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The Institute of Sexology: Education over Pleasure

Paloma Rao, LLB Law

‘I might be forty but that makes even me giggle,’ chuckled an elegant looking woman to her friend at a video of two elephants mating. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting to find in this sexhibition at the Wellcome Collection in Euston, but snippets of different animals getting down and dirty was not what I had mentally prepared for. And I don’t suppose my boyfriend expected his Valentine’s day would involve a grey two metre penis either…

The exhibition is free, but on busy days timed tickets are given out. Many couples and groups of girls had similar Valentine’s plans to visit this unusual gallery so we were given tickets for 4pm entry. Despite generating a few giggles here and there, the range of 200 objects, photos and letters explore the history and science behind sexology, bringing together the pioneers of the study of sex.

The show is organised into sections. It begins in the ‘library’ with early collector’s items, including a huge range of works of art relating to sex acts from as far back as 550 BC. Freud and his theories are explored in the ‘consulting room’. Kinsey’s collection of research is displayed in the ‘classroom’, including the unforgettable 35 minute video collection of different animals mating. You then move on to the ‘laboratory’. Here you find data collected by William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s regarding the science behind sex. Finally, in the more domestic setting of ‘home’, you find a study conducted by Natsal in the wake of the Aids panic in 1980s.

The antique relics, varying from clay penises made by Romans to drawings from the Karma Sutra in Nepal, emphasise just how long human sexuality has been explored and questioned. This historic perspective reminds us just how fundamental this area of study is to humans. This only adds to the shock factor at how repressive and limited the contemplation, let alone study, of sex was until after the 1960s. On display, there is a women’s manual giving sexual health tips such as information regarding contraception, followed by a range of handwritten letters in reply. Many women seem extremely grateful for the advice, whilst one of them tells ‘Dr. Stopes’ to ‘go back home’ as ‘decent English people are disgusted at your filthy suggestions.’

The highlight for me was a large chart produced by a single woman which documented all of her sexual encounters over a period of several years. It included her opinion of the experience, the sound of her orgasm and details about the men and their genitals. The extensive chart is rather comical, with an experience being described as ‘humiliating’ and another as ‘talkative’. The exhibition was entertaining, and had several explicit (possibly too explicit!) videos on display. However, overall it was more educational than climactic. The work of Dr. Masters and Miss Johnson, who produced the four stage model of sexual response, stood out to me after I had watched  ‘Masters of Sex’, a TV series based on their studies. If you have an interest in sexology, or even if you fancy a free little giggle, be sure to visit this unusual exhibition before the 20th of September.

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