Sexology exhibition sets out to lay bare truths but it’s a repressed affair

Posted by ap507 at Apr 15, 2015 09:35 AM |
Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans discusses her visit to the Institute of Sexology exhibition hosted by the Wellcome Trust

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The Wellcome Trust is currently hosting an exhibition called ‘The Institute of Sexology’, running 20 November 2014 – 20 September 2015

I visited the exhibition when it opened and had rather mixed responses to it.

I applaud an exhibition that draws critical attention both to the importance of sexology for sexual self-understanding and to the discipline’s long historical struggle for a place within the academy.

However, the history of sexology is a problematic one, firstly with regard to whether it is a science or a ‘pseudo-science’, and secondly, if it is a pseudo-science, whether it contributes to the sexual oppression of women by detrimentally analysing female sexuality through a male lens.

I appreciate that an exhibition is not a lecture on sexology, and the status of the data, the methodologies deployed, and who produces the knowledge, cannot be explained with any subtlety in exhibition format.  Nevertheless, since the exhibition is dedicated to exploring sexology as knowledge production, it could have found ways to demonstrate the contentious nature of its epistemology and ontology.

The exhibition firmly places the history of sexology as a seamlessly progressive scientific history. A story is narrated, through image and text, of sexology’s heroic struggle for the objective study of human sexuality and the quest for sexual freedom, in contrast to the political and religious history of prejudice and sexual oppression.  Beginning with Magnus Hirschfield and the horrific Nazi burning of his books and the closing down of his Institute of Sexology, visitors walk through the gallery of some of the main figures of sexology in the 20th century, such as Alfred Kinsey and Sigmund Freud, culminating with the present day, sexual freedom, and the overt production of pornographic material for our alleged sexual pleasure from the 1970s onwards.

What is the problem with this? First, apart from the screened interviews with American women university students on their views about the politics of gender, sexual liberalisation and feminism in the 21st century, there are no critical voices.  For example, a notable major omission to the gallery is Shere Hite who critiqued Kinsey for the deployment of a male model for analysing female sexuality, and for his collection of data of sexual responses gleaned in a clinical setting.  She argues Kinsey continued the theoretical heritage of Freud, namely the pathologization of women who do not sexually respond to penile penetration. Hite’s research into female (and male) sexual pleasure, and her conclusion that the physical expression of sexuality is always mediated through culture, was of great significance for understanding both female and male sexuality in the 1970s.



The unfortunate omission not only of her work but also of analytical voices critical of Freud,  gives the impression that the Wellcome Trust itself is ‘positioned’ rather than dedicated to dispassionately exploring the contrasting and complex history of sexology’s theories and methods and its influence on our present.


Second, with regard to the pornography workshops that concluded the tours (although no longer running), the exhibition’s lack of critical reflection had a rather unfortunate effect in seeming to promote pornography as an heroically gained sexual freedom now that the forces of bigotry and oppression have allegedly been vanquished.  I think the Wellcome Trust was mistaken in fore-fronting the Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith, whose current research on pornography formed the axis of the workshops, as independent and non-partisan academic ‘experts’ on pornography.

Attwood and Smith presented snippets from their research on the pleasures of pornographic fantasy, including the fantasy of sex with children, data gathered from a self-selecting sample of consumers. In answering questions posed by visitors they specifically disaggregated pornographic fantasy from any social context. In being show-cased by the Wellcome Trust, the implication was that Attwood and Smith are institutionally legitimated sexologists without political views. Any familiarity with their publications or conference presentations reveals they are not sexologist or theorists of medicine, sociology or psychology, but rather they are media analysts. Moreover, their political position is firmly pro-pornography.

In my view any discussion of pornography must take into account its production as well as consumption. The pornography industry is multi-billion dollar industry whose current employment practices bring into focus real issues of human health and lack of work-place human flourishing.  Moreover analyses of consumption must be alive to the social context of sexual violence towards women and the sexual exploitation of children as well as the social, political and economic context in which our sexual fantasies are formed or on which pornography and its industrial production has an impact. In order for informed small-scale discussions to genuinely take place, the Wellcome Trust had a commitment to transparency, and to make the audience aware of the institutional, political and theoretical context in which any researcher promotes her or his own work.

In conclusion, for an exhibition that loudly proclaims to ‘lay bare the big questions of human sexuality’ the overall effect is of a remarkable silence about our current society and the sexual politics of heterosexuality, gender and age in which our sexuality is currently understood, lived and experienced.


The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation in a shorter form. Read the original article.

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