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Doing it by the book: the eccentric pioneers of sex studies

From Marie Stopes to Alfred Kinsey, we can still learn from the masters of sex, as new exhibition “The Institute of Sexology” at the Wellcome Trust illustrates.

A late-19th century photo from Richard von Krafft-Ebing's archive of sexual "deviation"

The Wellcome Collection’s latest show begins sensationally – but not in the way one might expect. “The Institute of Sexology” is the first exhibition in a £17.5m expansion of the collection and occupies a new gallery dedicated to year-long shows. To the 21st-century ear, the title has something of a snigger about it and you might head to Euston thinking you’ll find a gallery draped in velvet, in boudoir purples and pinks. But it is decked out in sober, neutral greys; what drapery there is gives the place the studious feel of an airy library. And the sensation that opens the show is evoked by destruction: the burning of Magnus Hirschfeld’s library by the Nazis in May 1933.

Hitler had been in power for just three months when rioters, with the blessing of the new government, broke into the Insti­tut für Sexualwissenschaft, which had been founded by Hirschfeld, a physician and sexologist in Berlin during the liberal years of the Weimar Republic. It was a unique collection of books, documents, photographs and objects. Hirschfeld was a pioneer in the campaign to end discrimination against homosexuals; it was a place that promoted scientific knowledge as a way to further the quest for justice, particularly with regard to the treatment of sexual minorities. On one wall of the opening section of this exhibition is a screen showing footage of the pyre on which years of his work were destroyed. Hirschfeld, who was both gay and Jewish, had escaped to France. He saw the film in a newsreel and said that watching it was like witnessing his own funeral.

It is immediately evident that there is no sniggering to be done here. Consciously echoing Hirschfeld’s institute, this is the first UK exhibition to bring together the advance guard in the study of sex, from Havelock Ellis to Margaret Mead, from Sigmund Freud to William Masters and Virginia Johnson, from Marie Stopes to Wilhelm Reich. What strikes the visitor most powerfully is the risks these men and women took, personally and professionally, to investigate an impulse that – frankly – drives us all and to which we owe our existence.

The exhibition is divided into sections. In “the Library”, Hirschfeld’s work is joined by that of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, who in their different ways further investigated ideas of sexual “deviance”. But items here from the Wellcome’s own collection reveal that 19th- and early-20th-century western attitudes to sex were not necessarily representative of attitudes in other times and places.

Also displayed are erotic carvings from Japan and rank upon rank of little Roman phalli – happy symbols of prosperity and luck – and a Peruvian “pottery jug of a masturbating skeleton”, as the label states, from around 100-800AD. Each section of the show is mirrored by work from a present-day artist; in this case, the eloquent black-and-white images of the South African photographer Zanele Muholi, who documents the lives of lesbians, the transgender community and others who challenge received notions of sexuality in her native country.

In “the Consulting Room”, we meet Freud, Marie Stopes and Jean-Martin Charcot, the 19th-century Frenchman who is often called the father of neurology. A sequence of his photographs of a shrieking woman, taken in 1890, labelled Bâillements hystériques (or “hysterical yawns”), reflects the perception of “hysteria” as “a female disease”. Freud’s work, his invention of psychoanalysis, created a space where intimate subjects could be brought out into the open, as they were even more so, most vigorously by Marie Stopes, a pioneer of family planning.

Box of delights: 1930s Japanese sex aids

A jolly poster takes off from the rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”: “I can tell you today,/Hear our Saint Marie say:/When the People will breed/No more mouths than they feed.” Not everyone approved. There are a few of the thousands of letters Stopes received on show; while many are grateful for her openness, not all of them are. One reads: “Go back to your own country and preach your dirty methods there.”

What the writer of that letter would have made of Wilhelm Reich is anyone’s guess. Reich, an Austrian psychoanalyst, became a countercultural hero for his championing of sexual permissiveness and the exhibition displays his “orgone accumulator” – the reflectively lined box that Reich believed generated vital libidinous energy in those who sat in it. Up close, it is hard to believe that the box (which looks like a home-made cross between an outhouse and a camping oven) could produce any sort of energy, other than the DIY kind necessary to construct it. Just opposite, there’s a pleasing clip from the Woody Allen film Sleeper (1973), with its “Orgasmatron”, an amusing rip-off of Reich’s device. (This is a show with some flashes of humour, for all its serious intent.)

“The Classroom” introduces Alfred Kinsey; “the Lab” Virginia Masters and William Johnson, who have lately found renewed fame thanks to the Showtime series Masters of Sex, starring Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen. Kinsey (who got his own movie a decade ago starring Liam Neeson) started with the study of gall wasps before moving to human sexuality; his plans for a lab to explore that subject never materialised but during his lifetime he collected over 18,000 sexual histories. In the 1950s, William Dellenback took photographs of some of Kinsey’s subjects – or rather of their sexual organs, sometimes held open by the men and women being photographed for better display. There is something peculiarly striking in the way a woman’s manicure or her wedding ring reveals the era – not the 1950s we think we know. It was Masters and Johnson who first established a lab: if you’ve ever wondered what a penile strain gauge or a vaginal photoplethysmograph looks like, you will discover the answer here.

But “the Home” is where most people experience sex (even though, after seeing this exhibition, one hesitates to generalise). Among the most striking displays in this show are the original drawings done by Chris Foss for Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex, first published in 1972. The images – of those resplendently unwaxed and unshaven 1970s lovers, Foss’s fellow artist Charles Raymond and his wife, Edeltraud – are iconic now but I was not prepared for the loveliness of the draft drawings, their delicate lines on heavy, ochre paper. They have never been exhibited before. As Comfort noted bluntly, commercial pornography was “not much help with sex practice for real lovers”, something that is as true now as it was then, or perhaps even truer. Alongside Foss’s drawings are Timothy Archibald’s bold, large-format colour photographs from a series entitled Sex Machines: Photographs and Interviews. Here is American ingenuity as you may never have thought of it before; what looks like a workbench actually has a dildo at one end. Three cheers for the pioneer spirit.

Another image from Richard von Krafft-Ebing's archive

That’s the spirit required to do such work, as the show constantly demonstrates. The curators, Honor Beddard and Kate Forde, stress that the exhibition is intended to start a debate about the sex research that still takes place. The controversy that such research can cause is still apparent, as when Margaret Thatcher’s government, in 1989, pulled the funding from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, instigated by Anne Johnson, a specialist in the epidemiology and prevention of sexually transmitted infections. “Thatcher halts survey on sex”, announced the headline in the Sunday Times, displayed here along with a story from the Sunday Telegraph about the “lady authors” of this scandalous survey. The piece puts great emphasis not on the women’s work but on their appearance, noting, for instance, Julia Field’s “iron-grey hair and spectacles”.

On 18 November, Public Health England published the statistics for HIV figures in the UK. Rates of infection are continuing to rise: there are now nearly 110,000 people living with HIV in the UK. Roughly a quarter (26,100) are unaware of their infection – and therefore are at risk of passing on the virus to others through unprotected sex. It is proof, if proof were needed, of just how important it is to pursue open and honest conversations about sex and sexuality.

The exhibition closes with a shelf filled with books, all titles written by the subjects of the exhibition in the course of a century and a half. Every volume has been covered with a plain white wrapper, as if to hide the contents – but this is only an echo of shame, as each has its title printed on that wrapper in clear black ink. Clarity and openness have always distinguished the work of the Wellcome Trust; this show is an eye-catching and yet suitably serious way to relaunch the expansion of the Wellcome Collection, which will come to full fruition early next year when all of its public spaces reopen. Alan Gregg, an officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped fund Alfred Kinsey’s work, wished Kinsey to have “the freedom to observe, to reflect, to experiment and to bear witness”. We are lucky to have this fine exhibition, which celebrates that freedom. 

“The Institute of Sexology” is at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1, until 20 September 2015. The catalogue is published by the Wellcome Collection (£24.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents