Leather, metal and a whole lot of taboos: new exhibition celebrates pioneers of sexology

Portrait of Lili Elbe. Watercolour

Portrait of Lili Elbe. Watercolour - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton visits a display on the brave pioneers who studied human sexuality.

L0076599 "Veedee" vibratory massager, with two att

L0076599 "Veedee" vibratory massager, with two att - Credit: Archant

The Men in raincoats – should they exist – will be disappointed if they buy a ticket to The Institute of Sexology hoping for titillation.

While the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition is choc full of sex, the displays deal with the pioneers who scientifically studied this most private and taboo-strewn of human acts.

There may be examples of erotica and quasi-religious phallic worship, but other decidedly unsexy artefacts include Alfred Kinsey’s complex coded sex questionnaire and a probe wired to a machine to measure bodily signs of arousal.

Sexology, the study and classification of human sexuality has been around for 150 years, its practitioners motivated variously by the desire to cure ‘perversions’, track disease or liberate repressed desires.

Japanese sexual aids kit circa 1930

Japanese sexual aids kit circa 1930 - Credit: Archant

Magnus Hirschfeld, whose Institute of Sexology in Berlin was a refuge for sexual minorities and a rallying call for free expression of sexual desire, carried out the world’s first sex reassignment operation on Lili Elbe in 1930.

But the institute that flourished during the permissive Weimar Republic embodied all that the Nazis hated, and seeing a newsreel of Stormtroopers burning his precious library was, said Hirschfeld, like witnessing his own funeral.

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Fellow German Richard von Krafft-Ebing on the other hand – who gave us the terms sadism, masochism and fetishism – pathologised any sex that wasn’t for procreation as a perversion.

Metal and leather devices in the exhibition to stop male masturbation, a set of tortoiseshell sex aids and the Venivici device for vibratory massage all point to early 20thC taboos around sex.

Birth control clinic in caravan, with nurse

Birth control clinic in caravan, with nurse - Credit: Archant

It was the unlikely duo of Sigmund Freud and Marie Stopes in the early 20th Century who dragged the topic into public discourse. Freud’s psychoanalytic theories discussed female hysteria and the Oedipus complex, while Stopes tried to liberate sex from procreation through her clinics and practical book Married Love.

Artefacts from Freud’s study in Maresfield Gardens Hampstead and a touching film of Stopes on the beach with her beloved baby son offer personal insights into both figures who ultimately believed sexual satisfaction was a key to human happiness.

Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s immersive study of the permissive Trobriand Islanders and Margaret Mead’s of the sexually relaxed Samoa challenged Freud’s theory of the universality of innate predilections by arguing that cultural mores were more influential, and deep-rooted sexual anxieties a Western phenomenon.

American Kinsey, who contested ideas of normality through unjudgmental analysis and observation in extensive sex surveys, was also working in a repressive society where both homosexuality and oral sex were illegal.

His sexual orientation scale from the 1950s argued that people weren’t definitively straight or gay but on a spectrum.

At Washington University Masters and Johnson measured blood pressure, heart rates, brain activity, lubrication, organ size and other signs of bodily response to sex stimulation and orgasm. Their findings about the complexity of female sexual response and multiple orgasms helped lift taboos around female sexuality and boost the emerging feminist movement in the 1960s.

Later the UK National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles – to formulate sexual health strategy through understanding of sexual behaviour – fell foul of Thatcher’s government who cut its funding.

Exhibition co-curator Kate Ford said: “The study of sex is a hard fought for freedom and we pay tribute to the bravery of people whose work is collected here, inspired by the belief that our sex lives are fundamental to our psychological and pshysical health.

“Through the work of these pioneers we hope to reveal the origins of our own present attitudes to sex. Each generation likes to think they invented sex but a short walk around the exhibition will challenge the idea that we are more enlightened than our forbears – we may still have a lot to learn from them.”

Co-curator Honor Beddard said the sexologists “challenged preconceived ideas about sex and studied at great risk to themselves”.

“Their interest was personal as well as professional to understand themselves and influence sexual attitudes with the desire to legitimise the study of sex as a valid inquiry.”

She added that the freedom to express ourselves as sexual beings couldn’t be taken for granted in a world where being gay is still illegal in 80 countries.

“Finding a vocabulary to talk about sex can help us acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of human sexual experience.”

The Institute of Sexology runs until September 20, 2015 at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road.