Oh you sexy things! The inside scoop on this Autumn's spiciest exhibition

From galloping phalluses to postcard kink, a new exhibition looks at the study of sex over the last 150 years

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The Independent Culture

London’s Wellcome Collection certainly knows how to reel us in – recently, the medical science museum has staged eye-catching exhibitions on dirt, death and drugs and now, after expanding its galleries, it is reopening with a show called The Institute of Sexology.

After all, there’s no subject more likely to make them a “destination for the incurably curious” – as their mission statement goes – than sex.

But look closer and it’s a little more complicated. The focus is actually on those pioneering men and women who study sex. It covers the past 150 years of such study in the Western world: “It makes sense to start from the point where people wanted to legitimise sex by looking at it as science,” says curator Kate Forde.

There will be plenty of naughty bits to titter at, if not to titillate. But the curators hope to do more than just make us gawp; here are just some of the insights, spicy and otherwise, that it offers:

1. ‘Freud had a spiky attitude to sex’

Bronze porcupine with quills, 1909

The original sexologist, of course, was Sigmund Freud, who led the way in examining human sexuality on an individual, psychological basis. After training as a neurologist, Freud searched for a physical cause for hysteria, but his career was to focus on the mind: our mental processes and unconscious urges. He developed his method – psychoanalysis – in the 1890s; his theories were so hugely influential that terms such as “sexual repression”, the “Oedipus complex”, and “penis envy” are still common parlance. Whatever criticisms may be levelled at him – and there have been many – Freud was one of the first to provide a theoretical framework for talking about sex … and how it can screw us up.

His letters and photographs feature in the exhibition alongside, most intriguingly, a bronze porcupine that spent its life atop his desk. And why did the father of psychoanalysis like to keep such a spiky critter? “It was a metaphor for human relations,” explains Forde. “When it’s very cold, porcupines nestle together to keep warm, and they have to perform this sort of dance, to and from each other, so they don’t get poked! It’s a nice analogy for the distance people need to keep – as well as the intimacy they crave.” Freud spent much of his career showing how sexual desire could be thorny, as well as horny.

2. ‘Victorian gents were into phallus worship’

Burnished reduced-ware vase of masturbating skeleton, Peruvian (Lambeyeque), 100–800 CE (Wellcome Images/Science Museum, London/press image from t.morley@wellcome.ac.uk)

Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who amassed a vast collection of historical objects related to medicine; these included a hoard of “phallic worship” artefacts that provide some of the show’s more eye-watering spectacles. From masturbating skeleton pottery jugs to a Roman wind chime featuring a galloping phallus (complete with hooves and a tail), these ancient pieces from societies across the globe represent procreation as a source of divine power, showing the sexual as sacred – often depicting conspicuously large members.

“He wasn’t alone,” says Forde, who explains there were many Victorian gentlemen collectors united in their fascination with “a global belief in the importance of fertility, which you could trace back to ancient civilisations. Wellcome looked for evidence of this far and wide, sending his agents to gather material that would prove it.” Not that such items were deemed suitable for public consumption: the Wellcome Museum, like the British Library and British Museum, had a “secret room” to house erotic, explicit collections, which only certain gents were privy to.

3. ‘Conservatives came up with your favourite kinky terms’

Postcard from the papers of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, late 19th century (Wellcome Images/Wellcome Library, London)

Luridly coloured postcards of men in tutus or women riding chaps around on all fours – kinky, eh? It’s perhaps surprising, then, that these were sourced from the collection of Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), an Austro-German psychiatrist and arch conservative. Believing sex had one purpose only – procreation – and that anything else was a perversion, he undertook the noble task of cataloguing such deviancy in a volume, Psychopathia Sexualis, designed as a legal reference book. But in doing so, he only made kink more visible, popularising such concepts as fetishism, sadism and masochism. Oops!

The naughty postcards come from his own collection, however: were they for reference purposes, then, or was he more into all that stuff than he was letting on? “Well, you can come up with your own theory on that…” smiles Forde.

4. ‘No two sex lives are the same’

Drawer of gall wasp samples collected by Alfred Kinsey, c.1935 (Wellcome Images/American Museum of Natural History/press image from t.morley@wellcome.ac.uk)

Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) – aka Dr Sex – was a pioneering sexologist who surveyed more than 18,000 people across America about their sex lives during the 1940s and ’50s. His Sexual Behaviour books attracted huge attention and an equally huge backlash – especially his work on female sexual pleasure, and his famous sliding scale of sexual orientation. But this entomologist never set out to study sex – his first love was gall wasps. He amassed an astonishing 7.5 million of them, travelling thousands of miles for specimens. The show features one of his drawers of samples from 1935, the wasps pinned out; he’d taken 28 fiddly little measurements from each. His conclusion? No two wasps are alike.

Just, as it turned out, like humans and their sex lives. Kinsey’s work on wasps, weirdly, formed a blueprint for the methodical approach that he would take to human sexuality – obsessively collecting as many samples and as much detail as possible – even as the urge to classify ended up proving how varied we are. Working 14 hours a day, conducting lengthy interviews of up to 521 questions of each participant, it’s no wonder his vast tranche of data is still being analysed to this day.

5. ‘Sex scares people in power’

‘The Burning of the Books’, 10 May 1933, Germany (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/press image from t.morley@wellcome.ac.uk)

The show features a famous 1933 image of a Nazi book-burning that has become emblematic of the repression of both knowledge and freedom. But what is less well known is that it’s a library of sexology going up in smoke.

German scientist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) established the Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft  (Institute of Sexology) in Berlin during the Weimar Republic; it collected evidence of the diversity of sexual practices across the globe, attempting to separate sex from morality.

“He was a surgeon but he was also a Jew, and openly gay,” says Forde – not a cocktail popular with the Nazis, and Hirschfield had to flee Germany. He happened to see the bonfire of his 10,000 books at a cinema in Paris: “He described it as if he were witnessing his own funeral,” says Forde.

He was far from the only sexologist to have faced censorship: Freud and fellow psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s books were also burnt by the Nazis; Kinsey was accused by the McCarthyites of running a communist plot to weaken morality. And, as recently as 1990, the moralistic Thatcher government stepped in to stop the Department of Health from funding Natsal, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, set up in the UK in the wake of HIV.

6. ‘Women may make better sexologists’

1970s Vaginal photoplethysmograph. Machines to determine women’s sexual physiology were developed in the 1970s as a direct response to Masters and Johnson’s research and influenced by second-wave feminism (The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction/press image from t.morley@wellcome.ac.uk)

While some sexologists have wanted to get inside our unconscious minds, others have wanted to get inside our bodies: US researchers William Masters [1915-2001] and Virginia Johnson [1925-2013] (subject of the recent hit TV drama  Masters of Sex) used specialist medical equipment to record anatomical changes as their subjects got it on. And the biggest revelation of their research, published in 1966? Women’s sexual responses are complicated. They published evidence of different types of orgasm, multiple orgasms, and even – whisper it – fake orgasms. It was surely no coincidence that this ground-breaking sexology duo featured a woman.

Indeed, with women’s greater access to higher education, Seventies sexology saw increasing numbers of female researchers emerge, providing a crucial new perspective on both the type of experiments and machines used, such as vaginal photoplethysmographs, which measured blood flow in the  vagina walls.

But it’s not just about knowing what might, ahem, work down there: more recent, questionnaire-based studies such as Natsal have benefited from being led by women. “Practically all the principal investigators are women,” says Forde. “People often find it easier to talk to women about intimate matters ... they seemed to get more out of people.”

‘The Institute of Sexology’ is at the Wellcome Collection from 20 Nov to 20 Sept 2015