July 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Sex Lives of Australians' by Frank Bongiorno

By Peter Pierce

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.

'The Sex Lives of Australians', Frank Bongiorno, Black Inc; $32.95.
Cover: July 2012
View Edition

From the front page

Image of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton speaking during Question Time today

‘She said, he said’

Let’s consider what has been said

Image of Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

Its own reward: ‘The Virtues’

Topping February’s streaming highlights is a four-part series examining trauma and addiction, propelled by Stephen Graham’s affecting performance

Image of ‘Fragile Monsters’

‘Fragile Monsters’ by Catherine Menon

Memories of the Malayan Emergency resurface when a mathematician returns to her home country, in the British author’s debut novel

In light of recent events

Track your vaccine with Australia Post

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

JJ McRoach & Hunter S Thompson

An elderly patient waits in the Emergency Department. © Jason South / Fairfax Sydnication

Last resort

How the rebirth of general medicine will save lives

‘Unexpected Pleasures’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

Room for improvement: John Howard. © Chris Pavlich / Newspix

Mind the Gap

Why the rising inequality of our schools is dangerous


More in Noted

Image of ‘Fragile Monsters’

‘Fragile Monsters’ by Catherine Menon

Memories of the Malayan Emergency resurface when a mathematician returns to her home country, in the British author’s debut novel

’Purrukuparli ngirramini’ © Harold Porkilari

‘TIWI’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

A must-see exhibition of Tiwi art from Bathurst and Melville islands, in which historical and contemporary media and imagery fuse

Image of ‘Jack’

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

History and suffering matter in the latest instalment of the American author’s Gilead novels

Image from ‘The Dry’

‘The Dry’ directed by Robert Connolly

Eric Bana stars as a troubled investigator dragged back to his home town in a sombre Australian thriller


Read on

Image of Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

Its own reward: ‘The Virtues’

Topping February’s streaming highlights is a four-part series examining trauma and addiction, propelled by Stephen Graham’s affecting performance

Image of Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl performing in 2019.

Celebrity misinformation

The Foo Fighters’ AIDS denialism should be on the record

Still from Minari.

Small glories: ‘Minari’

Childhood memories are suffused with an adult’s insight in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film

Image of Eddie McGuire resigning as president of the Collingwood Football Club.

Tumbled Pie

On Eddie McGuire, racism and ‘doing better’


×
×