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Science or Art: Which Can Tell You More About Your Sex Life?

A new exhibition at the UK's Wellcome Collection juxtaposes the research of sexologists with X-rated art in order to ask if science or art has more to say about the beast with two backs.

by Rachel Segal Hamilton
Nov 17 2014, 8:45pm

Dwaine Baccus' "Two to Tango" machine. Photo by Timothy Archibald.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK. 

​Sex is messy. Confusing. Contradictory. Subjective. Science is about rigorously testing theories and striving for facts. Unless you're into doctor-patient roleplay, the two aren't obvious bedfellows. 

However, since the mid 19th century, a trailblazing bunch of sex scientists—or "sexologists"—have committed themselves to the objective study of sex, breaking taboos and causing plenty of controversy in the process. 

The Institute of Sexolo​gy is a new show at London's Wellcome Collection that tells their story, while also exhibiting hundreds of sex-related objects, documents, films, photographs, and artworks. Presenting the work of scientists and artists in tandem, the exhibition looks at how they investigate sex differently, raising the question: which of the two has more to say?

I put this to Katherine Angel—a historian of medicine at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of literary non-fiction—whose essay "Getting Beneath: Sex and the Individual" appears in the exhibition book. 

"I suppose, in general, I find artistic evocations of sexuality the most interesting, moving, and provocative," she tells me. "Some of my favorite artifacts around sexuality are literary, musical, or filmic—for example, Marie Calloway's What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life, David Hoyle's performance work, or even something like Prince's grappling with sexuality—but 'scientific' explorations of sexuality are fascinating, especially because they can inadvertently tell us a culture's assumptions about sex." 

A German student and a Nazi officer plunder a library of its erotic artwork. Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The exhibition chronicles major scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of sexuality throughout recent history. Marie Stopes, for example, founded the first birth control clinic in 1921, and at the time the Suffragettes were calling for the vote, she was advocating for equality in marriage. 

German physician Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the first—if not the first—gay rights activist. Under the Weimar Republic he campaigned for the decriminalization of homosexuality from his Institute for Sexual Research before it was destroyed by the Nazis, who burned his books (along with Freud's). 

The show also looks at sexologist Alfred Kinsey—or "Dr. Sex," as he was dubbed by the US media—who carried out the first large-scale surveys of men and women's sexual behavior. Published as two bestselling books, in 1948 and 1953, his findings—including the fact that 37 percent of male respondents had had a homosexual experience—scandalized and intrigued an America on the cusp of the sexual revolution. 

Working in the sexually charged atmosphere of the 1960s was anthropologist Margaret Mead and scientists William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Mead's studies of Southern Pacific culture questioned whether "Western" sexual mores are universal, while Masters and Johnson's lab studies put forward the case for a strong female sexuality. Natsal (the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles) was initially a response to the HIV crisis of the 1980s, designed to gather data that would inform policy.

Just as each sexologist rode the political, social and cultural currents of their time, they were also a product of their individual experiences. "I think what's so interesting about the sexologists is the question of the personal and the professional," says Honor Beddam, who co-curated the exhibition. "What are the motivations for devoting yourself to this topic? Because it's quite controversial, and many of them had made their names in other fields before they moved over."

Alfred Kinsey interviewing a woman. Courtesy of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. Photo by  William Dellenback.

Birth control pioneer Marie Stopes published her sex manual Married Life while divorcing her first husband because he'd never consummated their marriage. Alfred Kinsey was bisexual and had an open marriage. He was also a masochist who enjoyed sticking objects in his urethra, including a toothbrush, bristles-end first. Although he insisted his researchers be married in order to give his work a respectable front, in private he encouraged them to partner swap and experiment sexually—some of which he filmed in his house. 

In the exhibition book, one Kinsey researcher tells historian Christopher Turner, "I've never met anyone with fewer sexual inhibitions." His kinky tastes and unorthodox decision to participate in the sex acts he was studying cast doubt on his scientific credentials: was he simply a pervert exploiting his position for his own ends?

Maybe the truth is immaterial. The exhibition, says Beddam, is "about looking back through history at what's fact and what's fiction, and asking, 'Does it matter?' The myths are as interesting and as important." 

Through the myths, the stories, the gossip, and the flaws in the sexologists' methodology, we also get an "unscientific" and more subjective picture. This is something that Wellcome's curators embrace. Beddam explains that they tried to show not just the science, but the other sides of things: "Who are the people who wrote letters to Marie Stopes? Who are the people who took part in Kinsey's survey? What did it feel like?" 

Paul Ryan, Sketchbook 44 WLS 3. Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

Art provides "another voice" in the show, both on the walls of the gallery space and as part of the wider program.  "The great thing about the work of artists is that they can say something where words fail us," Beddam explains. "They can express something much more nuanced." 

As well as erotic imagery from founder Henry Wellcome's collection, there are photo-collages by John Stetzak that bring together found images of male and female bodies; glimpses into Paul Ryan's sketchbooks; and portraits of South African lesbians by Zanele Muholi. 

The idea that art and science operate in opposite ways – one subjective, the other objective – is misguided. Like Kinsey's scale of sexuality, it's more fluid than that. Science is creative, playful, it's about exploring. 

"If you were studying consciousness you'd come across similar questions," says Beddam. "That's something the show asks: what is science? And what's the best way to apply it? You've got someone like Freud, who lots of people claim isn't a scientist, with his beautifully written prose, and then you've got Martin and Johnson with their devices for measuring blood pressure, organ size. Where do they meet in the middle?"

D an and Jan Siechert with "The Monkey Rocker." Photo by Timothy Archibald

Many of the sexologists were versed in the power of artistic expression. Hirschfeld co-wrote and starred in  ​Different from the Others, a film about a gay man blackmailed because of his sexuality. Stopes wrote poetry and plays, including one about her failed marriage that was never staged because it was deemed too rude. 

On the flip side, art can be as much about the research as the end result. Take photographer Timothy Archibald's series on DIY sex machines and their inventors, which are also included in the show. Archibald originally planned to do a project about home-based inventors – "People creating things in their homes with the hope of making a major discovery and potentially getting rich; the true American dream," he says. 

​While looking for inventors he stumbled on a whole community of people who made sex machines in their garages, using dildos and domestic appliances. "These folks shared snapshots of their machines on this space, which allowed me to see their homes, workshops and creations," he says. 

Inspired by their photographs, he was determined to make his own. While shooting the project, Archibald didn't see himself as a sex researcher exactly—but he didn't identify as an artist, either. "I viewed myself as an anthropologist," he says. "Photography was a simple data collection device—an unemotional way to view this subculture. The human operating the camera, in this case myself, I'm the one who may have allowed some humanity to sneak in and float to the surface."

Alfred Kinsey lecturing at the University of California. Courtesy of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction

Katherine Angel points out that science is never impartial, but always suffused with cultural material, no matter how much scientists like to insist the opposite. She goes on: "Decisions, for instance, that female sexuality, or homosexuality, or particular sexual desires or acts need to be explored and understood are not innocent decisions; they're full of prior assumptions about what is strange, unusual, or problematic." And this is constantly changing over time. 

"What's interesting in the field of sex or sexology is that we tend to find it's incredibly contradictory," says Beddam. "When one thing seems to be clear, there's always something that seems to challenge that." 

Take, for example. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whose work now seems at odds. They drew ground-breaking conclusions about female sexuality—that women can have multiple orgasms; and that there's no physiological difference between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm. But the fact they also ran a course "converting" gay people to heterosexuality makes them more conservative than earlier sexologists like Magnus Hirschfeld.

We've taken strides towards greater sexual openness. Natsal has now run three surveys on our sex lives—in 1990, 2000, and 2010—and according to the latest results, we're becoming more experimental, less tolerant of cheating, and more accepting of same-sex partnerships. (You can read more of the findings ​he​re​.) 

However, the surveys also found worrying rates of STIs and rape. This, and a quick glance at the ​75 countries where it's illegal to be gay, reminds us there's still plenty of work to be done. And it's a job that science and art can do together.

Follow Rachel Segal Hamilton on ​Twi​tter.