Prior to the 19th century, the majority of sex in Britain took place outside rather than inside, tour guide Deborah Sim is explaining to me. In fact it was so prolific, Sim says, when Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova visited London during his travels in 1756, he complained of his inability to sleep at night thanks to all the loud sex happening on the streets.
It is not even lunchtime on a Wednesday and I am already being regaled with tales of outdoor sex by Sim, curator of London’s Museum of Sex Objects, a temporary pop-up located in the Horse Hospital building in Russell Square. Sim, dressed in a red cape and holding a large stick (a look she sports on all her tours), is brimming with countless historical anecdotes, made all the more interesting because they are primarily about sex.
The free exhibition has taken seven years of research and preparation to curate, and has already been drawing large crowds, says Sim. “I don’t like to ask people for money. I think of that as my own form of rebellion”. In the 80s, becoming a curator, Sim worked on the artistic direction for music videos for Wham! Then she worked for the fashion brand Coco de Mer. Then she moved on to sculpting, citing Bob Geldof as one of her customers.
But for this exhibition, Sim wanted to avoid dealing with celebrities or the rich and famous. “Aristocracy have always had their sexual appetites well documented,” she says. “They also had the money and the free time to develop their sexual imaginations, which most people did not. So, we don’t know much about the sex lives of workers.”
Through gathering objects – primarily personal letters, legal documents and contemporary art – Sim set to reverse this trend and dig deeper into the sex lives of ordinary people. Those who so far have been overlooked.
Sim’s favourite period of British sexual history is the 1700s, largely thanks to a craze that swept through the nation: Flagellomania (a penchant for whipping or being whipped). Theresa Barclay, owner of a brothel known as the White House, was the pioneer of this spanking obsession. Here she would spank male customers using twigs or whips. “Apparently older men would prefer to be spanked with holly bushes, which just boggles the mind,” Sim says. Originally a working-class woman, Theresa Barclay died a millionaire thanks to the money she made from spanking.
“After the restoration of Charles II people went crazy,” Sim says. “By the end of the 18th century, the people were having a great old time.”
Further back in time, in Roman Britain, Sim tells me a lot of the country’s sex trade focused on ‘meretrixes’ or Roman sex workers. Meretrixes would work in the so-called “Pleasure Palaces” of the Roman Empire. One famous palace was located on the spot where London’s St Paul’s Cathedral currently stands, she says.
While the palace might not have stood the test of time, other elements of Roman sexuality can be traced to more modern attitudes, argues Sim. Roman sex workers were forced to bleach their hair blonde (or white) as a signifier of their occupation. “This idea of sexual availability and having blonde hair is still prevalent today [blondes have more fun],” she says. “A little-known slave trade was in light haired [people] from the north of the Roman empire; so, Britain in Nordic countries.”
Such markers for sex workers were not limited to the Roman period – sex workers during in the Middle Ages in Britain were forced to wear capes and hold a white wand (which I notice is strikingly similar to Sim’s outfit). A link to witchcraft? Perhaps, she says.
The museum also hosts sillier tales: a rubber dildo that was found on the banks of the River Thames from the 20s. Or there’s evidence of the first recorded glory hole, dating from 1707, which was found in a “Bog House” in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in central London.
There are even stories of individuals on display: one focuses on milkman Gabriel Lawrence, told through a figurine made in 1757. The figure shows Lawrence dressed in a yellow dress, holding a milk can. Lawrence was known for visiting the Molly Houses of Field Lane in London, near the current site of Farringdon train station.
A Molly House was a place for men to dress as women in secret. Perhaps surprisingly, the busiest day for these houses was Sunday. Why? “Possibly because Church on a Sunday would give men an excuse to say they were somewhere else,” Sim suggests. Lawrence was arrested during a raid on one Molly House and was hanged on a charge of sodomy. In celebration of his life, his close friend, the potter Thomas Tyler, created a figurine to remember him.
The exhibition also looks at more modern examples of LGBTQ+ persecution. Fast forward three hundred years and gay men were still being forced to meet in clandestine locations. At the University of Cambridge in 1901, an underground society of gay men came up with a creative object to signifying their sexuality – a badge.
The badges were made from prison uniforms, complete with a silver pin. The badges read C.3.3: the location of Oscar Wilde’s cell in Reading prison (it was six years prior to the implementation of the badges that Dorian Gray author Wilde had been sentenced to two years hard labour after his homosexuality was discovered by a private investigator).
One such badge is available to view at the museum, although Sim avoids telling me whether it’s a re-creation or an original. “Its provenance is shrouded in mystery, as is the club,” she says.
All these stories come together to build a picture of Britain’s secretive and eccentric relationship with sex. For Sims, there is an overarching lesson to be taken away from all the findings. “When people are having too much fun,” she says, “there’s always somebody who wants to shut them down.”
The museum is open to the public until the end of the month