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.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

In This Issue

Emily Perkins. © Jessie Casson

Out of Auckland

Emily Perkins’ 'The Forrests'

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Four Coroners

The Last Azaria Chamberlain Inquest

Berlinde de Bruyckere. © Eamon Gallagher

In the Flesh

Berlinde De Bruyckere

Schoolies in a Surfers Paradise polling booth at the 2007 federal election. © Fiona Hamilton / Newspix

Comment: Australian Democracy and the Right to Party

More in Noted

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality