[15 December 2008]
This is a strange and often funny (in a campy sort of way) collection of classic pulp sex essays taken from that vanguard of the sexual revolution, Sexology. Who knew that before Playboy, before the Kinsey Report, before Penthouse and Hustler and Cosmopolitan and Playgirl there was a magazine called Sexology?
Sexology was the brain-child of Hugo Gernsback, who also started the first pulp science-fiction magazine Science and Invention back in 1911, and that later morphed into Amazing Stories. It was in this magazine that the term ‘science-fiction’ was allegedly first used and its success spawned dozens of imitators as well as becoming a home for new writers attracted to the genre well into the late 1950s. The Hugo Award given out annually to the best science-fiction or fantasy novel of the year is named after his contribution to the development of the new genre.
Now Hugo Gernsback was obviously a progressive type or at least he knew how to make a buck at publishing what he guessed the public wanted. So in the summer of 1933 Gernsback published the first issue of Sexology, a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-scientific magazine devoted to sex and all its mysteries, vagaries, varieties—not to mention all its anxieties. Sexology was a great success, and according to the publisher’s blurb that accompanies the review copy we are told that that Sexology set a tolerant tone and lead the charge against the mean, ignorant, anti-sex views of our ancestors, and help liberate our culture from their puritan behaviors.
There is a photograph of Bettie Page, that old dean of sexual fetish photography, at the beginning of this collection essays reading a copy of Sexology to suggest that very point. It is indeed a sexy thought to think you are reading some of the same essays she may have enjoyed.
The present collection of essays are predominately from the ‘40s and ‘50s, however, the earliest essay Yoe has culled from the archives is dated April 1939 and is called ‘Wayward and Wandering Girls’, a richly suggestive title, by Winfield Scott Pugh, M.D. and the most current essay to be reprinted is called ‘A New Kind of Adultery’ by Eugene Scheimann. M.D. and dated amazingly enough February 1971. What’s interesting to note is that from this earliest essay to the latest and the many years and different topics in between, the tone of the writing almost never changes. Notice, also, that medical doctors wrote both articles mentioned.
The writing in Sexology almost always takes a magisterial and pseudo-scientific tone and seeks to both inform and show that ignorance about sex is not bliss or an option and that indeed that the best sex is dependent on knowledge. It is only through knowledge for example, that the special hells reserved for all manner of fetishists, can best be understood and normalized; an article called ‘Why I am a Fetishist’ is a case in point.
Fetishes here are discussed with reverence and an air of maturity, nothing naughty or coy here. In fact, most of the articles end with a list of works cited just to let you know that the articles are not meant to titillate but to actually inform you about the real world of sex and all its rubrics and are written by experts in the field. This is precisely why the articles are often howlers. The unnecessary earnest high-minded tone (although no doubt dictated by the moral code of the times) makes for dull pretentious writing rather than plain juicy straight talk about sex. It’s also very funny.
An essay, for example, on homosexual chickens (free-range or not was not an issue at the time) suggests that Sexology was also not above reporting on the absurd and passing it off as science just to be salacious. More than once you also get the feeling that there was a gap between the lively reportage of Sexology on say, the complexities and mechanics of sexual odor and its effects, or say on sex difficulties, both causes and cures, and sexual frankness as we know it today. In other words, all this Olympian tolerant talk about sex under the guise of scientific study, discovery, and public service all seems at times to be a cover for talking about any manner of sex in a democratic mass society.
Sexology’s approach created a space for itself or comfort zone to write about sexuality in an inhibited manner. An article for the masses written by a foreign sociologist on French prostitutes, although written earnestly at the time, appears from our vantage point as the adolescent equivalent of the once quaint tradition of gawking slyly at photos of top-less tribes women in National Geographic. In short, the article was a clever ploy to allow for sex talk in polite society. Whether Sexology was always well informed or not or whether the articles were sleazy or not or truly scientific is another matter and sometimes impossible to tell. But, it was an opening of sorts in popular culture and the articles and the illustrations that accompanied them are often whacky and again seen from today’s vantage point, campy and funny.
Sexology thus published outlandish essays on weird sexual oddities and outrageous quirks and freaks of sexual nature just to keep the juices flowing so to speak. Reprinted here is an article, for example, on humans with tails, a throw back apparently to our evolutionary past; or there is an article on ‘sexological inventions’ featuring, with diagrams, a device to prevent ‘self-gratification’ as well as the cold water treatment device to restore breast firmness.
My personal favorite odd feature article is on Priapism, a medical condition that results in an uncontrolled and persistent erection without sexual stimulus or desire. If left untreated it can cause permanent penile damage and apparently is very painful. I looked up this condition on the net. It does exist as a bona fide medical condition! The best illustration has to be the two obelisks—obvious phallic symbols-showing the difference between self-gratification and the ‘normal martial act’.
The features and articles in this book are often funny from our retro perspective and the illustrations are about as exciting as watching fish breath but they do serve as useful social documents about our past sexual mores, preoccupations, and misconceptions and how many of them continue to haunt us in our sex—soaked and explicit contemporary 21st Century society.
The collection of essays, however, is meant to be a kind of gag book and it does not aspire to highbrow intellectualism. The worn cover design, suggesting constant use, the reprinting of the articles with the original font, and even the inclusion of some of the early ads selling sexy products points to a desire to market this book as a fun look at past sexual attitudes compared to our ever so hip and sophisticated sexy present. The quirky thing is that this book reminds us that the more things change—especially in such a universal concern such as sexual desire—the more things stay the same.