In today's digital world, sex pervades our everyday lives like never before. But how did it end up this way and what effect has it had on our society?

A historical look at sexuality in contemporary Australia

In today's digital world, sex pervades our everyday lives like never before. But how did it end up this way and what effect has it had on our society?

between the covers

Historian Dr Lisa Featherstone wants to answer this question by tracing the broad history of sexual ideas and practices in Australia's contemporary past.

Featherstone is a Mid Career Research Fellow with the Faculty of Education and Arts and a researcher strategically aligned with the Violence and Social Order program.

Having won the Honorary Keesing Fellowship, a runner up to the Nancy Keesing Fellowship, Dr Featherstone will use the resources of the Mitchell Library in the NSW State Library to explore sexualities across 35 years.

"This will be the first major historical study of sexuality in Australia in the late twentieth century," Feathersone says.  "It will explore multiple forms of sexuality including heterosexuality, homosexuality, lesbian sexuality, queers, trans and intersex sexualities, beginning with the so-called sexual revolutions of the 1960s and ending in 1997, just before the rapid rise of internet information about sexuality," she says.

The aim of the project is to clarify the ways sexuality was constructed and conceptualised in the late twentieth century in Australia by the state, medicine and law, and in the hand of the media and popular culture.

"I'm looking at the how the idea of marriage and family changed in the sixties and seventies, through to the sexual culture shift of the early eighties and the impact of HIV/AIDS, concluding in the 1990's with an analysis of the impact of the internet's role in both sex education and pornography," she says.

She hopes her research will bring new perspective to contemporary conversations about sexuality.

"Not a day goes by where you don't see one of the issues being aired in the media, whether it is gay marriage, abortion, teenage sex or any one of a number of topics relating to sexuality," she says,

"Attitudes may have shifted, and mostly for the better, but we are still a long way from resolution and acceptance."

Featherstone expects to find a faster pace of social change in this research project, than her previous research that covered the sexual world of the first 60 years of the 20th Century in Australia.

Her previous book Let's Talk About Sex: Histories of Sexuality in Australia from Federation to the Pill examined how society in Australia got to the point of sexual liberation.

"People have this idea that sex was invented in the 1960s but of course it wasn't," Featherstone says. "There is surprising little broad history on sexuality in Australia and virtually nothing on the period prior to the sexual revolution that covers multiple and varied forms of sexual identity and practice so I saw that as a very open area for research."

In that book she moves through the decades analysing the ways sexuality is understood and practiced and how sexual behaviour is shaped by attitudes, regulation, prejudice and fears of disease, pregnancy and being ostracised.

Featherstone found that although attitudes to sex were quite conservative throughout the first part of the century, there was a disparity between what people talked about and what went on behind closed doors.

"People were quite prudish but it doesn't mean they weren't having sex," she says. "Around 1910 about one third of women who got married were already pregnant, so sex before marriage was going on."

Society's evolution towards sexual enlightenment takes place gradually over the period studied in the book, with Featherstone finding little evidence of radical shifts in public opinion.

"It's not always a neat history of progress," she says. "For gay men, for instance, the 1950s are worse that the 1930s because there is higher policing and surveillance of gay relationships, which are illegal, and you see people appearing in front-page exposes in the newspapers. But overall there is a movement to more liberal attitudes."

Even the sixties themselves come late to Australia - at least in a metaphorical sense.

"We don't really swing that much in the sixties," Featherstone says. "The sexual revolution doesn't really take hold here until the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"Even the arrival of the pill is received quite conservatively. Australian women are early adopters of the pill but they find it hard to get if they are not married. It is really aimed at married women who have completed their families, not single women who want more sexual freedom."