sketches of early twentieth-century gynaecologist Robert Latou Dickinson, who sought through his detailed studies of his patient’s genitalia to find, amongst other things, the biological origin of lesbianism. The history of sexology is also, then, a history of the female body, which it in turn constructed as available for voyeuristic probing and definition.
Indeed, one of the most significant threads the Wellcome unwinds here is the intertwined development of sexology and ways in which female sexuality was scientifically and culturally perceived. Near the start of the exhibition lies a glass case that marks the beginning of British women’s sexual freedom, featuring photographs and inventions of Marie Stopes, who fought for women’s right to enjoy (marital!) sex without fear of pregnancy. As she dryly said of her immensely popular and controversial 1918 book Married Love, ‘woman like man has the same physiological reaction, a reciprocal need for enjoyment and benefit from union in marriage distinct from the exercise of maternal functions’. A photograph of her horse-drawn ‘contraceptive caravan’ where she dispensed Britain’s first rubber diaphragms and spermicidal pessaries in the 1920s, while moving in its recollection of the biologically-hamstringed lives women led, sits alongside the eerily blood red ‘Racial Cap’. This was designed by Stopes — a committed member of the Eugenics Society and out-and-out racist — to ensure the women she liberated did not procreate with Eastern Europeans immigrants, Jews or the disabled. Though Stopes is widely recognized as a staunch supporter of women’s reproductive freedom, she is also a glaring reminder of sexology’s darker side, namely its desire to control and police sexual behaviour.
Sexology played a major part in the historical formation of tangible sexualities and, relatedly, notions of ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’ sex. Scientists William Masters and Virginia Johnson exemplify this dual attempt to broaden the scope of the sexual while rigidly defining it. Their laboratory experiments conducted in the mid 1960s can be watched at the exhibition. Masters, in a white lab coat, stimulates a naked woman who is hooked up to various machines to analyse the nature of sexual excitation. Twenty years earlier, Alfred Kinsey, an American working in the unexpectedly similar areas of biology, entomology and sexology, conducted mass surveys of twenty thousand people across the United States, occasionally dubiously participating in hands-on studies himself. His huge binder of questions for participants are here as well, with many Wellcome visitors unable to resist interviewing each other on fusty issues like ‘Partner’s preference regarding light during premarital coitus.’ People’s obvious fascination with voluntarily questioning each other demonstrates the abiding fascination with charting our sexual proclivities.
Yet, the nervous laughter that drifted through the exhibition gestured too towards our uneasiness with placing the rich ambiguity and individuality of sex within scientific parameters. Kinsey’s graphs and tables, which plot the meanings of people’s sexual behaviour, stand in uncomfortable proximity to his obsessively collected rows of pinioned wasps. Though Kinsey, Masters and Johnson materialised and legitimised both female orgasm and homosexuality, they also exemplify sexology’s taxonomical approach to sexuality which provides worrying means through which individuals can be medically, judicially and socially classified. That sexology simultaneously creates a sense of sexual diversity by both uncovering and constructing types of sexual expression, while also defining sexuality in a way that allows it to be policed, emerges as the fundamental paradox of this exhibition.
Yet, the promise of understanding the evasive world of sex, as well as the chance to judge the attempts of our forebears, clearly continues to enthrall. At the end of the exhibition there is space to browse the works of Krafft-Ebing, Freud, Stopes, Reich and many others who contributed to sexology’s evolution. During my visit a group of teenagers, a troupe of elderly women, a few kissing couples and one woman in a leather onesie and bunny ears all congregated to consider the myriad sexological gems on offer, testifying to the persistent elemental allure of understanding human sexuality that motivated sexology’s pioneers.
Rebecca Saunders is completing a PhD at King’s College London that considers the relationship between contemporary pornography and labour theory. She is also interested in the relationship between digital culture and pornography and has published work on digital paratextual theory, as well as on the relationship between medicine and current pornography trends.
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