The nature of sexual hang-ups and other considerations

Sex Talk in the City blog header

While reading Greg Smith’s post on the Sex Talk in the City blog, I got to thinking. Greg’s idea of sexual “hang-ups” seem to have a lot to do with the process of medicalizing sexuality in the 19th and 20th century.

The medicalization of sexuality is not only the construction of sexuality in medical language or the act of mandating interventions (which has led to significant public health improvements), it is also the introduction of pathology and medical explanations used to frame “deviant” behaviours. Hysteria, homosexuality, and transsexuality have a history of being explained as medical disorders in order to defend what is thought of as normal sexual behaviour and what isn’t. As Sex Talk in the City will remind us, these constructions are felt in the present day and do affect our sexual experiences – they lead us to understand ourselves within these medical terms, sometimes out of necessity, due to a lack of alternative language.

When discussing sexuality we can’t forget the work of French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. Foucault demonstrates how “repressive pathology” has a quality of administrative inquiry into our private lives. It confines sex to the 'privacy' of the home while maintaining a wider, external world of repressed sexual expression. Pierre E. Trudeau's famous declaration in 1967, "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," highlights the tension between the state and the individual, and through omission suggests that sexuality and sexual expression belong only in the bedroom.

Sex Talk in the City isn’t necessarily unique. It is a process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of the meanings attached to sexual experience and sexual conduct. Through its position of authority (coming from a museum), the exhibition can’t help but be part of the medicalization of sexuality. However, the exhibition also provides space to negotiate how authorities have affected our individual impressions of sexuality.

Knowing that the development of vibrators was an experiment in speeding up the female orgasm and finding out the “hidden truth” of a woman’s sexuality changes the ritual and may bring up new questions to the visitors. Will the audience second guess its usage? Or maybe the historical element will enter the arena of new fantasies, a new taboo? I wonder how the exhibition and the knowledge it produces will challenge power (the institution, the tools) and how might it be the same mechanism that misrepresents. 

Sex Talk and the City is a self-reflexive exhibition. It’s conscious of misrepresentation by defining itself in these fluid terms, using humour to suggest another world to be probed. It’s radical but careful. The multi-media nature of the exhibition “allows” multiple access points to sexual discourse. The history of the vibrator installation not only uses dresser drawers to augment mom and dad’s secret treasures (Joy of Sex, anyone?), but can also act as a sexual confession, a clinical codification behind the doctor’s door. The museum itself waits, coyly, for our Visit the Sex Talk tumblrattention.

Danielle LaFrance is a digitization assistant at the Museum of Vancouver, and is the author of Species Branding (2010).

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