Inside Story

Baked into our bricks

A writer considers the “state of the sexual nation”

Zora Simic Books 7 June 2023 1269 words

Demure and alluring: a detail from Max Dupain’s portrait of Jean Lorraine. State Library of New South Wales

From the very first glance, Paul Dalgarno’s new book is an enticing prospect. The cover features Max Dupain’s stunning photograph, taken in 1940, of his proclaimed muse, Jean Lorraine. Back then, she was one of Sydney’s most sought-after nude models, though in this portrait, she is buttoned up and fully clothed, with her gaze turned downwards. Equal parts demure and alluring, it’s easy to see why the photograph was chosen to emblazon across the front of a book titled Prudish Nation: Life, Love and Libido.

Together, the cover and the title promise the tango between the past and the present that Delgarno elaborates early on. By the time Australia federated in 1901, he writes, the new nation already had a type of self-righteous “prudishness baked into its bricks.” Ex-convicts, gold-diggers and settlers, most of them men, could be tried and hung for having sex with each other — that is, for “unnatural crimes.” And while moral panics and censorship are hardly unique to Australia, this country often cracked down longer and harder when it came to books once considered unacceptably risqué, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

To gauge whether Australia is “still a prudish nation at heart,” Dalgarno diligently consults historians and the history books, but mostly the history he captures is very recent — from the marriage equality survey in 2017, with its 61.6 per cent majority Yes vote, through to the not-quite-over Covid pandemic, which saw a sharp rise in people contacting mediation service Relationships Australia for guidance as extended lockdowns dragged on. Pertinent in another way is the 2021 census, in “which questions on sexuality and gender were notably absent.”

As useful as these signposts are for sketching out the terrain, Dalgarno is not bound by them or by sociological commitments to explaining contemporary Australian sexual behaviours and attitudes across the board.

The histories Dalgarno unfurls are more intimate and specific, including his own. Rather than narrate from the perspective of so-called prudes, Dalgarno, a novelist and journalist, interviews fellow writers and thinkers who, like himself, have lived their lives outside the assumed norms and binaries of sexuality and gender in one way or another.

These range from well-known public figures, like bestselling author Christos Tsiolkas and academic and gay rights activist Dennis Altman, to writers and creatives who have made a more recent splash, such as Roz Bellamy, editor-in-chief of Archer, a magazine devoted to gender, sexuality and identity, and novelists Peter Polites, Holden Sheppard and Filip Vukašin, all of whom write on queer themes, in very different ways.

Dalgarno also talks to people whose stories have piqued his interest, like Ruth Dawkins who is married to Young Dawkins, thirty-five years her senior, and Gabrielle Ryan, who in 2018 “came out” as asexual in Archer magazine. Ryan also “outed” her partner as a “cis-het man,” terminology that was then unfamiliar to him.

For readers who may benefit, Dalgarno includes a glossary of terms, though as his interview subjects often convey, categories like “non-binary” and “poly” can be less useful personally, and are rarely claimed unequivocally or overnight. So, while Mununjali Yugambeh poet and author Ellen van Neerven may now identify as non-binary, they also stress that the gender binary itself is a product of colonisation and that they don’t necessarily “fit any sort of label.” And after spending time in poly communities and finding them friendly enough but also consumed with the “technical aspect of labelling and defining things,” writer and critic Jinghua Qian tends to “not introduce myself as nonmonogamous or poly anymore.”

As for the awkward acronym LGBTQIA+, Dalgarno canvasses a range of views, from those who use it easily as part of their everyday vocabulary, to critics like novelist Andrea Goldsmith. “The heterosexuals are all in one group by themselves,” says Goldsmith, “and all the non-hets are smooshed together. Seems to rather privilege the heterosexuals.” Along with Altman, she prefers “queer” as a less prescriptive alternative.

Prudish Nation also features trailblazing figures who should be better known. Among them is Julie Peters, who led the way for trans-inclusive policies at the ABC, where she’d been working since 1971, when she transitioned in 1990. In the first six months, she received a “huge amount of negative pressure from many of the males” at work, she says, but she also found it “gratifying” that her female co-workers would “tell them off for abusing me.”

This is important and fascinating trans history, as is that offered by Arlie Alizzi, a Yugambeh writer, editor and curator who started to identify as trans a decade or so ago. Alizzi pays tribute to Indigenous Brotherboys and Sistergirls, the latter first gathering at a national conference in 1999 when he was still at school. If he’d known about them, says Alizzi, he thinks he would have been “less arrogant” in his twenties, because “we’re not inventing this stuff for the first time.”

Melbourne-based Dalgarno is an engaging narrator, with obvious gifts for establishing rapport and capturing a nuanced sense of a person and their circumstances. It helps that some of the people he talks to, like writer Rochelle Siemienowicz, are friends, but Dalgarno also has some personal understanding of how sexual and gender minorities are often reduced to caricatures or identity categories even in the most well-intentioned commentary.

When his novel Poly was published in 2020, Dalgarno chose to be open about his own relationships (at the time, he was married to Jess, with whom he shares two children, while also committed to his current partner Kate) and perhaps inevitably found himself “positioned as a spokesperson for polyamory.” Meanwhile, numerous polyamorous people criticised his characters for “doing it ‘wrong.’” In Prudish Nation, Dalgarno shares details about his own life on his own terms, while eschewing any grand claims to authority. His approach is questioning (is poly a sexual orientation or queer?) and communal.

For a book on the short side, Prudish Nation covers a lot of ground, taking in enduring biphobia, sex work and parenting. Some chapters hang together better than others, but the conversations are so consistently interesting it doesn’t really matter. Similarly, the purported thread of Australia’s “prude” status slips in and out of focus, with no real conclusions reached, but again the insights that do emerge are well worth reading.

On that front, people who migrated to Australia as adults — like Lee Kofman, who came from Russia and Israel, and Scottish-born Dalgarno himself — provide fresh angles. And so does poet Omar Sakr, who makes cross-cultural comparisons as a queer, Arab Muslim man who grew up in Australia where he found himself “watching in real time as the boys of my generation slowly lost all of what I saw evident in Arab men.” What Sakr calls the “straitjacket of Australian masculinity” is picked up too by several others, and is one of a number of themes that would have been worthy of more attention.

Still, Dalgarno never promised an exhaustive analysis, and on its own terms (writer talks to other writers about “life, love and libido”) Prudish Nation offers a refreshing antidote to the sensationalist, scare-mongering and often ideologically driven representations of queer lives and relationships that amped up during the marriage equality campaign.

Rolling culture wars around gender and sexuality continue to generate pain and trauma, as Dalgarno and his informants acutely recognise. Yet what Dalgarno captures in talking to people with “unconventional identities” or in relatively “unconventional relationships” is a vivid and convincing portrait of a diverse and adaptable society where things are — if only incrementally, and with setbacks — “changing for the better”. •

Prudish Nation: Life, Love and Libido
By Paul Dalgarno | Upswell | $29.99 | 200 pages