Margina­lia and mis­cel­lanea: sex, lies and grand­moth­ers

Matthew Reisz, books edi­tor

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

It is rare for an aca­demic book to fea­ture in­for­ma­tion about the sex life of one’s grand­mother. But that is the case with the forth­com­ing book by Barry Reay, Keith Sin­clair chair in his­tory at the Univer­sity of Auck­land, New Zealand: Sex in the Ar­chives: Writ­ing Amer­i­can Sex­ual His­to­ries (Manch­ester Univer­sity Press).

It opens with a de­scrip­tion of the Grainger Mu­seum at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne. This is de­voted to the Aus­tralian com­poser and pian­ist Percy Grainger, most fa­mous for his ar­range­ment of the folk song Coun­try Gar­dens, gen­er­ally seen as a rather sen­ti­men­tal tribute to a kind of tra­di­tional English­ness. But he also had a far less re­spectable side. Along­side the things one would ex­pect of a mu­si­col­o­gist, there­fore, the mu­seum in­cor­po­rates what Grainger called his “Lust Branch Col­lec­tion”, fea­tur­ing “whips, pho­to­graphs, sex­o­log­i­cal works, ex­plicit per­sonal de­scrip­tions of the re­ceiv­ing and in­flict­ing of sex­ual pain, and paeans to the ad­van­tages of ‘self-help’ (mas­tur­ba­tion) and the joys of oral sex”.

Sex in the Ar­chives goes on to ex­plore gay and trans­gen­der di­aries; the pho­to­graphic record of “queer Bal­ti­more”; the tes­ti­monies and art­work to be found in the Kin­sey In­sti­tute; and even the 1990s phe­nom­e­non of Bad­boy Books (gay pornog­ra­phy writ­ten largely by straight women). He also ex­plores sources for track­ing the his­tory of mas­tur­ba­tion and ca­sual sex, vast top­ics that are by their na­ture pri­vate and of­ten un­recorded. Through­out, Reay is com­mit­ted to an ap­proach that “re­fuses the con­fines of iden­tity sex­u­al­ity stud­ies, span­ning the spec­trum of queer, trans, and the al­legedly ‘nor­mal’”.

Although he some­times turns to “coun­ter­ar­chives” de­voted specif­i­cally to the his­tory and ex­pe­ri­ences of sub­cul­tures, he makes at least as much use of “the most tra­di­tional and re­spectable repos­i­to­ries”. He has “long been amused by the fact that Bryant Park, a his­tor­i­cal haunt of hus­tlers and their clients, is right next to the walls of the au­gust New York Pub­lic Li­brary”. It is in that very in­sti­tu­tion that he dis­cov­ers some great ma­te­rial for re­veal­ing the re­al­i­ties of “ca­sual sex” be­fore the term was used, namely the in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ re­ports sub­mit­ted to a group of moral re­form­ers that “chart sex in dance halls, mas­sage par­lours, ho­tels, and restau­rants in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury”.

So where does my ma­ter­nal grand­mother fit into all this?

In the New York Pub­lic Li­brary, he dis­cov­ers some great ma­te­rial for re­veal­ing the re­al­i­ties of ‘ca­sual sex’ be­fore the term was used

When I worked in pub­lish­ing at the start of my ca­reer, I was in­volved in edit­ing a book that Reay had co-au­thored about 16th-cen­tury rad­i­cals. I con­tacted him when I took over as books edi­tor here at Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion last year. He in­formed me that he was now work­ing on sex­ual his­tory, so I told him about how I had once spent a strange morn­ing in the Bri­tish Li­brary read­ing my grand­mother’s very ex­plicit cor­re­spon­dence with the sex­ol­o­gist Have­lock El­lis. I am de­lighted to say that he de­cided to ref­er­ence her in his new book.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.