Frank Bongiorno: The Sex Lives of Australians

Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman is a Professorial Fellow in Human Security at La Trobe University, and the author of fourteen books. His most recent

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Pleasure and repression in Australian sexual politics

Dennis Altman

 

The Sex Lives of Australians: A History
by Frank Bongiorno
Black Inc., $32.95 pb, 367 pp, 9781863955676

 

In 1984 Carole Vance edited an important book on female sexuality entitled Pleasure and Danger.Those terms could well have provided a subtitle for Frank Bongiorno’s thorough and engaging history of sex in Australia. ‘Sexuality,’ wrote Vance, ‘is simultaneously a domain of restriction, repression and danger, as well as a domain of exploration, pleasure and agency.’ To which she might have added a domain of increasing surveillance, another theme that runs through Bongiorno’s book. From fears of unwanted pregnancy and the dangers of botched abortion, to herpes and HIV, sex has always carried threats to health and safety. At the same time, it is an arena of pleasure, even though much religious and ideological pressure has been applied to restrict and constrain the possibilities that people might find in full expression of their sexual potential. Even in the comparatively liberated 1920s: ‘Public debate about sex in Australia stressed dangers and pitfalls and gave less attention to sex as a source of pleasure.’

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Published in September 2012 no. 344

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