July 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Sex Lives of Australians' by Frank Bongiorno

By Peter Pierce
'The Sex Lives of Australians', Frank Bongiorno, Black Inc; $32.95.

Thankless work, but someone had to do it: Frank Bongiorno has written a history of the sex lives of Australians. Blessedly, our intimacies usually remain private. Guessing about others’ is fruitless, whatever the apparent evidence of happiness, misery or children. Bongiorno has concentrated instead on the enlistment of and interference with sexual behaviour for supposedly higher causes, not only moral but political. Legislation was generated, and so was panic: fear of racial contamination (Chinese hawkers with their “vice and vegetables”), falling birth rates, the dubious morality of factory girls, masturbation and other contributors to national degeneracy. Bongiorno proceeds by exemplary anecdotes strung along a chronological line, or, as Michael Kirby writes in his introduction: “a cornucopia of sexual tales from history”. Bongiorno himself promises that the work will be a “nuanced, contested and uneven history”.

Beginning in colonial Australia, he notes that “within the constraints of a patriarchal society, women too made their choices, and they used their sexuality as a source of power”. Men long outnumbered women, but many preferred their own company: “hard-living single males wandered the country … providing Australian masculinity with a complexion still recognisable”. The “unnaturalness” of sodomy helped to end convict transportation. The age of consent was raised “to protect young girls … in a way rape laws could not”. More intense policing led to the “development of a male homosexual subculture and identity”. In the 1950s, bodgies and widgies took their place in a line of young “folk devils” that stretched back to the larrikin. As Bongiorno approaches the present, changes tumble upon one another: legalisation of abortion, unionisation of prostitutes, magazine advice on “how to give perfect fellatio”, the rise of AIDS. Bongiorno perhaps touches too many bases, but always punctiliously and intelligently.

The Sex Lives of Australians has a dry, rationed wit, but is little leavened by ribaldry. Where is the Truth headline about a political luminary’s death, ‘Snedden Died on the Job’? Where is the gentle rebuke of the audience member who interjected as Katharine Prichard extolled the pleasures of congress in the Soviet Union? (“It’s pretty good here, too, missus.”) There is not much of the joy of sex; rather, Bongiorno is led to its miseries: enforced celibacy, brutal ‘cures’ for homosexuality, bestiality, technical ignorance, shame. The epigraph might have been James McAuley’s disdainful “Our loves are processes / Upon foam-rubber beds”, yet the book claims the sex reformer and holy fool William Chidley as a hero. Bongiorno salutes “the status he gave to sexual joy as the key to the gates of heaven on earth”.

Peter Pierce
Peter Pierce is a professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University. He is the co-author of Vietnam Days and the editor of The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia.

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