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Imperial attitudes to sexuality

Watch Kate Fisher discuss the Intimate Worlds exhibition (Wellcome Collection - RAMM, Exeter, 2014), and learn about imperial attitudes to sexuality.
Hi, I’m Kate, and I’m here at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum at the Intimate Worlds Exhibition, which showcases the erotic objects from around the world collected by Sir Henry Wellcome. The exhibition is an example of the fascination with sexual customs spawned by the imperial encounter.
This is a penis pin from Borneo. It is made of brass with carved ends made out of bone. It would have been inserted into a young boy’s penis at puberty and worn for life. It’s an example of the fascination Western colonialists had with the sex lives of those they encountered across the globe in Asia, in Africa, and in the Americas. Almost all travellers and observers wrote about the sexual lives of their imperial subjects. Foreign lands became associated with sexual lives deemed completely different from those of Europe. You will be familiar with some sexual stereotypes, and also, perhaps, with the work of Edward Said.
In his work Orientalism, he argued that one of the ways in which imperial power and ideology was supported and justified was by the elaborate construction of a set of racist distinctions between Europe and the non-European world. Sexual themes were important in the orientalist constructions of the differences between the civilised West and the rest. These constructions worked to define all lands outside Europe as the erotic opposite of Europe. And European representations of colonial lands were full of exotic descriptions of strange sexual customs, barbaric sexual relations, or immoral and promiscuous behaviour.
You will be familiar with many of these - the African tribes built around polygamy, the dancing prostitutes in Indian temples, or the representations of Eastern harems in which often light-skinned, naked sex slaves lounge at the ready service of their idle male masters. There are many of these exoticised representations. They have become instantly recognisable erotic cliches. Through the proliferation and repetition of such stereotypes, it is argued that the West constructed a sexualised vision of the rest of the world as uncontrolled, weak, feminised, primitive, and promiscuous. In this way, the very process of colonisation became a sexualised one. Europe was to tame, control, and penetrate this other world. Sexual stereotypes reinforced the colonial project. They justified imperial expansion and control.
But the links between Orientalist explanations of the sexual customs found around the world and colonial domination was subtle. Too often, it is portrayed as a blunt tool produced in the crude service of the expansion and consolidation of imperial power. It is important to recognise that Orientalist accounts of sexual cultures were often scholarly and serious. Painters, travel writers, newspaper reporters, anthropologists, and so on were genuinely interested in understanding different cultures. And there was considerable variety in their reactions to sexual practices outside of Europe. Sometimes, observers were shocked - wife burning, polygamy, temple prostitution, were used as examples to show the importance of the civilising mission and the need for new laws prohibiting traditional practise and reinforcing colonial rule.
For instance, this plaque from the Congo was collected by Henry Wellcome as an example of the horrors of genital mutilation. Although in this instance, this object represents child birth and was used in initiation ceremonies for young men as a teaching aid. Others were curious. Early anthropologists, for example, were intrigued by penis pins and struggled to make sense of claims that women insisted upon their use. Often, particular sexual practises were marked as indicators of levels of civilisation. Prevalence of homosexuality, for example indicated a culture in a primitive state of development, whereas monogamous marriage was seen as indicative of a higher level of civilisation. Sex became a key marker in anthropologists’ constructions of racial hierarchies.
Others were attracted to a non-European world of forbidden exotic pleasures. Representations of the erotic imbued the world outside Europe with a forbidden sensuality that could be extremely attractive. And some Orientalist writings used accounts of the sexual practices overseas deliberately to attack the colonial project or to challenge moral values back home. Richard Burton’s translation of The Kama Sutra, for example, invented a liberated Indian past of exuberant sexuality which he aimed to contrast positively with what he saw as the restricted forms of Victorian sexual morality back home. Yet all of these different reactions worked together to create a set of sexualised images of the colonial world as profoundly different from the European one.
The sexual excesses of the non-European world were fetishised and became a key component in the commodification of imperial cultures. Sex was part of what the imperial project was about in many different ways. Imperialism meant reforming social customs, rescuing oppressed women and children, celebrating exotic beauties, or tasting forbidden fruit. And sex was a key product of the Empire that was exported back home. You might find belly dancers in a nightclub in Paris, a veiled woman advertising colonial goods, or daring tales of imperial heroes rescuing oppressed native women. In this case, you have an excellent example of the production of exotic sex for a European market. It’s a 19th century travelling mirror.
But when you unlock the pins in the right combination, it unfolds to reveal a series of beautifully painted erotic scenes between a man and a woman. We think it was made especially for a colonial gentleman. It’s an erotic souvenir, a titillating example of the sensual promise of faraway lands, and of the fetishisation of the erotic differences drawn by colonialists between East and West. Imperial encounters have created powerful ways of thinking about human sexuality and a global difference that positioned the West in opposition to the rest of the world. It’s a conceptual framework that remains with us today.

Note: This video shows and discusses sculptures and drawings of sexual activity which some may feel is not appropriate for learners under 16.

In this video, Kate Fisher takes us on a tour of the Intimate Worlds exhibition that took place at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter during the summer of 2014. The exhibition explored imperial attitudes to sexuality through the Wellcome Collection.

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Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism

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