Heike Bauer is a Professor of Modern Literature and Cultural History at Birkbeck. She specialises in topics relating to gender and sexuality in fiction, history, culture and criticism since the nineteenth century. Heike is currently working on a new collaborative project that explores the visual histories of ‘sex’.

On the relevance of her current area of study, Heike explains: “Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, the annual Pride celebrations bring into the view the importance of visual culture for sexual expression. During the month of June, the rainbow flag, once a symbol of sub-cultural community and resistance, can be found in many places, from schools to large corporate workplaces and even football stadiums. Interestingly, in response to the commercialisation and mainstreaming of Pride and in a bid both to include all members of the LGBTQ+ community and challenge what has been described as the ‘whitewashing’ of the movement, the Pride flag was redesigned in 2018 by combining the queer and trans flags and adding black and brown stripes. Both flags are now in use today, reflecting different political allegiances and levels of awareness. They are potent reminders of the powerful role visual materials play in sexual lives and politics.” 

A new project, that explores the complex histories of sex and visual culture, began in 2017 when Heike Bauer, Professor of Modern Literature and Cultural History in Birkbeck’s Department of English, Theatre & Creative Writing, and her colleague Dr Katie Sutton (Australian National University), organised a symposium on what they called the Visual Archives of Sexology. It took a fresh look at one of the most-studied moments in the modern history of sexuality: the emergence of a new science of sex in the later nineteenth century and the related coinage of a modern vocabulary of sex, including words such as homosexuality and heterosexuality. The symposium showed that visual materials such as photographs and the new medium of film played an important role in how modern ideas about sex, referring to bodies, desires and identities, were formed and transmitted around 1900. 

The success of the project prompted Bauer and Sutton to expand the historical scope of investigation. They joined forces with historians Dr Melina Pappademos (University of Connecticut) and Dr Jennifer Tucker (Wesleyan University) to explore in more detail ‘the visual archives of sex’: the plethora of symbols, images and film that historically have been part of the making (sense) of sexual matters. 

Their project brings together academics, artists and curators who examine visual sources ranging from medieval religious icons to twenty-first century selfies. “The histories they tell are manifold and often surprising. They range from the role played by police mugshots and private photographs in documenting the lives of working-class trans women in Spain during the late Franco regime, explored by Javier Fernández Galeano (postdoctoral fellow at Wesleyan University), to the racialised production of American beauty ideals after World War II, as shown by Yale English Professor Sunny Xiang. Germanist Kyle Frackman, from the University of British Columbia, explores visual erotica in East Berlin’s queer underground during the 1970s. Birkbeck’s own Lynda Nead, Pevsner Chair of Art History, in turn examines photographs of Ruth Ellis, who in 1955 became the last woman to be hanged in Britain, to explore the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which gender norms shaped her (self) image and public reception.”  

Whilst these contributions focus on specific times and contexts in the past, a curators’ roundtable discussion hosted by Bauer and Sutton makes clear that the visual histories of sex remain a topical issue. It considers how knowledge about sex is reproduced in and through visual culture today. It features reflections by Ashkan Sepahvand, curator of Odarodle: An imaginary their_story of naturepeoples, 1535-2017, which reckons with the colonial imbrication of Berlin’s Gay Museum (2017), Jeanne Vaccaro, co-curator of Bring Your Own Body: Transgender between Archives and Aesthetics (New York 2015), Annette Timm, co-curator of TransTrans: Transatlantic Transgender Histories (Berlin 2019-20), and Meg Slater, co-curator of Queer, the first exploration from a queer perspective of the collections held at National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The project also includes reflections by João Florêncio and Ben Miller on the importance of gay porn for sub-cultural history, and Sarah Jones on teaching the history of sexuality with images as well as interviews with Roland Betancourt (about Byzantine sexual politics), Derek Conrad Murray (about Robert Mapplethorpe, Black Lives Matter and selfie culture) and Topher Campbell from ruckus!, the London-based Black LGBT community archive. It concludes with a curated art section featuring the work of activist Carol Leigh.  

Tadej Pogačar’s CODE:RED art installation at the Venice Biennale of Art in 2001, in tandem with the World Congress of Sex Workers, launched the original Red Umbrellas March. As a result, the Red Umbrella later became a recognised symbol of revolt and collective struggle against stigmatization of sex workers and for the promotion of their basic human rights. This image features in Carol Leigh’s curated art section of this project. Photo by Dejan Habicht; courtesy of Tadej Pogačar (2001).

Heike adds: “Bringing together such a wide range of contributors makes clear that engaging non-white, anti-racist, queer and feminist ways of ‘seeing’ the past is vital to understanding the complex historical relationships between sex and visual culture and how they continue to shape sexual lives and bodies, myths and desires today. 

If the Pride flag is arguably the most widely recognised LGBTQ+ symbol, this project shows that, historically, visual expressions have shaped and directed sexual discourse and politics in all kinds of ways. Visual archives not only document that people whose bodies and desires do not match the norms of their time have existed across history, they also make clear that ‘sex’ is not a universal category but subject to historically changing values and assumptions.”  

Heike Bauer, Katie Sutton, Melina Pappademos and Jennifer Tucker (eds), ‘The Visual Archives of Sex’ will be published by Radical History Review  142 in January 2022. 

Find out more about BiGS (Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality).