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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

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge