Frank Bongiorno is the author of the newly released book The Sex Lives of Australians: A History. Here he reveals ten Australians who made sexual history.
The London-born Eric Ansell was an employee of Dunlop in Melbourne before striking out on his own as a producer of condoms in a small rented house in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond. It was an astute decision: Ansell became one of Australia’s great manufacturing success stories and is now a major international company.
Henry Havelock Ellis, as author of the multi-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex, was in his day one of the world’s most famous intellectuals. In the English-speaking world, he was the original ‘sexpert’: Freud had a photograph of him on his office wall. Ellis spent four crucial years of his life – between 16 and 20 – in Australia, mainly working as a country schoolteacher. It was in the lonely Australian bush, Ellis recalled, that he was to find ‘one who must mean more than any person: I found there myself’.
Chidley had a theory: sex should occur between a man and woman only in the spring, when the vagina would act as a vacuum drawing the flaccid penis inside. He published his theory in a booklet, The Answer, and wearing a tunic took to the streets, declaring that he had discovered the theory that would save the world. He gained many sympathisers, especially when the authorities in Melbourne and Sydney began to persecute him. Havelock Ellis described Chidley as ‘one of the most original and remarkable figures that has ever appeared in Australia’.
Relishing his role as the bête-noir of Australian wowserdom, Lindsay’s risqué novels and pictures, which always seemed to teeter on the edge of blasphemy and/or obscenity, earned him notoriety. But by the 1920s and 1930s, the seemingly endless procession of large-bosomed sirens and leering satyrs seemed were rather more in line with a sexually saturated popular culture than Lindsay might have cared admit.
A graduate in medicine from Sydney University, Haire set up in Harley Street, London, and rivalled Marie Stopes in the 1920s as a pioneering birth-controller. Haire became a world-famous sexologist (or sexual scientist). In contrast with his mentor Havelock Ellis, Haire was an abrasive figure but also, despite his massive bulk, a man of extraordinary energy. He returned to Australia during the Second World War and through a regular sex advice column in a women’s magazine, he played a significant role in opening up sex to more open public discussion.
Piddington published a book on ‘mothercraft’ (including sex education) in the 1920s and 1930s, taught sex education classes, and ran an Institute of Family Relations in Sydney that promoted contraception. She was advocate of ‘celibate motherhood’ – the artificial insemination of single women – which she saw as a solution to the problem of a post-World War I society in which women who wanted to become mothers would be unable to find husbands. She wrote to Freud, whom she tried unsuccessfully to convert to her cause, and corresponded with Marie Stopes, on whom she pressed Chidley’s theories. Piddington raised her own son according to Chidley’s ideas, telling young Ralph: ‘The little organ should not get stiff darling’.
Greer changed the world. The substance of her argument was contained in The Female Eunuch’s title. Women were eunuchs because their ‘essential quality’ was ‘castratedness’, an incapacity for sexual enjoyment bound up in their socialisation. Some of her theories extended the ideas of earlier sex radicals such as Chidley. The Times Literary Supplement found extenuation for her ‘frighteningly generalized hostility’ in Greer having been raised in Australia, ‘where, according to reliable report, a fairly high degree of male loutishness is socially acceptable’.
Altman also changed the world, even if the title of his pioneering work, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, was less marketable than Greer’s. But like The Female Eunuch, it came very directly out of Altman’s personal experiences: his engagement with the emerging American counterculture, his life as a male homosexual, and his involvement in early gay liberation. Altman would make his mark as an politics academic, and gay activist and author. He was also involved in the formulation of AIDS policy in the 1980s.
The campaigns by the Scottish-born Melbourne doctor, Bertram Wainer, helped expose a grubby racket in which many abortionists — some qualified doctors and some not — were permitted to carry on their lucrative trade for as long as they paid police large bribes. Wainer’s zealotry, compassion and media showmanship led to a Victorian parliamentary enquiry that exposed the dark underside of the abortion business even as it condemned his credibility as a witness and labelled him a ‘grandstander’. As a result of legislation in South Australia and landmark court decisions in Victoria and New South Wales, the abortion regime that Wainer condemned declined during the 1970s.
The daughter of a renowned economist, Arndt wrote a psychology thesis on snake phobia at the University of New South Wales before moving on to research female masturbation. When an Australian version of Forum: The International Journal of Human Relations began in 1973, she was the magazine’s 23 year-old editorial consultant and also worked part-time for its sex-counselling service. She later became a co-publisher of the magazine with her husband. Arndt soon became a prolific author and contributor to both print and electronic media, and the country’s most recognisable sexpert.
Frank Bongiorno's The Sex Lives of Australians: A History is available now from all good bookstores and ebook retailers.