Sexology Season 2015

The Institute of Sexology closed last month, and after 117 events, 82 workshops and 8,600 live audience members and participants, the Sexology Season is also drawing to an end. The Season has been running for a year now all over the UK and Elizabeth Lynch, its producer, shares her highlights with us.

“Sexuality can for many be such a private issue, but at the same time it’s everywhere in our society, so people are usually both a bit shy and at the same time very interested in discussing it.”
Dr Lena Wånggren, sexuality researcher

What do you know about sex and how do you know it? How does research into sexual health affect our behaviour and our attitudes to sex? As Sexology Season Producer, these questions underpinned my thinking when developing the programme. We asked artists, writers, filmmakers, academics, health professionals, sex workers, over-65s, teenagers and people with cancer to explore and question with us. Continue reading

Talking about sex

Earlier this year, we held some in-gallery discussions in the Institute of Sexology exploring the definitions and terms used in Britain’s Natsal survey for different aspects of sexual behaviour, and how these map onto visitors’ own ideas about sex. Soazig and her team look at how you describe something as fluid as sex.

In the late 1980s, amid growing fear and uncertainty about the spread of HIV and AIDS in Britain, the idea for a large-scale representative national sex survey was born. The aim was to use the best available sampling methods to collect robust, reliable, data for a National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles; the first time something like this had been attempted anywhere in the world.

But once you’ve got your representative sample, how do you actually go about asking those difficult questions? What kind of language do you use to make sure that people of all ages, and from all backgrounds, can understand – and will answer – the questions? Are some questions too offensive or personal to ask? Continue reading


The definition and diagnosis of hysteria has quite a history. Sarah Jaffray takes a look back over the years to explore the beginnings of hysteria in Greece, through to animal magnetism, vibrators and shell shock in WWI. 

When it comes to explaining hysteria, you might have heard some variation of the following.

  1. In ancient Greece it was thought that women’s wombs wandered through their bodies, causing madness: (hystera = womb; hysterikos = of the womb).
  2. Hysteria stems from sexual frustration in women.
  3. (And the one you are most likely to have heard) In the 19th century women thought to have hysteria were “treated” with vibrators by their doctors.

Continue reading


Do you know how the “secret” gay language came to be? Perhaps you didn’t even know there was such a thing. Nick Dent gives us a potted history of Polari, a language born out of discrimination.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. Nelson Mandela

To call Polari a language may be a bit of a stretch. It is more accurately described as a “cant”: a lexicon deliberately designed to deceive. One in particular is very famous; you’ve probably heard more than a few of its dickey birds in your bottle of beers. Cockney rhyming slang was thought to be used by either traders to communicate without punters knowing what was being said or, perhaps even more tantalisingly, as a thieves’ cant, where being understood could result in arrest.

Polari has likewise been used to avoid arrest by a community of people. It starts as all good stories do, amazingly, at a Punch and Judy show.

A crowd of people have gathered around a stand in the street to watch a Punch and Judy show.

A crowd of people have gathered around a stand in the street to watch a Punch and Judy show.

Continue reading

#OdeToSex: And the winner is…

To celebrate our sexology literature tour, we asked you to sweep us off our feet with your poetry skills for our #OdeToSex competition. Here we announce the winners and tell you what we loved about their poems.

We weren’t sure what to expect when we asked you to write poems about sex for us. The focus of the competition was very much on the act of sex itself; not love, not passion, not romance. Sex. In addition, we wanted those poems to fit entirely within a single tweet (leaving only 130 characters after the hashtag is included).

To our surprise and joy we received 111 #OdeToSex poems in total over the last couple of weeks, varying in tone and approach. Some were funny while some were sad; some were delicate and others were graphic; some, just a few words long, others filled the word count.

Russell from Apples and Snakes, one of our judges, felt that “the overwhelming sense we got from these poems is that sex is fun: from the throwaway quips and puns to the pieces that simply revelled in the experience. The other thing that came across is that a universally shared experience can possess so many facets. Judging this competition was itself like the sex act: a rollercoaster of emotions culminating in a sense of plateau.

Continue reading

#OdeToSex: Poetry competition

Can you sum up the joy of sex in one tweet? What about the darker side? To celebrate our sexology literature tour, we want you to sweep us off our feet with your poetry skills.

We’re looking for your best efforts to craft a poem about sex using the medium of Twitter, as part of Sex in the Afternoon. The limits imposed by writing a poem on Twitter can result in surprising creativity, as these examples show.

Inspired? Then enter our competition! The only rules are that it has to be about sex (so not love per se) and it must fit into one tweet. Share your poem exploring and exposing sex in all its joy, pain and glory with us on Twitter by using the hashtag #OdeToSex (that still leaves you with 130 characters!). How can we express our desires? What stops us?

The winner will receive a pair of tickets to Sex in the Afternoon, the London event at the Southbank Centre on 26 July 2015. You have until 14 July 2015 to tweet your poem. The winning entry will be selected by our panel of judges:

  • Russell Thompson Research Coordinator, Apples and Snakes
  • Elizabeth Lynch Sexology Season Producer, Wellcome Trust
  • Malika Booker Writer of poetry, plays and monologues, Malika is one of the writers involved in Sex in the Afternoon (find out more)

Read the poems entered so far

Terms and conditions apply, so make sure you read them before entering.

Sex in the Afternoon is a live literature tour and four short digital films commissioned as part of Wellcome Collection’s national Sexology Season.

Researching Pornography

Pornography is both consumed and condemned by the public, but there is very little research that engages with ‘ordinary’ people who use it. Researchers Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith held in-gallery discussions earlier this year, asking how, when and why people turn to pornography. In this post, they tell us more about their work and respond to some of the questions raised during the discussions in our Sexology gallery.


Clarissa Smith is Professor of Sexual Cultures at University of Sunderland and Feona Attwood is Professor of Media and Communications at Middlesex University. We have been researching in the areas of pornography, sexuality and media technologies for more than twenty years. We are also the editors of the Routledge journal “Porn Studies” and Feona is a co-editor of the Sage journal “Sexualities”.

With Professor Martin Barker (University of Aberystwyth) we launched an online questionnaire to examine where, how and why people engage with pornographic representations. We received almost 5,500 responses (2/3 male; 1/3 female) from across the globe.


How, when and why did you turn to this field of research?

Clarissa’s academic career has centred on the ways in which pornography matters to those who consume it and to those who would condemn it. She started out on this research during her MA studies and continued them as a PhD project looking at how women responded to the publication of a softcore magazine called For Women.

She is interested in the textual formations of pornography and how those play out across different technologies; in how people access and engage with pornographic materials and with other forms of sexualized products; she’s also intrigued by the constant demands for increasing regulation and censorship which rarely seem to engage with the idea that pornographies are realms of representation which dramatise all kinds of sexual feelings and fantasies and therefore actually matter to people in important ways. Continue reading