As diverse and colourful as sex

Our editor Jon Sutton visits The Institute of Sexology at the Wellcome Collection.

Picture: Masked man in pink tutu, from collection of Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

First and foremost, let me just say what a great place to visit the Wellcome Collection is. Conveniently located opposite Euston Station, it’s the perfect place to pop in, feed the mind, enjoy the excellent café, browse the bookshop. This exhibition runs until 20 September and it promises to evolve over that time, with new projects, commissions and events, along with the opportunity for visitors themselves to contribute to the debate around the meaning of sex research in the 21st century.

Of course there is already plenty on display, enough to while away an eye-opening hour. Presenting examples from the last 150 years, The Institute of Sexology considers the different methods of researchers, activists and campaigners who have taken a scientific approach to the study of sex. Quoting from the programme, ‘Whether inspired by the desire to cure “perversions”, liberate repressed desires or track disease, these individuals attempted to lift the perceived taboo on the discussion of sex and present it as a legitimate topic for enquiry. The questions they raised, sometimes at great risk to themselves, are still fuelling the debates taking place today.’

These brave pioneers are as mixed a bag as sex itself can be. Consider first the Austrian psychoanalyst Willhelm Reich. Inspired by Sigmund Freud’s desire to treat ‘the neuroses springing from our civilisation’, Reich – shaped by his personal experience of war and poverty – believed that suffering was caused by external, socioeconomic factors, and that psychoanalysis must take a political stance. Sexual liberation was his path to societal change. How would he achieve this? Well, he discovered blue forms glowing in a culture of ocean sand that had accidentally been heated, and he seeked to harness this ‘orgone’ energy in insulated Faraday cages. In the American post-war era, Reich’s ‘Orgone Accumulator’ became, according to the exhibition, ‘an unlikely emblem of self-expression’. It’s basically a big wooden box.

Walking round the exhibition, you can compare and contrast Reich’s bizarre, almost new age approach with large colour photos of couples from Bolton who have devised far more prosaic and mechanical routes to sexual expression.

Freud – he of ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’ fame – looms large in one corner of the exhibition, with his desk and various suggestive antiquities from his personal collection. Again useful and interesting contrasts are evident, this time with the work of Marie Stopes, who built her reputation on provision of explicit practical advice in the field of birth control. ‘Don’t please think about your subconscious mind’, she once said: ‘All the filthiness of this psychoanalysis does unspeakable harm.’

There are plenty of other fascinating and influential characters to meet within the exhibition, including Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, Magnus Hirschfeld, Havelock Ellis, William Masters and Virginia Johnson. But for me the centrepiece of the exhibition is Sharon Hayes’ film exploring sexuality from the perspective of students at an all-women’s college in western Massachusetts. Described as ‘part documentary, part lyrical group portrait’, the film explores how underlying political conditions inform people’s attitudes and self-definition. The students interviewed reveal the reality of living within an institution regarded by some as anachronistic and others as a ‘hot-bed’ of lesbian activity and activism. Throughout its 38 minute running time, the film reveals sex to be as much about politics as personal inclination. As both come in all hues, it is no wonder this exhibition is such a varied and colourful one. Do visit, take in a drop-in event, browse the archive and appreciate this ‘free destination for the incurably curious’.

- The exhibition runs daily except Mondays. Find out more and join the discussion on Twitter using #sexology

- Reviewed by Dr Jon Sutton, who is Managing Editor of The Psychologist.

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