Let's Talk About Sex: Histories of Sexuality in Australia from Federation to the Pill by Lisa Featherstone is as the title implies a book that traces the history of sex and sexuality in Australia from 1901 to 1961. As such, it is both a chronological and thematic book highlighting various themes in terms of sex and sexuality.
In the first 3 chapters, Featherstone traces the concepts of female, male and racial sexualities. These are depicted in very different ways. In the early twentieth century, the ideals of female sexuality were centered on the concepts of modesty, marriage and maternity. The primary role for women was to marry, reproduce and become mothers. Women were viewed as less sexual than men, whereas sex was deemed a part of a healthy life for men. Abstinence and restraint was important ideals for men as well, but there was an acknowledgement that men had strong sexual urges and needs. In terms of race and sexuality, the Aboriginal people were deemed to have no morals or values. Aboriginal and Asian women were viewed as uncivilized and sexualized. There was a common notion that these women were prostitutes and therefore could not be raped. Aboriginal men were seen as impotent, whereas Asian men were seen as a threat to white women. Not surprisingly, interracial marriages were highly discouraged, and keeping the races apart was deemed necessary.
During the Great War, venereal diseases (VD), and especially so syphilis became a great health concern as it threatened the quest for a strong, white nation. The infection rate among soldiers soared as they contracted the disease overseas and after engaging with prostitutes, spreading the disease to their partners and lovers. During this time, men were often viewed as the transmitters of disease, but they were also in need of protection. Therefore, legislation was passed to include compulsory examinations of prostitutes, not johns, to combat the spread of VD.
The spread of VD forced discussions about sexuality, so sex education became a central focus during and after the Great War. Sex education for the youth was however not very informational and focused much on traditional gender roles. For adults, sex education was more explicit and graphic and issues such as birth control, sexual pleasure and foreplay were discussed, but framed to promote heterosexuality and marriage. Premarital sex and abortion were still highly condemned, and although not as visible, VD was still a common threat.
During the interwar years, the issue of sexuality and race, along with the use of contraceptives was yet again awakened. As the views of sexuality started to change, abstinence was often not seen as an option. As abortions were both condemned and criminalized, contraception became more readily accepted. But, it was also a tool for those believing in eugenics. Because there was a growing rate of "half-castes" deemed to be a threat to white Australia, the issue of sterilization and removing mixed children from their (Aboriginal) parents in order to raise them in white, "civilized" Australia was commonly discussed, but also reinforced at times.
As medicine became common practice, sexually deviant behavior, such as masturbation, frigidity, promiscuity became constructed as pathologies, and the "sex pervert" came into discussion. The Second World War saw a disruption of the social order as women moved into employment. There was a "loss of control" over women's sexuality and reproduction. "Amateur" prostitutes were believed to be the bearers of VD and therefore surveillance and incarceration of these amateurs was common. As panic spread over women's sexuality, same-sex desires were less threatening and mostly viewed as pathology of arrested development.
In the 50s, marriage, heterosexuality and procreative monogamous relationships were still the norms, and this time homosexuals were increasingly in the spotlight. Arrest and conviction rates for homosexual behavior increased during the 50s, even though an active homosexual subculture still existed. Youth sexuality in the 50s and 60s did however bring about some change. The youth culture became increasingly sexualized, especially with the emergence of the bodgie and widgie, who challenged the norms of traditional sexuality. Masturbation became viewed as harmless, although infantile. Sexual behaviors, such as petting, were seen as dangerous for girls who should be able to control themselves, but also boys and thereby avoid any physical and social dangers. Responses to the sexualized youth culture resulted in the strong policing of girls during this time.
Featherstone ends the book in 1961 as the pill became available on the Australian market. Featherstone states that the pill signals the beginning of a new story of sexuality charting the beginning of sexual freedoms, until the crisis of HIV/AIDS. By focusing on the years between 1901 and 1961, Featherstone provides and interesting account of how the issues of sexuality differ not only throughout time, but also based on gender, age and race.
Featherstone writes in an easy to understand and uncomplicated manner. The historical accounts of sexuality in Australia are fascinating and paint a clear picture of how sexuality was constructed. At times, it may be difficult to follow along the abbreviations of terms used by Featherstone. The author does however provide a list of abbreviations at the end of the book. The target audience includes those who are interested in the ties between history and sexuality in Australia. Those who study human sexuality, sociology, and gender studies can also use the book, especially as it discusses both the influences of American and European culture and discussions of sexuality, along with the historical emphasis on Australia. Although the writing is fairly explicit, the book can be a great tool in the classroom.
My only concern with the book is that through the historical accounts, Featherstone provides information and written accounts that can be both sexually graphic and detailed. Therefore, readers should be aware that the depictions of sexual violence and sexual assault (including rape) might be upsetting to some.
© 2012 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss is a graduate student in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.