The Institute of Sexology (Wellcome Collection)
There is no heterosexual sex culture. Welcomed, win-win, not monetised and fun. The BDSM scene has a greater active participancy than any ‘normal’ casual sex scene. It would be easier for me to find someone to hurt tonight than hug.
The clouds above the Wellcome Building didn’t dispel by the time I left. I wasn’t expecting a sexy exhibition, as such. I knew it would be charts and graphs and a jolly reflection on the folly of historical ignorance (based on the belief that we are ‘getting it right’ today). The mechanics and prudery, the bare reproduction of sex have almost been overcome, leaving sex as two things – an affirming bond which knits us into a deeper love (at very best love survives sex), and casual sex as fun. It is neither. Life is childhood and the rest is an admin hell for hormones. No wonder children seem happier with their grandparents than their parents.
<Baudelaire mode OFF> Wait. There is paying for sex, watching images of it, struggling to make it work in marriages, and there is insanity caused by it. Face-bending hysterics in 19th century neurology clinics look like rock stars before they evolved. The four stages of delirium — épileptoide, clownisme, attitudes passionnelle, derile —span from a self-cradling soft rock to screamo.
In some ways sex suffered from being studied in the main by doctors, looking for pathology, conditions, maladies and cures. That complexes are structures, calls and translators between the conscious and subliminal, that illness is not illness but ordinary, for people out of time with outlets for their own libidinal expression, is still a contemporary concept. Japanese ivory clam shells open to reveal erotic carvings. Leda rapes a swan (you reckon it consented?) Fetishes and taboos. Nazis ransack and burn sexologist Magnus Hirschfield’s research material. The defence of ethnic bodies as a dangerous practice because we fear what they’re going to say.
Sex as problem, always. While Kinsey lectures packed out sports halls with 9000 attendees, flat screens relay campus debates happening today. Young women — agitated, educated and organised — discuss the right to wear a burka, to hide in a cloth bag from a misconception of a misconception. Fearlessness has been replaced by the right to fear. (There are commentators who suggest that sexuality is, let’s face it, for young people. Whatever it takes to distance themselves. Throw in paedophilia and the fear of exploitation, the window for reciprocated heterosexuality slips to about six years.)
I hide inside an insulated Faraday cage, an Orgone Accumulator. Reich’s dabbling with communism found him persecuted. Sexual healing as snake oil. Sexology is rescued by Masters and Johnson, their penile strain gauges and vaginal photoplethysmographs, their heart rates. Supported by feminism, given grants by Hugh Hefner, the right to a liberated female orgasm obsessed the seventies. The first feminism I ever read encouraged women to take their pleasure rather than wait to be given it. Even if you’re given it good it’s never as good as personal responsibility (a handy conviction if a male’s feeling lazy below a duvet).
As I wander from cabin to cabinet, I suspect that the closest I will get to the high seat of meaningful sex today is pouring my feelings into a love song (full-bodied, unapologetic and alive) for someone who doesn’t exist, but even libidinal rerouting seems problematic these days. A modern Mengele, encouraged by the eugenics of fear, I pare my ethnic body into blind spots.
There is no heterosexual sex culture. Welcomed, win-win, not monetised. Nowhere flirting is a given, sex actively anticipated. Twelve of Time Out’s ‘Twenty Sexiest Things To Do In London’ are BDSM-related. The rest are about chocolate, glow sticks and yoga. Anyone claiming that Tinder is the straight equivalent of Grindr is avoiding having a clue. Using dating for sex feels like lying about love and why should anyone need to do that? 59% of millennials are single and receive no positive sexual message outside porn. Those explaining that the sex gulf is 'all about power' sound like men explaining that menstruation is about golf. No-one wants to grope or ogle, just as no-one wants to write graffiti on a prison wall. It's not about hating walls. No-one wants to be infantile but there is no ‘adult’. Yet everyone is ‘sex positive’. In principle, on paper. Anywhere, in fact, which doesn’t involve the body. Paid-for contact sites depend on fake profiles from reskinned dating apps. Condemn ‘pick up artists’ but they will have more sex than you and more chance of finding love. Women don’t know what they want, their methodology goes. Their sexuality moves at a different speed. Lovely and all, but slow as fuck. You’ll wait forever if you wait for women. You know it. I know it. That chair over there knows it. Their desire is kindled by yours. Don’t turn it down, turn it up. Assertive, incarcerated killers get fan mail and marriage proposals. Famous men give sex advice not realising that the ‘famous’ part, status, is doing the hard work the ‘men’ part never will.
The ‘Institute of Sexology’ season includes discussions on pornography (all female panel) and cruising (not hetero ‘sex pests’ but the fun, gay kind where an ‘eye contact, smile or wink may start a wild journey’). Straight people looking for a wild journey can take the lift to the Wellcome rooftops and throw themselves off.