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  • "Fitful Rambles of an Unruly Pencil":George Southern's Challenge to Sexual Normativity in 1920s Australia
  • Lisa Featherstone (bio)

The 1920s are often considered the "age of pleasure," a time of freedom and indulgence after the horrors of the Great War. Yet historians of sexuality have categorized Australia in the 1920s and 1930s as "conventional, moralistic, respectable."1 Sexuality was defined by monotony, with a seemingly endless focus on monogamy, reproduction, and heterosexuality. It was widely accepted that sex and babies were analogous, and reproduction was seen as key to the functioning of a healthy white Australia.2 All authorities, including church, state, medicine, and the press, condoned and indeed stimulated the relentless marital boundaries of normative sexuality. Thus, while Australia in this period saw increasing images of a more overtly sexual nature (and the flapper was the embodiment of this new physicality), this exception rather proves the rule. The more open sexuality of the flapper cannot necessarily be read as a paradigm shift within the institutions of social and moral authority, for most commentaries showed little change from late-nineteenth-century models and remained focused on reproduction and restraint. Despite the evident influence of the British advocate of contraception, Marie Stopes, and ideas of pleasure in the companionate marriage, sex was still something to be contained within domesticity and a [End Page 389] framework of discipline. There was little or no sense within these discussions that intercourse might be entirely recreational. There was instead a search for moral order, for a perceived dignity and control over sexual practice: the biological urge for intercourse was to be indulged only in the structure of heterosexual procreative marriage.

Alongside the fairly rigorous construction of sexuality as something to be retrained and restrained there was also a Foucauldian explosion of discourses surrounding sex. In Australia after World War I the focus of such public discussions was on venereal disease and sex education, with the latter designed almost solely to prevent the former. These discussions of sex were largely didactic, stressing the need for continence. Few moved beyond instructing readers when and why to have sex and what forms appropriate sexuality might take. None of this analysis, of course, should suggest that individual men and women did not enjoy sex, seek pleasure, feel desire, or explore sex outside reproductive marriage. Yet few wrote about it. Here I will explore a rare private source on sexuality, where an author moved beyond a pragmatic disease-and-babies model to consider the multiple and complex meanings of sex in interwar Australia.

George William Robert Southern was a little-known physical culturist living in Sydney in 1925, when, on the eve of his marriage, he decided to chronicle his early sexual life, his longings, his desires, his acts, and his beliefs about sexual normality and pathology:

The manifestations of the sex urge in myself which I have experienced up to now, have always been very puzzling to me, & to some extent remain so. But as I stand on the threshold of a new experience—marriage—and also as I feel that during the last few years I have evolved considerably nearer to what I vaguely conceive to be normality, this would seem to be a suitable time to review the past. Anyway, I awoke at six this morning with the idea vivid in my mind, and so I feel it desirable to write what comes.3

These intimate, unpublished writings are now held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, Australia. Particularly interesting is an unbound notebook entitled (in fine Freudian form) "Fitful Rambles of an Unruly Pencil." At the end of the "Unruly Pencil" there is a small handwritten story, "The History of My Early Sexual Life." Not quite hidden, yet not quite disclosed, it is a rather extraordinary source and an almost singular opportunity to consider how someone in the early twentieth century very explicitly constructed his own sexuality. [End Page 390]

Southern's "History" is unusually honest—brutally so—and is a rare Australian attempt to understand and articulate sexuality both for Southern's own benefit and perhaps also for the undisclosed, unnamed reader.4 Though not a long paper, it is nonetheless a rich source...


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