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Birds, bees and gum trees

21 July 2012 736 views No Comment

ALTHOUGH the writing style could have been more engaging, this first general history of sex in Australia, from Botany Bay to the present, is a fascinating tale indeed.

Frank Bongiorno affords Australian sexuality a much-needed centrality in terms of explaining and understanding the evolution of our society and of our culture. Thus he elaborates at length how, in the Victorian era, it was a deeply held fear of sodomy that helped bring an end to the transportation of convicts to Australia.

It is true that by the 1830s sodomy was, he writes, ”coming to stand for the unnaturalness of convict transportation as a system of punishment, which, in turn, called into question the moral legitimacy of empire”. What Bongiorno terms ”sodomy panic” was, he argues, also part of a depiction of our colonies as places of unbridled sexual activity, which posed a threat to that model of respectable family life so prevalent in the supposedly cultured English society.

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An illuminating section of the book focuses on the homosexual bushranger Andrew George Scott, known as ”Captain Moonlite”. Significantly, Michael Kirby’s lengthy foreword to The Sex Lives of Australians talks about Captain Moonlite striding ”boldly across the stage with his male lover”. Indubitably, his 1880 death-cell letters evoke a close attachment between him and his younger companion, James Nesbitt, who died in Moonlite’s arms during a shoot-out with police. Moonlite, who thereafter wore a ring made out of Nesbitt’s hair, begged to be buried with his companion.

Bongiorno directs our attention to what he calls ”close emotional bonds between members of the Kelly Gang”. In particular, he mentions the bushranger Aaron Sherritt and the man who eventually shot him for his treachery, Joe Byrne. Quoting the Australian scholar John Molony, this well-researched sexual history maintains that ”Aaron loved Joe with a love unbounded”.

Of the book’s nine chapters, unsurprisingly it is the last two, ”Sexual Revolution” and ”Toleration, Liberation, Backlash”, that are likely to provoke the most interest, and fiercest reactions.

As Bongiorno argues of the 1960s, ”no period in the history of sexuality is more encrusted with legend”.

This is because the era, which for Australians often includes a slice of the 1970s, is usually associated with the sexual revolution and the winning of sexual freedoms.

Yet the 1960s is far from being universally applauded.

”The permissive ’60s and everything that flowed from it”, declared National Party leader John Anderson in 2002, ”saw a massive erosion of traditional family values in Australia.”

Yet, while more permissive sexuality provoked some backlash and while some homosexuals still suffer oppression, in many areas of our lives there would be no turning back. This especially applied to the contraceptive pill, released in Australia in 1961, which has had a profound impact on the lives of millions of Australian women and men. The same applies to the effect on changing people’s perceptions of public festivals such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which, while these days much less avant-garde, continues to have a positive political and cultural influence.

In what purports to be a more-or-less definitive history of the sex lives of Australians, it is strange there is no mention of the Eros Association and The Australian Sex Party, nor of their energetic lobbyists Fiona Patten and Robbie Swan.

Frank Bongiorno
Black Inc, 352pp, $32.95

Sydney Morning Herald, July 21-21, 2012, SPECTRUM p 29.

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