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Let us now discuss the dildo

Otago University academic Chris Brickell wonders whether his new book on LGBT objects – dildos, lube, a device to monitor sexual responses in the penis – ought to be the sort of thing bookshops would want to have on their shelves.

After Alister Taylor died on September 9, those who knew him spoke of his anarchic, boundary-pushing publishing. His most well-known books were Tim Shadbolt’s Bullshit and Jellybeans and The Little Red Schoolbook. The first was a kind of memoir written in prison; the second sought to teach teenagers about communes, drugs, pornography, and the "outdated laws" that locked up some gay men in prison.

But another, much lesser-known book published by Taylor was a lot more outrageous. Felicity Tuohy and Michael Murphy’s Down Under the Plum Trees, from 1976, had an innocuous title – it was named after a painting by Flora Scales, whose work heavily influenced Toss Woollaston – but the contents were anything but tame.

Tuohy and Murphy bestowed their chapters with such titles as 'Getting ourselves excited', and 'Getting other people excited'. There were line drawings showing cunnilingus, fellatio and anal sex, photos of genitals disfigured with sexually transmitted diseases, and naked young people embracing, masturbating and having sex. Many of the photos were taken in Wellington’s student flats. One conservative commentator complained that the book used the word “fuck” hundreds of times. In March 1977, Down Under the Plum Trees was declared indecent in the hands of persons under the age of 18.

I chatted with Alister Taylor in 2007 when I was researching Mates and Lovers, my book on New Zealand’s gay history. He asked me whether I thought an updated version of Down Under the Plum Trees would be feasible in the new millennium – or whether it might still be a bit much.

I didn’t have an answer, but I’ve had to confront that question with the publication of Queer Objects, a new book I’ve co-edited with my Otago University colleague Judith Collard. It’s full-colour collection of LGBT material culture, some of them held in New Zealand collections, others in Australia, North America, Europe and Asia. Many are uncontroversial objects, such as Matt Cook’s chapter on the telephone, which shows how it offered a lifeline for isolated teenagers; but some chapters are overtly erotic.

A chapter by Erica Rand tells of the evolution of the dildo in lesbian culture and politics, pondering the significance of colour – flesh, black, purple – and shape. What is it about genitals made of silicone that can be detached at whim? 'The Cunt Coloring Book', Margo Hobbs’s chapter, is named after Tee Corinne’s American book of the same name from 1975. Hobbs explains that Corinne invited her readers to colour the many black-and-white line drawings of female genitals with the box of crayons supplied. Corinne’s drawings of labia adorn the pages of Hobbs’s chapter; one, which includes a hand, strongly suggests its owner is masturbating.

We wondered how delicate we needed to be about all of this. When do bodies and sex stop being abstract things that researchers ponder in postmodern language at academic conferences, and instead become descriptive enough to cause concern? Gavin Brown, a British professor of geography who has written about gay sex in public, makes the point that non-fiction writers, especially academic ones, rarely evoke sex as something tangible that actual human bodies engage in. We are still squeamish when it comes to talking about the details, let alone showing them in books.

On another page of Queer Objects, in John Howard’s chapter 'The Stuff of Cruising', a naked man sits, obviously aroused, on a rattan mat in a secluded Spanish cruising spot. Howard’s photos tell of the material culture of public sex: mats, mattresses, used condom wrappers and lube packets, lampposts graffitied with explicit aphorisms. The material culture of LGBT life, including printed material, pairs of Speedos, Action Man, a leather jacket, domestic ephemera, holiday snaps and sticks of make-up, among other things, all tell a visceral story about same-sex love and sex.

Our book Queer Objects is a passionate volume, and its chapters speak of suffering as well as pleasure. Wayne Murdoch shows how police in 1920s Melbourne used the powder puff as evidence of male homosexuality; two men in one such case had their lives destroyed after this particular object was plucked from the pocket of one of them. Kate Davison discusses the plethysmograph, a device into which a patient’s penis was placed so that doctors might monitor sexual responses during conversion therapy. The plethysmograph was used in conjunction with various techniques, many of which involved nausea-producing drugs or electric shocks, in misguided attempts to turn gay men straight.

Deep reservations came to the surface while Queer Objects was at the printers. Should pictures in a book aimed at a general market hint at masturbation? Is Queer Objects the sort of thing bookshops would want to have on their shelves? Perhaps it should have an adults-only rating?

Alister Taylor thumbed his nose at sexual conservatism in 1976, when his authors filled Down Under the Plum Trees with nude pictures, racy language and the odd crude joke. He would find the contents in Queer Objects unremarkable. Where do the boundaries lie in the twenty-first century, the era of marriage equality and pride parades? By documenting its treasure trove of objects in a frank, open and colourful way, Queer Objects poses the question for its readers.

Queer Objects edited by Chris Brickell and Judith Collard (Otago University Press, $50)

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