From April until June, Glasgow Women’s library (GWL) is holding a sexology season supported by the Wellcome Trust. For those of you who may not know, sexology is the study of human sexuality, of sexual behaviour and interests. That’s right, for almost three whole months the library flings its doors open and invites you in to engage with exhibitions, film and book events to discuss all things sex. Hell yeah.
As part of Sex in the Women’s Library, GWL asked me to do some digging and write about the season from my own perspective. So before we get started, let me introduce myself. Hey! I’m Jess, a genderqueer artist and I have been volunteering with the Women’s Library for almost a year. I moved to Glasgow to study Contemporary Performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and since then have been completely obsessed with all things feminist, gender, sexuality, and queer-related.
I am super excited to be able to go on this virtual journey through the GWL sexology season, and although this is my voice it is most certainly not all about me. All GWL’s events are trans-inclusive (yay), and so to be clear when I’m talking about women, I’m talking about cis, trans and self-identified women (unless otherwise specified). I hope this blog is marked by inclusion, and bringing to light queer voices in a discourse that has long been marked by their exclusion. More on that later.
So, I’ll be here delving into the library and talking to the sexology team, bringing you the info from the frontline as it all happens. To get started, here’s some reasons you should get yourself involved in Sex in the Women’s Library (heh heh):
1). As a feminist, I think having ownership over your body and your sexuality is one of the most important things you can do. It’s something feminists have been fighting for a long time, although they often disagree over how best to go about it.
2) Sex/uality is full of complexities and contradictions, the more we get to know our own unique selves, the less we feel obligated to follow what the media/politicians/society tells us in regards to being a sexual being. But don’t just take my word for it, over the next few blog posts the delights I find from the Women’s Library catalogue will hopefully reveal its importance before your very eyes. I will also be incorporating my chats with creators of these events, and getting their opinions on the world of sex.
3) Let’s face it, the world has long been obsessed with controlling, explaining and repressing women’s sexuality. Scary as that is to learn, it’s worth being aware of. The field of Sexology, like most things, has historically been dominated by cis-white men, and has involved a large amount of debate over whether or not women are sexual beings, with a right to express their sexuality (as well as varying views on birth control, marriage, and the existence of lesbianism, homosexuality and transgender people).
The more women turn up, with their varying perspectives, and have conversations around this, the more we show have sexual agency. We will be less talked about and more likely the ones doing the talking. I will be taking a look at this in relation to the sex discussions GWL are facilitating in later posts.
4) Sexology is a HUGE topic, full of people’s opinions and contradictions. It’s largely agreed to have started at the beginning of the 19th Century, by famous sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, and his German counterparts Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and Magnus Hirschfeld.
I enjoy being super geeky about it, and there’s tons of interesting stuff to learn. Take for example, on my first peak at the sexology books available at GWL I found ‘The Sexual Dynamics of History’ by London Feminist Group. It detailed the invention of the word ‘frigid’.
‘the frigide woman’ was ‘invented’ in the 1920s to explain the phenomenon of women rejecting marriage altogether, or sexual response within marriage’
First wave feminism, they had to start somewhere right? A woman’s right to being able to control access to her own body is a good place to start. Suffragettes such as Francis Swiney, Christabel Pankhurst and Elizabeth Wolsenholme Elmy were all women who believed control over women’s bodies was the basis of men’s domination. Seems pretty basic right? But we’re talking about a pre-WW2 time when a woman belonged to her husband, just out of the era of the polite Victorian wife; women have no political rights at this time (let alone sexual rights). Women exercising choice over when she has sex = threat to the Patriarchy.
A.M Ludovic, a rather unpleasant fellow, was extremely threatened by the wave of feminists ‘withdrawing from intercourse’ and wrote a book about all his concerns Lystristrata (warning, they’re pretty daft).
‘Havelock Eliis and others undermined the feminist critique of male sexual behaviour by defining, with the authority of science, male sexuality as active and female sexuality as submissive’
It’s complicated; there are some theorists who believe that men and women are inherently different due to biology (and therefore so are their sexualities). These folk, known as determinists, also tend to believe we’re all heterosexual. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who believe we are socialised into being heterosexual (and cisgender), known as artifactualists.
Ellis in some respects can be seen to advance a feminist perspective, for example, supporting our ‘erotic rights’ in his book The Erotic Rights of Women, but he also did weird things like to try and categorise male and female sexuality, lesbianism and invented the term frigid. Tricky.
Ellis and Hirshfeld are also believed to have pioneered thinking around transgender people at the time, differentiating homosexuality and transgenderism for the first time. (that’s a whole other blog post!)
5) Speaking and being open about sex is still a really risky thing to do, namely because of aforementioned attempts at control/repression etc. It’s important for personal transformation, but also transforming the views of wider society.
I spoke to GWL’s Creative Development Manager Adele, who speaks articulately on the matter (she’s been at GWL since its beginnings!);
“there is still a raft of residual barriers; the tendency for women to diminish their own sexual explorations, to subjugate their own desires and dissatisfactions over those of others, the still prevalent misrepresentation of women and their sexuality in wider cultural and media representations, the lack of space where women can talk to other women to raise their own and other’s consciousness about their bodies, desires and sexualities.. “
She goes on to explain there can be a high price for women today in naming and claiming their desires:
“Homophobia, being judged, misogyny, violence, rejection by friends and family, name calling and various other time honoured forms of disapprobation focused on women.”
6) The evolution of the field of Sexology is awesome. It’s no longer just cis-white dudes telling us about the nature of women’s sexuality.
Adele explained to me:
“Feminist activism, consciousness raising, publishing and enquiry expanded the scope and impact of discussions around sexology opening up a largely pathologising, patriarchally determined and heteronormative field into one of genuinely fearless enquiry by women who were the sexual pioneers of the second wave. In the light of the amazing wide-ranging debates across the terrain of feminism in the past 40 years or so pathways to liberation have been forged and a new language around sex and sexuality for women has been coined”
An opportunity to learn about lots of amazing feminists paving the way for sexual liberation, what’s not to like?!
Whether you’re into expanding your knowledge of sex and history, you want to be inspired by the women before us who braved claiming their desires or simply want to be involved in conversations around sex, Sex in the Women’s Library has loads to offer. It is not to be missed.
You can check out all the goings-on in detail at: https://womenslibrary.org.uk/events/category/sexology/photo/