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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Attack of the sex cliches and national stereotypes

There is a fairly lengthy piece in today's Guardian on the about-to-open Institute of Sexology exhibition at Wellcome Collection (I may have given some advice on specific aspects, but I was not involved in curating this, by the way). It doesn't entirely manage to escape a number of dodgy cliches and generalisations, in particular the one about Those Brits In The Past, so repressed.

So, not only do we get the idea that the nation of Havelock Ellis, Marie Stopes, a host of other sex reformers and educators, and pioneering organisations for birth control, abortion law reform, and marriage guidance, was locked into a 'saucy postcard view of sex': which presumably came after, rather than running in parallel with, that other cliche, 'hooked on cold showers and the pursuit of empire' (is there nothing in the exhibition on Sir Richard Burton, we ask ourselves? - pursing empire perhaps but not about the cold showers).

We also have the O Les Francais, so much more relaxed and sorted about L'Amour than les rosbifs of Olde Angleterre: 
the curators make a little joke about our embarrassment when it comes to sex by juxtaposing a 19th-century French booklet praising “Les charmes de la masturbation” with an English publication, The Secret Companion, in which a gentleman is shown lying exhausted on a chaise longue in a section called “On Onanism as a cause of sexual debility”.
The Great Masturbation Panic was Europe (and North America)-wide - if kicked off by the early C18th quack pamphlet Onania it was given serious credibility by the (Swiss) physician Tissot and fears of self-abuse were disseminated every more widely over the course of the C19th, with the dread disease of spermatorrhoea being more or less invented by the French doctor Lallemand
Early C19th French anti-masturbation corset

While it is entirely probable that in the corpus of C19th British smutty literature there may be found some text on 'The Joys of Frigging' or similar.

Indeed, while Marie Stopes was hymning the benefits of contraception as an essential adjunct to married love, the French government, beset by longstanding fears of population decline, actually made it illegal in 1920, and idealistic Malthusian anarchists were imprisoned for promoting birth control.

There's also the very common simplistic notion of who was liberal and who conservative. Krafft-Ebing may not look like a radical, and he wasn't, but he was a supporter of the campaign for the repeal of Paragraph 175, the German penal law on homosexuality, initiated by Magnus Hirchfeld.

It does, however, manage to eschew some of the usual suspects.

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