Historical perspective on the sex lives of Australians

Published 25 September 2012

The history of sex in Australia, from the eighteenth-century colony’s shortage of women to the age of Internet dating, will be the subject of a free public seminar at the University of New England on Friday 28 September.

Associate Professor Frank Bongiorno from the Australian National University began writing his recently-published book The Sex Lives of Australians during the seven years (2000 – 2007) that he worked as a lecturer in history at UNE.

“My teaching at UNE included the history of sexuality, and I wrote the bulk of the book while I was in Armidale,” he said. “It even includes a few examples, gleaned from the pages of The Armidale Express, of changing attitudes to sex in Armidale over the years.”

The Sex Lives of Australians: A History (Black Inc., Melbourne, 2012) is the first book to cover the history of Australian sexuality from 1788 to the present.

“Some of my students at UNE – particularly older people with a passion for family history – had some interesting stories to tell about the sex lives of their convict ancestors,” Dr Bongiorno said, “and I realised that it was a set of stories worth the telling.

“In my talk, ‘The sex lives of Australians: an historical reflection’, I’ll discuss what can be learnt from considering, in an integrated way, a whole range of topics – prostitution, censorship, birth control, sexology, homosexuality and many others – that have usually been treated separately.”

The seminar on Friday will be at 4 pm in Lecture Theatre A3, UNE Arts Building. Everyone is welcome.

“Being a ‘settler society’ sets colonised Australia apart from many older societies in this aspect of its history,” Dr Bongiorno said. “That history includes relations between the settlers and Indigenous peoples on the early frontier, and the effect of a predominantly male population throughout much of the nineteenth century on the development of the culture of ‘mateship’.

“There’s also the preoccupation with race at a time when Australia was intent on building a white society on the doorstep of Asia, and when the main function of sex was seen as the production of white Australians.”

“The campaign for gay marriage – a major issue today – was not a prominent part of mainstream gay politics until relatively recently,” he recalled. “In the 1970s, the gay movement tended to be suspicious of institutions such as marriage, and it was only after a general cultural shift away from the stereotype of the patriarchal family that the idea gained more appeal.”

Dr Bongiorno has held lecturing positions at King’s College London and Griffith University as well as at UNE, and Visiting Fellowships at the University of Cambridge and the University of Texas at Austin. He is a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Australian Studies, History Australia, and the Australian Journal of Politics and History.