The Sex Lives of Australians: a history by Frank Bongiorno – Book Review

If you find yourself questioning the worth of an historical work on the subject of one nation’s sexuality, Michael Kirby’s considered foreword to Frank Bongiorno’s The Sex Lives of Australians: a history might give you the answer.  Kirby points out that by knowing more about our past ‘Australians may become wiser and more accepting of sexual differences at present and in the future.’ (xi) 

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Bongiorno’s scholarly yet entertaining historical work through the publishers ‘Black Inc’ and found plenty to amuse and inform between its substantial 352 pages (including endnotes). 

Bongiorno casts a spotlight on some wonderful characters: we meet loveable cross-dressers, S&M aficionados and distasteful quacks with some pretty stitched-up ideas toward sexuality.   I was particularly entranced by the honesty and forwardness of the composer and musician Percy Grainger who talked openly it would seem about his enthusiastic sadomasochistic indulgences. 

When touring, Grainger invariably took a selection of whips along with him, and he usually had to wash his own shirts rather than having them laundered commercially because they were covered in blood. (119)

There is a considerable amount of discussion on homosexuality (or more particularly, on our nation’s reactions to it) which is understandable, given that it has caused so much angst to so many people through generations.  And it is quite amazing that the ‘deviousness’ that was so feared in the early days of white settlement, is still (despite inch-by-inch changes in the country’s laws) the subject of heated debate, misconception and intolerance.   Regardless of the distance we have come, there are many within our society for whom homosexuality is still as ‘unmentionable’ as it was in the late seventeen hundreds.

 In his 1985 book Gender Trouble Down Under: Australian Masculinities (Presses Universitaires de Valienciennes), David Coad notes that Australia’s function as a penal colony for over fifty years led to an imbalance of the sexes (88% of the convicts were male) which in turn created ideal conditions for sexual and gender confusion.  There’s no doubt that confusion abounded and Bongiorno gives a good overview of these variances in this convict society.

Sex and marriage, during war and peace, contraception, rape: there is some serious reading here I would recommend to those young women who choose to thumb their noses at their feminist mothers and grandmothers.  They might count themselves lucky to live in an age that recognizes the legitimacy of female sexual desire and a society which – for the most part – protects their rights as equal citizens.

 Bongiorno’s book seems to be an important work that shows us how far we have come, while casting a spotlight on the distance we still have to travel.  I suspect it will be quoted often and it may indeed help us to become further enlightened by looking back.

Bongiorno, Frank. The Sex Lives of Australians: a history. Black Inc, Collingwood, Vic., 2012.
ISBN: 9 781863 955676


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2 responses to “The Sex Lives of Australians: a history by Frank Bongiorno – Book Review

  1. Diaspora52

    Insightful and respectful review

  2. Thank you. It contains so much interesting information that it is hard to do it justice in a short review.

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