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.

From the front page

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Image of the Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales

The edge of their seats

Lessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate

Image of Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley

The future of the Liberal Party

Peter Dutton doesn’t just have a talent problem on his hands

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

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 ‘Trust’


The American novelist Hernan Diaz audits the silence of great wealth in a story of four parts presented as novel, autobiography, memoir and diary

Still from ‘Irma Vep’

‘Irma Vep’

Olivier Assayas revisits his 1996 film in a delicious palindromic limited series, in which a frazzled director remakes his ‘Irma Vep’ film into a TV series

Cover image of Louise Kennedy’s ‘Trespasses’


The powerful debut novel from Irish author Louise Kennedy is a masterclass in emotional compression

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

Online exclusives

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime