How sex shaped a nation
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How sex shaped a nation

The Sex Lives of Australians, A History documents the role sexuality has played in building Australia's identity.

My grandparents met in Canberra in the 1940s when my grandmother was a bar maid at the Kingston Hotel and my grandfather was working as an engineer for the government.

My grandfather had spent years mustering before settling down to a ‘‘normal’’ suburban life as father to a traditional nuclear family, but before I was born he was wandering once again, having ended his vitriolic loveless marriage to my grandmother when my mother graduated from high school, his work done.

Sex ... and how it has shaped who we are as a nation.

Sex ... and how it has shaped who we are as a nation.Credit:Thinkstock image

On his deathbed, he confessed to my aunt that, if he had his life again, he would have been a ‘‘man’s man’’, which is to say, gay.

I thought about that man and his unfulfilled life throughout the week I read Canberra author Frank Bongiorno’s book The Sex Lives of Australians. A cracking read, it chronicles the role sexuality has played in building the Australian nation and identity.

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Author and ANU academic Frank Bongiorno.

Author and ANU academic Frank Bongiorno.Credit:Graham Tidy

I was absorbed from the foreword by retired High Court judge Michael Kirby onwards, and in the weeks since reading it I’ve been boring friends and family senseless talking about it.

‘‘By knowing more about our past,’’ Kirby writes, ‘‘Australian may become more wiser and accepting of sexual differences at present and in the future.’’

From the days of the early Australian colony, where women were few, through the changing mores of Victorian society, to the evolving gender roles of the two World Wars and the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Bongiorno’s backward glance helps us explain our place in the world.

‘‘Gang rape, the continuing panic about paedophilia, same-sex marriage, are all discussed in the daily press with little understanding or reference to broader sweep history to which they belong,’’ Bongiorno tells me of his exploration of the subject.

The Sex Lives of Australians, A History, by Frank Bongiorno.

The Sex Lives of Australians, A History, by Frank Bongiorno.Credit:Graham Tidy

He begins his book with the 1795 gang rape of 16-year-old Irish convict Mary Hartley, and draws parallels with the much-reported Muslim rapes in Sydney from the early part of our last decade, geographically only a few miles apart but separated by two centuries.

‘‘Reading the reporting from the early 2000s, you might think gang rape was unknown before that time, when there was a time that, rather than being un-Australian, it was unfortunately all too Australian,’’ Bongiorno says.

My father got furious when I tried to explain that chapter to him, horrified that anyone could use the term ‘‘Australian’’ in anything less than glowing jingoistic terms. Lord knows what he would make of Bongiorno’s uncovering of the intimate origins of Aussie ‘‘mateship’’.

‘‘From a number of oral histories recorded, we know about a number of men who combined marriage with a homosexual life,’’ Bongiorno tells me, ‘‘and forms of mateship that had an intimate nature were often quite important, particularly until Australia evened up the gender balance.

‘‘Australia was a world of little male republics, particularly in rural work, that weren’t womanless worlds, but women were certainly in short supply.’’

His research into subjects like censorship and prostitution and the government’s attempts to control the national gene pool are often jaw-dropping. I learned about the White Australia Policy at school, but how about the period where the government actively imported Asian prostitutes because they didn’t want white men and the Chinese and coloured men drinking from the, ahem, same pool?

Bongiorno began the book, an eight-year labour of love, while working as an academic at University of New England in Armidale and continued while he worked at University of London’s Kings College. Now working at the Australian National University, he says his research took him all over Australia. I wonder that the first half-century of the Australian colony had much in the way of original source material, but Bongiorno says the opposite is the case.

‘‘It was a bureaucratic society concerned with punishment and dealing with prisoners, which tends to generate a lot of records,’’ he says.

‘‘When you get to the 1820s, the government became increasingly efficient, and the records of what people were punished for are quite detailed,’’ he says – those punishments often being for hanky panky, telling about the kinds of behaviour that were tolerated as well as those that were not.

The same records Bongiorno sources were the ones used by reformers in Britain to bring the deportation of convict labour to an end – the sexual depravity of the colonies was one of their strongest arguments.

Bongiorno says he was most fascinated with the Victorian era, where his research began.

‘‘Many historians have seen that era as a repository of values of prudery, sexual hypocrisy and sexual ignorance, but I’ve found there is greater complexity than historians imagine,’’ he says.

When we spoke for this article, Bongiorno had just returned from his mother’s funeral in Melbourne, and we spoke philosophically about how our own parents discussed sex in the home.

‘‘I had a Catholic upbringing in the 1970s, and while my mother wasn’t prudish, the body and sexuality didn’t feature prominently in discussion, which I think wasn’t necessarily a particularly Catholic thing,’’ he says.

When I ask him to weigh in on gay marriage and rainbow families, touched on at the end of his book, Bongiorno tells me ‘‘historians are notoriously bad at predicting the future in some ways’’.

‘‘The discussion bears on some very deeply held notions of what constitutes a family and set of ideal circumstances, when we know that the traditional idea of a nuclear family can on occasion be very damaging to children.

‘‘I lost my father when I was 13 and so a great deal of my childhood was with a widowed mother, so I find this continuing insistence on an ideal circumstance to raise a child puzzling, when we know children are successfully raised in an extraordinary variety of circumstances.’’

Bongiorno says his research showed him there is more work in the socio-sexual history of Australia to be done.

‘‘I wasn’t able to find a decent social history of the pill in Australia, for example, which of course changed lives – women’s ability to control their fertility – and opened up all sorts of opportunities and promoted new forms of relationships,’’ he says.

‘‘The de facto relationship even as late as the 1970s was something people weren’t too sure about, but now we have a Prime Minister doing it.’’

Whether we want to be defined by it or not, our own sexuality is an intrinsic part of our selves, which makes Bongiorno’s book relevant to every reader.

Being a child of the 1970s, of Generation X, and a card-carrying Friend of Dorothy, I’ve straddled the divide between acceptance and non-acceptance. Sometimes that line is a physical one, changing from suburb to suburb and from state to state. I feel blessed that I can reconcile my own sexuality and share in the lives of a loving and accepting family. I feel for that grandfather of mine who felt at the end of his life that he hadn’t been able to be open with himself, though reading Bongiorno’s book gives me a sense of the times he grew up in and an appreciation for my own.

The Sex Lives of Australians, Frank Bongiorno, Black Inc., $32.95

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