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Man on all fours in red jacket, woman riding him
Hand coloured photograph. Richard von
Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), professor of psychiatry
at Graz and Vienna, and pioneer of the
systematic study of sexual deviation.

Undressing your mind

A daring show tracks the history of sex studies – and it’s free.

Review by Corinna Lotz

An Institute for Sexology? The very notion may sound a bit risqué, even in our sexually liberated age.
And yet, sexual freedom is no laughing matter. Many pioneers in this field paid dearly for daring to unsettle the status quo.

For example, there was Magnus Hirschfeld, a champion of gay and feminine rights who founded the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919. His research suggested that being gay was just as valid as heterosexual orientation, says Kate Forde who with Honor Beddard has curated the first UK exhibition to trace the evolution of sex studies. Drawing on Henry Wellcome’s collection of erotica, they have put together a fascinating overview from the late 19th century to today.

Destroyed by the Nazis in 1933, Hirschfeld’s massive archive and library were part of the 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books which were tossed on the fire in front of the Berlin state opera house on May 10 that same year. A blown-up photo of that shocking event occupies one wall in the exhibition, which is arranged chronologically.

Welcome: A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire
A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire
Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Nazi persecution of those who researched sex or did not conform to gender stereotypes while extreme, was not peculiar to Fascism. Hostility to those who challenge the tyranny of preconceived ideas, particularly patriarchal approaches to sex has pervaded many societies.

Sex is clearly essential to our existence and the most basic expression of who we are. And yet, as this fascinating display shows, it took a long and often courageous battle to overcome the countless taboos surrounding sexuality. And the battle is far from over.

Homosexuality and even public displays of affection are illegal or openly persecuted in some 82 states, including the world’s second most populous nation, India. Women’s status in many of these countries is also abysmally low.

Welcome: Sharon Hayes, "Ricerche: three"
Sharon Hayes, "Ricerche: three", 2013 © Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin

The exhibition traces the work of Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, Marie Stopes, Alfred Kinsey, Wilhelm Reich, Margaret Mead, Bronislaw Malinowski, William Masters and Virginia Johnson – and present-day British researchers involved in the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle (Natsal).

In post-war America, Kinsey’s best-selling books about male and female sexual behaviour, based on huge research projects funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, had an explosive impact. Thousands of students attended his lectures at the University of California in 1949. Kinsey’s work is still widely known today, thanks to Liam Neeson’s sympathetic portrayal in Bill Condon’s 2004 film.

Alfred Kinsey lecturing at the University of California
Alfred Kinsey lecturing at the University of California
Courtesy of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction

Letters sent to Marie Stopes show the strong reactions to her efforts to advance the reproductive rights of women by founding birth control clinics. Many thanked her profusely for having changed their lives for the better while one outraged individual wrote to tell her “go back home”, even though she was clearly British. Stopes remains a contradictory figure – a great champion of women’s rights but also a devotee of eugenics, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic.

Welcome curator
Curator Kate Forde

There is a small section devoted to Wilhelm Reich, who remains one of the most controversial – and revolutionary – psychoanalysts of the 20th century. Reich was a brilliant student of Freud who wrote The Mass Psychology of Fascism, followed by The Function of the Orgasm. He worked in Freud’s free mobile clinic in Vienna, the Ambulatorium. A version of his “orgone accumulator”, a reflectively lined box that he thought could generate libidinous energy if you sat inside it, has been reconstructed for this show.

Reich, who was Jewish, fled Germany seeking asylum in Norway and Britain, ending up in New York in 1939. But his fusion of psychoanalysis with Marxism aroused the hostility of US authorities as well as the International Psychoanalytical Association.  

The US Food and Drugs Administration was to spend $2m prosecuting him. He was arrested in 1956 for breaching an injunction against trading in his orgone accumulators – it was in fact a sting set up by the state to entrap him.

He was sentenced to two years imprisonment and died in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in November 1957. While he was in jail, tons of his books were burned in a New York public incinerator – an operation that his own institute was forced to pay for.

But Reich’s ideas had a revival in the 1960s and 1970s in the West Coast hippy counter-culture, amongst anti-Stalinist Marxists and progressive educationalists including Summerhill school founder A.S. Neill.

Welcome: Two women in sexual encounter
Two women in sexual encounter,
Courtesy of The Kinsey Institute for Research in
Sex, Gender, and Reproduction

The show includes clips of Woody Allen’s Sleeper which features an “orgasmatron” and Serbian Dušan Makaveyev’s 1971 film Mysteries of the Organism. It was banned in the director’s native Yugoslavia for 15 years. Many of the displays are erotica collected by Henry Wellcome, founder of one of the four pharmaceutical companies which now form GlaxoSmithKline. These objects are secretive, voyeuristic, fetishistic and often just plain weird. It’s not always clear how the objects on display here helped people “understand sex”, but they are certainly different from your ordinary knickknacks.

The closing section features yellowed copies of the September 1989 Times, headed Thatcher halts survey on sex. This was the moment when Thatcher, encouraged by moralist Mary Whitehouse, tried to stop funding for Britain’s biggest ever sex survey, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle, launched in 1990 just as the Aids epidemic was unfolding. As the curators have noted, sexual freedoms cannot be taken for granted; sex education in schools remains controversial.

It was the Wellcome Institute that rescued the Natsal project. Of course Wellcome plc has profited enormously from its manufacture of the expensive aids drug AZT, but on the evidence here, the Wellcome Trust, a separate charitable body, seems to have given its curators free rein. This show is a real first which sheds light on social, historical, political aspects of sex that have been kept under wraps for far too long.

25 November 2014

The Institute of Sexology is at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE until 20 September. Admission is free. It is part of the Sexology Season which includes commissions and events across the country

Magnus Hirschfeld – The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement by Ralf Dose, published by Monthly Review Press this year, is a well-illustrated and useful account of an unjustly neglected pioneer of the modern gay rights movement.

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