At the end of November, the Wellcome Collection opened The Institute of Sexology : ‘a candid exploration of the most publicly discussed of private acts’.
This free exhibition uses historical artefacts, scientific documentation and works of art to chart the history of the study of sex through its pioneers – people like Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, and William Masters and Virginia Johnson.
Visitors are given a sense of the personal risks historically faced by those choosing to carry out research in this area, with sexologists often facing ridicule and persecution for their work. One of the most striking images in the gallery is footage of Magnus Hirschfield’s library and archive, built up over a lifetime, being burned by the Nazis in Berlin, 1933.
Bringing to the field their own distinct scientific and ideological perspectives, these individuals have shaped our understanding of sex. Their work was received by the public with equal measures of outrage and fascination – Kinsey’s 1948 Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male and the later volume Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female quickly hit the bestseller lists.
Although the samples were not representative, and the methods used far from perfect, Kinsey’s work was the first attempt to study sexual behaviour in a truly scientific way. Unlike some of the other sexologists featured in the exhibition, he emphasised the importance of collecting data about sexual experiences without judgement. Kinsey and his team systematically interviewed tens of thousands of participants and analysed the data statistically. This was no mean feat in the days before computerised questionnaires and statistical software packages.
The exhibition ends with a contemporary study of sex: The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), carried out by a team of researchers at University College London, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and NatCen Social Research. This series of large, representative surveys of the British population have been carried out every 10 years since 1990 and are among the largest and most rigorous studies of sexual behaviour in the world.
The Natsal surveys sometimes feel a world away from the earlier work in the exhibition: the study of sex now made respectable in light of increased public recognition of the importance of good sexual health. However the collection contains reminders that it hasn’t always been plain sailing, for example a letter from the British Government in the 1980’s withdrawing public funding for the first survey due to concerns about the subject matter. You also get a sense of the researchers themselves, rather than their findings, as a source of intrigue: a Sunday Telegraph piece from 1994 appears to devote as many column inches to the dress and demeanour of the ‘lady scientists’ as to their enormous scientific achievement.
Today, there are still challenges to be overcome for those studying sensitive topics like sex. In an interview for the exhibition, Dr Cath Mercer from UCL talks about the importance of trust in Natsal. The survey uses a combination of face-to-face and self-completion questionnaires, which like all NatCen surveys are treated as strictly confidential. We know that this guarantee of confidentiality, together with the rapport between participant and interviewer is an important part of gaining people’s confidence and enabling them to share their personal experiences with us.
In return for this trust we aim to achieve positive impacts for society using the data we have collected (some of which is available in this new data interactive) – an ambition we continue to work towards through engaging with the scientific community, policy makers, and the public as we disseminate our findings.
The Institute of Sexology is a free exhibition which runs until 20th September 2015 at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK
For more information about Natsal, including summaries of findings and links to publications: www.natsal.ac.uk