Sexology exhibition sets out to lay bare truths but it’s a repressed affair

Other perspectives. Abhishek Singh Bailoo, CC BY

The Wellcome Trust is currently hosting an exhibition called “The Institute of Sexology”. I visited the exhibition in January and had rather mixed feelings.

Sexology is the alleged scientific study of human sexuality, although its status as science has continuously dogged it since its inception in the late 19th century.

But in the spirit of the self-proclamation of sexology that it lays bare truths previously obfuscated by prejudice and political and/or religious repression, the exhibition invites visitors to “undress” their minds in order to appreciate the “candid exploration of the most publicly discussed of private acts”.

The exhibition firmly places the history of sexology as a progressive scientific history. A story is narrated, through image and text, of sexology’s heroic struggle for the objective study of human sexuality and the quest for sexual freedom, in contrast to lack of knowledge, prejudice and sexual repression.

It covers key figures in the 20th century who have investigated human sexuality and contributed to this growing science, beginning with Magnus Hirschfield, who was openly gay – he was also Jewish, so it won’t be a surprise that the Nazis burned his books and closed down of his Institute of Sexology. He quite Germany for France in 1933.

Usual roster. Immugmania, CC BY

Other names included in the walk through the gallery are Sigmund Freud, credited as the father of psychoanalysis, and Alfred Kinsey, who famously founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University in 1947. The exhibition culminates in the present day and our consequent alleged sexual freedoms and claims to highlight “the profound effect that the gathering and analysis of information can have in changing attitudes and lifting taboos”.

So what is the problem with this?

It takes two to tango

Well, apart from the screened interviews with American women university students on their views about the politics of gender, sexual liberalisation and feminism, there is no critical entry point into understanding women and sexology.

For example, a notable major omission is that of the sexologist Shere Hite whose work was seminal in the 1970s and 1980s for addressing female sexuality from the point of view of women’s experiences. In doing so she critiqued Kinsey for using a male model of sexuality as a template for analysing female sexuality and for gathering data by observing sexual responses performed in a clinical setting.

The unfortunate omission of Hite, as well as of those psychoanalysts who critiqued Freud for his masculinist view of female sexuality, gives the impression that the the exhibition has failed to dispassionately explore the contrasting and complex history of sexology’s theories and methods and its influence on our present sexuality.

Another problem is a series of workshops on pornography that took place in the exhibition space. The lack of critical reflection of sexology in the exhibition had a rather unfortunate effect in seeming to uncritically promote pornography as an example of divesting ourselves from hidebound sexual repression in the 21st century.

Two academics, Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood, presented snippets from their current research on pornographic fantasy, including the fantasy of sex with children, data gathered from a self-selecting sample of consumers of internet pornography.

In answering questions posed by visitors to the exhibition they specifically disaggregated pornographic fantasy from any social, political and economic context in which our sexual fantasies are formed or on which pornography and its industrial production has an impact.

So, for an exhibition that loudly proclaims to “lay bare the big questions of human sexuality” the overall effect is remarkably sotto voce about our current society and the sexual politics of heterosexuality, gender and age in which our sexuality is lived and experienced.

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