Phallic amulets, courtesy of Wellcome Images
So what’s the appropriate facial expression for viewing a display case full of objects shaped like penises? I’m aiming for a look of detached, academic interest, perhaps with a side order of wry amusement. The sort of look Lucy Worsley might give the camera while introducing Henry VIII’s codpiece.
Actually, I’m an inch away from either clapping my hands over my eyes and yelling ‘make it stop!’ or dissolving into unstoppable giggles. Phalluses adorn everything in this case. Winged phalluses. Phalluses with the hind legs of a horse. Phalluses (phalli?) being ridden like horses. Most are from, or inspired by, ancient Greece or Rome. By contrast, female genitalia are represented largely in Far Eastern artefacts, such as the exquisitely carved Japanese ivories that open up to show copulating couples.
I’m visiting The Institute of Sexology, an exploration of human sexuality at the Wellcome Collection. The default attitude among the other visitors is resolutely serious. It’s proper science, this exhibition, as evidenced by the graphs, surveys and academic books on display, not just a chance to look at some of the smuttier artefacts from Henry Wellcome’s wondrous collection. Anyone showing signs of enjoying themselves is likely to attract disapproving frowns. I spend time carefully reading Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering questionnaires and Marie Stopes’ letters (from heartbreaking to eye-popping), to demonstrate the academic nature of my interest.
It’s self-preservation, of course. No-one wants to be thought a pervert, or a prude. In this exhibition, the visitors seem to be part of the exploration of 21st century sexuality. Our refusal to be shocked by anything sexual, our assumption that all forms of adult sexual expression are valid, our ability to look at representations of human sex organs without giggling, define us within our time and culture, as eloquently as the exhibits themselves talk of their time and place.
We’ve come a long way from the early years documented in the exhibition, when sexology was about categorising and defining pathology from ‘normal’. Even the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ posters from the 1980s seem a fantastically long time ago. It seems extraordinary to think that a prime minister now would respond to a new threat like AIDS by banning schools from educating pupils about homosexuality, and refusing to back research into sexual habits and attitudes.
And yet homophobia is far from a thing of the past. Gay men, says this writer, have to carry out a ‘risk assessment’ before holding hands in public. In 2015, in London. Some things, it seems, are still more shocking than a caseful of phallic amulets.