Obsessed with Buffy, much?

It’s 20 years today since Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on our television screens. Russell Dornan celebrates the progressive, poignant, hilarious and scary series, drawing out unexpected parallels with Wellcome Collection.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It’s a great idea! Come on.”

Opening Credits

Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s opening credits.

Those are the first ever lines of dialogue from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the greatest television show ever made. It’s also an accurate summary of my own internal dialogue when starting an article exploring Buffy’s themes through Wellcome Collection. But after writing a similar piece about how Britney Spears relates to Wellcome Collection, which is slightly more of a stretch (!), Buffy seemed like a no brainer.

For anyone not blessed enough to know Buffy (we can’t all be perfect), here’s a wee summary: in every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer.

Buffy Summers is also a sixteen year old high school kid in California, at first seeming like the archetypal blonde girl we’re used to being a victim in slasher films. But this girl slashes back. Balancing school, first relationships, friends and the apocalypse, the series sees Buffy go through the final years of high school, off to college, dropping out and trying to hold down a job; finding and losing love several times.


High school was tough.

All the while she protects the (mostly unaware) public from the constant threat of demons, evil and the end of the world. And she’s not alone: her friends (and frenemies) support and hinder her in equal measure, their strength as a group often winning out over the monster of the week. Their victories are often thanks in part to the research they carry out together in the library. Wait, we have one of those!

“You kids really dig the library, don’t you?”

We’re lucky at Wellcome Collection to have a world-renowned library specialising in the study of medical history. We’re even luckier in the way the subject is explored in our collections, from life to death and everything in between, including charms, magic, contagions, demons, folklore, sexuality, monsters and the apocalypse. The Scooby Gang (Buffy’s group of friends and helpers) would be right at home carrying out their research with us.

GENERAL Scooby Gang Library

The Scooby Gang getting the low down on the Big Bad.

“You always know whats going on. I never know whats going on.”

“You weren’t here from midnight till six researching it.”

Unusually for a television show aimed at teenagers, characters in Buffy spend a lot of their time poring over books and manuscripts, trying to find the answers they need to fight the current threat. I won’t go into any more detail about this here because Mark A. McCutcheon wrote how Buffy “routinely dramatises research in action as a public good” and it’s worth a read on his blog.

Below are just some of the demons the gang on Buffy might research at Wellcome Collection.

My focus instead is a specific episode of the show. Buffy and series creator Joss Whedon (Avengers) were known for pushing what a television show could be, regularly re-thinking how a 45 minute episode could challenge its own set up (and writers, directors, actors), offering the audience treat after treat whilst transcending its genre conventions.


The conventions of a musical allowed the series to explore something different.


Characters revealed their true feelings through song and dance.

Standout episodes include The Body (exploring the initial shock, grief and brutal physicality of death after opening with Buffy’s mother’s sudden passing); Once More With Feeling (the very clever musical episode where a demon compels Buffy and Co to sing their hearts out, revealing their most guarded secrets to one another in ways that are funny, heartbreaking and true-to-character); and Restless (a low-key and surreal dream sequence season finale exploring the lead characters’ psychologies, looking at their past, present and foreshadowing their futures).

Despite there being myriad episodes I could focus on, there was always one that stood out for me. Not just for its own sake, but because its (Wellcome Collection friendly) themes ripple through the wider Buffy series in different ways. Which brings me to revealing that the episode is…


The tenth episode of the fourth series, Hush takes place when Buffy is in college and is widely recognised as a landmark episode of television (and is the only one in the series to be nominated for an Emmy Award for writing).

HUSH gentlemen wide shot floating YT

The Gentlemen make their way through a silent Sunnydale.

In Hush, a group of ghoulish fairytale villains called The Gentlemen arrive in Sunnydale. They steal everyone’s voices, leaving people unable to scream or call for help when The Gentlemen kill them. Buffy and friends have to solve the mystery of the deaths, as well as the town-wide silence, all the while communicating without speech.

After routinely receiving high praise for his dialogue, Joss Whedon wanted to challenge himself by writing an episode largely without any; in the 44 minute episode, only 17 minutes contain any dialogue. Come with me now as I explore Hush, drawing out links with Wellcome Collection and what it means to be human…or otherwise.

“If the apocalypse comes, beep me”

The episode begins with a prophetic dream sequence, vaguely foreshadowing what is to come. This trope is employed many times in Buffy, as it happens to be one of the special abilities of the slayer. In fact, the very first episode starts (after the opening credits) with Buffy dreaming about things she’ll encounter later in that series. You can read more about Buffy’s visions here. The series regularly features prophecies of great evil emerging and ending the world.

Prophecies crop up in our own collections as well (of course they do). For example, the manuscripts of visions and prophecies that include “the Sibyl’s prophecy”. The Sibyl was a pagan prophetess and various medieval works interpret the Sibyl’s dream in which she foresees the downfall and apocalyptic end of the world. It doesn’t mention a slayer, though… Find out more the Sybil’s Prophecy at the British Library.

Visions and prophecies including Sybil's prophecy.

Visions and prophecies including Sybil’s prophecy.

An interesting side note, The Gentlemen (the villains of the piece – more on them later) came to Whedon in his own dream.

“To read makes our speaking English good.”

The dream sequence begins with Buffy sitting in an auditorium at college. Buffy’s psychology Professor Maggie Walsh introduces the topic of the lecture, which turns out to echo the overall theme of the episode: language. Walsh says:

L0030499 Speech and Voice, G. Oscar Russell, 1931

Diagram illustrating voice.

“Talking about communication, talking about language. Not the same thing. It’s about the way a child can recognise and produce phonemes that don’t occur in its native language. It’s about inspiration: not the idea, but the moment before the idea; when it’s total, when it blossoms in your mind and connects to everything, before the coherent thought that gives it shape, that locks it in and cuts it off from the universal. When you can articulate it, it becomes smaller. It’s about thoughts and experiences that we don’t have a word for.”

Joss Whedon wrote the episode to show how people do or, rather, don’t communicate. The first third of the episode is full of dialogue; it’s almost frantic with characters miscommunicating or reflecting on their inability to speak to certain people (e.g. Buffy and her current love interest, Riley). Each line of spoken dialogue enforces the idea that once talking stops, communication can really begin.

Take this exchange between Xander and Anya:

Anya 2

Non-verbal communication can be much more effective sometimes.

I care about you.
How much? 
What do I mean to you?
Well, I… we, you know, we spend… we’ll talk about it later.
I think we should talk about it now!
If you don’t know how I feel…
I don’t! This isn’t a relationship. You don’t need me! All you care about is lots of orgasms!
OK… remember how we talked about private conversations? How they’re less private when they’re in front of my friends?

Xander can’t express himself to Anya and use words to tell her how he feels; meanwhile all Anya wants to do is talk, but she says something inappropriate because, as an ex-demon, she’s “newly human and strangely literal”. Meanwhile, father-figure Giles just wants everyone around him to shut up. Language gets in the way of communication because it limits people’s expression of the sometimes unspeakable ways they feel. Joss Whedon explains further:

“As soon as you say something, you’ve eliminated ever other possibility of what you might be talking about. All of these [character moments] fed into the main theme, in a way that nothing I write will ever again. It is so inevitably coherent because it’s about, not writing, but about talking.”

By removing everyone’s ability to speak, the characters must find new ways to communicate with each other. This is particularly interesting to watch in a show famed for its snappy dialogue. Buffy’s group of friends are lost without their quick witted repartee and idiosyncratic way of talking (Bonnie Kneen wrote about “Buffy Speak” in detail for the Oxford Dictionary’s blog).

V0015461 Franco-Prussian War: Civil unrest in Paris. Wood engraving a

Civil unrest.

The revelation that they’ve lost their voice hits each person differently: some think they’re suddenly deaf, others blame members of the group. But everyone is initially horrified and confused, and this is even more pronounced in the wider town. Buffy and Willow walk through Sunnydale, passing crowds of scared people unsure of what’s going on. As communication becomes more difficult, the sense of community starts to erode: they walk passed a closed bank but see people hurrying into a still open off-licence; religious fundamentalist groups gather in the streets. Read more about communication and community in Hush here.

The Gentlemen have stolen their voices, but they’ve also taken away much more: the silence isolates members of the community, rendering them even more ineffective in the face of this horror. The political overtones of miscommunication and the silencing of the people are clear (and as relevant today). As Noel Murray wrote for A.V. Club:


The Gentlemen: only a little bit creepier than the real villains in the world.

“…the way The Gentlemen do their business—by making sure no one can scream before they start—could be read as a metaphor for the way evil spreads. When dissent is stifled, or people fail to tell the truth, or when we’re just distracted by other concerns, things can get out of hand.”

During the episode a news bulletin announces the events in Sunnydale are caused by side-effects of a flu vaccine leading to a laryngitis epidemic. In response to this Rhonda Wilcox writes:

“[H]ow many times will we see those in power maintain such a silence while evil proceeds? It is not surprising that [The Gentlemen’s] attendants wear straitjackets; their garb suggests the insanity of such behaviour—the pretence of civilised politeness while killing is accepted is a matter of course.”

Topical, much?

Thankfully the show also uses people’s silence to comedic ends, with the scene below being particularly memorable.

Buffy’s prophetic dream ends by showing a little girl holding a small, wooden box and (eerily) singing this rhyme:

Can’t even shout.
Can’t even cry.
The Gentlemen are coming by.
Looking in windows, knocking on doors…
They need to take seven and they might take yours…
Can’t call to mom.
Can’t say a word.
You’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard.

So, who are The Gentlemen and what are they after?


L0003916 Carved ivory upper and lower denture

Late 18th century dentures. They’d fit right in on The Gentlemen.

In the show these demons are said to come from fairytales, roaming from town to town to steal the voices of their inhabitants in order to collect seven hearts, presumably to sustain themselves. There are the tall, floating Gentlemen dressed in smart, black suits; they have bald heads and an unnervingly cheery permanent grin, flaunting silver teeth.

Whedon based them on Victorian men, their eerie politeness and grace terrifying. Their silver teeth were also inspired by the Victorian era, the industrial and medical advances of the time manifesting in these ghouls as a sort of “cavity-defeating” breakthrough. They were inspired by a nightmare he had as a child; in fact, he specifically wanted them to be frightening to children (Whedon suggests the most scary thing to us as children is the fear of getting old).


Various positions for holding a scalpel when performing an incision. All the harder to look at after watching ‘Hush’.

Accompanying these Gentlemen are footmen of sorts: bumbling, shuffling figures wearing straitjackets who do the heavy lifting. They’re the ones who grab and restrain the victims, allowing The Gentlemen to claim their hearts. Some Buffy scholars suggest The Gentlemen and their minions represent class disparity: The Gentlemen in dapper Victorian suits move effortlessly to accomplish their skilled, technical task while the footmen do the hard labour.

Despite the town of Sunnydale beginning to crumble into silent chaos without their voices, The Gentlemen are masters of silent communication, employing graceful hand gestures and nuanced head nods. They understand each other clearly and their rhythm and physicality are both exquisite and dreadful to witness. This is especially true in the way they collect hearts.

I’m sure having your heart cut out of your body while you’re conscious and incapacitated will chime with the fear many of us have of not being fully under anaesthetic during an operation (or waking up during). But the addition of being wide awake and unable to scream, staring at their maniacal grins as they lower the glinting scalpel towards, you just adds to the terror. It certainly gives me the wiggins.

The clip below gives a sense of The Gentlemen’s uncanny grace, the way their hands move so precisely, almost dainty, as well as their heart retrieval method (word to the wise: although there’s no gore or graphic scenes, there is mild peril and extreme spookiness).

The clever amongst you will have noticed that I’ve chosen an episode of Buffy that doesn’t even feature vampires. Although a mainstay of the series (obviously), we have written about vampires before.

The  only thing that can harm The Gentlemen is a human voice, specifically a scream. Once the voices have been returned to people, Buffy lets out an almighty and sustained shriek, resulting in The Gentlemen’s heads exploding violently.The irony that the voice used in such a primal way, without language, saves the day. This resolution is more similar to traditional or folkloric fairytales than is often used in Buffy. The majority of demons across the series are bested through physical means, while magic is also commonly utilised.

“Bunch of wanna-blessed-bes”

Willow bad

Willow is consumed by dark magic.

Although Willow has been exploring and using magic since the end of season two, by the time Hush takes place she has an increased hunger for it. She seeks out a Wiccan group on campus, hoping to meet other witches and flex her growing power.

The use of magic is a stand in for a variety of themes throughout the series, such as love, power, relationships and addiction. There’s no moral judgement offered by the show regarding magic or witchcraft generally, but the results of its uses are often tied to the intention of the user. Willow is frustrated in Hush because the Wiccan group is more interested in bake sales than exploring true magic. But it’s an important meeting for her character nonetheless, because it is here she meets Tara.

When in trouble later in the episode, Tara seeks out Willow. Escaping The Gentlemen, they end up in a dead end room and try to push the vending machine against the door, but can’t shift it. Willow attempts to move it with magic, but only manages to make it wobble. Tara tentatively touches Willow’s hand with hers, slowly locks fingers and with a sharp turn of their heads, they launch the vending machine against the door. Watch the video below for the full, powerful scene.

Whedon talks about his vision for this moment:

“…we wanted this to be a moment that was very physical and very empowering and very beautiful between the two of them. It’s a very empowering statement about love. Two people together can accomplish more than when they’re alone. A great deal more…It really is one of the most romantic images we’ve put on film.”


Willow and Tara.

It marks an important milestone: this is the beginning of one of the most genuinely realised same sex relationships on television. And this relationship is inextricably linked to Willow’s magical abilities from the first moment.

In earlier seasons, when Willow is in (unrequited) love with Xander, she is powerless. Her later relationship with Oz brings her out of herself a lot and her powers start to manifest, but with many false starts. It’s only when she meets Tara that her full capabilities are hinted at, and it’s Tara (or rather, tragic things that happen to her) that inspire Willow’s full power to be realised, terrifyingly, in later seasons.

L0019609 A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts. Etching by J.

A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts.

This burgeoning of her powers can be seen in relation to her sexual awakening. Both magic and sexuality are empowering for Willow. The focus is always on their relationship, as opposed to them coming out; watching two people find each other,  fall in love and empower each other after years of never fully feeling “themselves”.

Despite other (straight) characters being much more physical with each other on the show, Willow and Tara’s magical connection was sometimes used as a proxy for their physical one, since there was only so much the network was be able to show of the latter. But still, as someone unsure of my own sexuality growing up, seeing strong, loving, well-rounded characters whose alternative sexuality is bound to magic (making them the most powerful individuals as a result!) was inspiring to fifteen year old me.

“The hardest thing in this world…is to live in it.”

The episode ends shortly after Buffy saves the day, restoring everyones voices. Finally able to speak to each other, she and Riley sit in her dorm room and agree that they need to talk. They sit in silence. A bit too much time passes to be comfortable and…the credits roll.

“Here endeth the lesson”


What would Buffy do?

So what have we learned from Buffy and the amazing Hush episode? Speak to each other, but don’t just talk: communicate. In the face of evil, don’t let silence or miscommunication (or alternative facts) get in the way of action. Always ask yourself “what would Buffy do?”

And finally, let’s not forget how librarians, and their charges, are often our last line of cultural defence.

Varieties of Love

Get to know Magnus Hirschfeld, the first gay rights advocate. Working across disciplines he gave us a fuller, more fleshed out picture of the complexities of biological and social humanity. Sarah Jaffray tells us more.


Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the more heroic sexologists to feature in our Transvengers webcomic.

Magnus Hirschfeld was a pioneer of gay rights. He was also a social advocate, a doctor, a sexologist, the ‘father of sociology’, an artistic muse and failed writer. (Well, he couldn’t be good at everything.) His mission for gay rights was bolstered by his meticulous, scientific documentation which, as he claimed, could bring justice through science. It was Hirschfeld’s passion for art, however, that made the humanity of his project so profound.

The emotional qualities of poetry, theatre, literature, music and eventually film deeply influenced his work. Although he was a scientist, he explained that: “the natural sciences have always left aside the most important aspect of life, which is love…and I decided to make this the mainspring of my medical research”. The arts were a vehicle that Hirschfeld used to expand his science into an argument about the freedom of love.

Becoming an advocate

Hirschfeld’s father was a doctor and social activist; his brothers both went into medicine. Hirschfeld, meanwhile, pursued a career in literature. After years of disappointment, Hirschfeld turned to the family business and set up a medical practice in the heart of an artistically thriving Berlin. At the time, Berlin was also the centre of sexual liberation and exploration. Some have even credited the city as being the place where gay rights activism was born.

Cartoon of Hirschfeld with banner protesting Paragraph 175. The banner reads

Cartoon of Hirschfeld with banner protesting Paragraph 175. The banner reads “Away with Paragraph 175!” The caption reads, “The foremost champion of the third sex!”. (Image credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives)

Although Hirschfeld was gay, his development into a gay rights activist was not about his own quest for freedom. Instead he used his relative position of power as an openly gay, middle class, social rights activist doctor to fight for those who lived precariously in the face of the dreaded Paragraph 175: the law that made male homosexuality illegal. The law was as much about imprisoning men for their sexual expression as it was about humiliating them, ruining their standing in society. It was the societal norms that the law sought to enforce. Although it seems easy to reject the fear of losing one’s social standing today, in late 19th century Germany, people’s identity, their livelihood and their entire existence was tied to their standing in society.

Hirschfeld was moved to become an advocate when one of his patients committed suicide the night before getting married. The young man confessed to Hirschfeld, his doctor, that he would end his life as a heterosexual rather than risk being exposed as gay. He was not alone: scores of men were pushed into taking their own life in the face of Paragraph 175. This was the turning point. This was when Hirschfeld found his voice as a doctor and began to pursue sexology.

Hirschfeld was moved to prove that being gay was not a deviation, but a normal, biological outcome that should not adversely impact one’s way of life. He proclaimed: “Although sex is only one part of a complex personality, being unable to express your true sexual self makes it difficult to live”. Through the documentation of the ‘manifold varieties of love’, Hirschfeld sought to legitimise sexual diversity.

The Naturalist

Writer Émile Zola coined the term naturalism to explain his creation of the ‘new scientific’ novel. Zola, like many of his contemporaries, sought to explain how context impacted people’s lives, toyed with their existences and ultimately controlled their choices. The 19th century, the century of Freud and Marx, was defined by the naturalist mind-set: people change only if their environment changes (hence the strong emergence of social activism in this era).

L0025695 Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld; Sexualpathologie

Sexualpathologie (page from Hirschfeld’s early studies on sexual variation).

As a man of his time Hirschfeld believed that humans could only change their circumstance if their environment was changed. Therefore, his project of meticulous scientific documentation would be used to alter the environment (sometimes problematically). Through science there was liberation.

Norwegian playwright Henrich Ibsen, famous for plays such as 'A Doll's House' and 'Hedda Gabler'.

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, famous for plays such as ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘Hedda Gabler’.

By documenting sexual variety Hirschfeld was attempting to say that sexual variation was already a major part of our society: there are millions of gay men, transvestites, transgender people, lesbians (and thousands of sexual manifestations); through documentation Hirschfeld was usualising the (perceived) outsiders’ existence, liberating them from the margins of society.

Through naturalist literature and theatre, artist-contemporaries of Hirschfeld sought to shock people into the lived experience of others. One of Hirschfeld’s closest friends was naturalist poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose famous play A Doll’s House was not just about women’s liberation (something Hirschfeld was also passionate about), but about liberation from stifling social mores.

The most famous dialog about liberation comes from its main character Nora, who struggles throughout the play to express what she seeks to be freed from. Nora leaves her husband, Torvald, in the final act of the play:

“I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are — or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.”

The drama of theatre reflects the power of human emotion. Hirschfeld’s studies prove the diversity of human experience, but Ibsen’s work succinctly articulates the human desire for liberation through the shared, lived experience of theatre. It gives face to the ‘truth’ of science. Surrounding himself with such writers complimented and justified Hirschfeld’s scientific work.

The Power of Poetry

Oscar Wilde’s infamous trial was worldwide news. (Image courtesy of the British Library)

Poetry provided another way to convey the intensity of feelings in a concise manner. An elevated art in the late 19th century, it is no surprise Hirschfeld also drew inspiration from poetry and the persecution of Oscar Wilde. The same year Hirschfeld was moved to action by the suicide of one of his patients, Wilde was famously imprisoned for “the love that dare not speak its name“.

Hirschfeld’s first overt act of gay activism came in the form of an anonymous 1896 leaflet entitled Sappho and Socrates: How can one explain the love of men and women for people of their own sex. The leaflet, in expressly scientific terms, explains the congenital development of homosexuality in order to argue that sexuality is a product of nature. (It should be noted that he problematically discusses it in terms of ‘deviation’ in this early work – this is a topic widely discussed). His use of Socrates and Sappho was strategic. Socrates, the god-like, gay philosopher, was respected in Hirschfeld’s time, but persecuted in his own, assigned to death for his quest for truth.

Sappho, another ancient figure, was mythologised in 19th century society as a romantic artist, a poet, a lesbian, palatable to Victorian taste. The scientific contents of Hirschfeld’s leaflet are lent humanity by their association with the Greek Classical age, an age known for its acceptance of homosexuality and elevation of philosophy and poetry. Both great thinkers were forced to commit suicide as a result of their unrelenting passions.

The leaflet is remarkably important because Hirschfeld is the first to seriously examine suicide triggered by societal, sexual oppression. It was the passion of two respected creative thinkers that brings humanity into Hirschfeld’s scientific argument.


The work of Hirschfeld gained influence through the founding of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1897 and the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919. He was well respected by his scientific peers in Germany. Freud said of his work: “I have always expressed the view that the life and work of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld against cruel and unjustifiable interference of the law in sexual human life deserves general recognition and support”.

Magnus Hirschfeld and friends (Hirschfeld is the moustached figure at the far left).

Magnus Hirschfeld and friends. Hirschfeld is the moustached figure at the far right. (Image from Advocate.com)

He spoke about sexology around the world and his books were best sellers (Berlin’s Third Sex was reprinted at least six times between 1904 and 1914). By the end of World War I and the start of the incredibly liberal Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld’s notions of sexual freedom were even accepted in circles of society that had once rejected them (although not erased from the books, Paragraph 175 was hardly enforced).

A new generation of artists and thinkers were aware of his contributions and to many he became their muse. Well-established (straight) artists like Ernst Ludvig Kirchner were not afraid to explore themes of homosexuality in their artworks. Young writers like Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden flocked to Hirschfeld’s Institute and took inspiration from his archives and interviews.

Hirschfeld became the touchstone of liberation for the age. He even inspired the first gay anthem:

Das Lila Lied (The Lavender Song): “We see a world of romance and of pleasure, All they can see is sheer banality, Lavender nights are our greatest treasure where we can be just who we want to be”. See the full English lyrics here.

With Hirschfeld’s focus on the arts integral to his understanding of love, the drive for passion made him the centrepiece of avant-garde Berlin.


Perhaps the most moving artistic achievement related to Hirschfeld’s body of work is his only foray into filmmaking: Anders als die Andern (Different from Others). Made in 1919 as a gay advocacy film, it features Hirschfeld as a sympathetic sexologist to a young man seeking a cure for his homosexuality.

See minute 3:11. Hirschfeld’s dialog is a bit dated, but tells of his mission as an advocate: “Love for one’s own sex can be just as pure and noble as that for the opposite sex. This orientation is found among many respectable people in all levels of society”.

In the film we see the very first portrayal of a gay couple in ‘real’ love; not cliché, not titillation, but real people. There is one caveat: although the couple appear no different than their heterosexual counterparts, the shadow of fear hangs over their relationship. There was a growing tolerance for sexual variety, but people still felt the spectre of shame for being ‘different’. The film addresses that suicide in the gay population was still a very real consequence of environment. Rather than writing, film, the most fashionable art form in 1919 Berlin, was able to humanise the continued struggle for equality.

The film was mostly destroyed in the first Nazis book burning campaign in 1933, which also sacked Hirschfeld’s Institute. It has recently been restored by the Outfest Legacy Project. Watch this moving video about the film’s restoration here.

Art Completes Science

Hirschfeld was not a perfect figure (he was a eugenicist), but his work remains important. As the first gay rights advocate and vocal human rights advocate, he deserves to be well-known. The environment for some people has changed since Hirschfeld’s time, but for others the fear persists.

Although the science-fact backs up what we know of manifold varieties of love, without artistic expression and creative thought, it is hard for people to humanise the science. Through combining art and science, Hirschfeld’s argument became more compelling, ten times more inspiring. Working across disciplines he gave us a fuller, more fleshed out picture of the complexities of biological and social humanity.

Sarah Jaffray is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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


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

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

What is sex, anyway?

Earlier this year, Dr Jamie Lawson held an event in our Institute of Sexology gallery exploring ideas of sex and gender and how they are constructed. Here, Jamie asks a very simple question: what is sex? The answer, however, is less simple than you might think.

Sex, as an activity, turns out to be a slippery thing, by which I mean it’s troublingly hard to define. To some extent we all know what we’re talking about when we talking about “having sex”, but there’s room for disagreement. The edges of “sex” seem…porous.

Which can be a problem. There are a number of reasons why we might want to define sex; most pressing of which is that we need to have more conversations about it. We need to do that because quite a lot of people seem to be having bad sex. Bad sex in this context is sex that is not consensual, sex that is not pleasurable or sex that is not safe. Sex that is, in summary, the opposite of awesome. If people want to have sex at all, they should be able to have awesome sex.

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The Institute of Sexology exhibition is on until September 2015, a candid exploration of the most publicly discussed of private acts. In this post, Taryn Cain leads us through a potted history of nymphomania: its rise and fall and the reasons for both.

Kinsey once said that a nymphomaniac is “someone who has more sex than you do”, and Kinsey was a man who knew what he was talking about. Having collected data on human sexuality for over a decade, he released a book called the Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female in 1953. Among other things, Kinsey claimed that female masturbation was normal, that vaginal orgasms were not the norm and that women were as capable as sexual desire as a man; all claims which went against accepted medical lore at the time. Continue reading