Where new writing finds its voice

The Oxford Despoiler

Gary Dexter


Gary Dexter explains his fascination with nineteenth-century sexologists and how their pioneering work provided the inspiration for his novel

Who has reached man’s or woman’s estate and is not...? And does not...? Oh God! ... Yes, I admit it. I think about women’s bodies all the time. Women walking in the street: do they know how unspeakably alluring they are? I have developed the uninviting habit of spitting every time I see a woman who is so insupportably beautiful I must react; I discharge myself right there in the street after they have passed, like an Italian averting the evil eye. Unfortunately my children are often with me and they look up at me with cunning expressions. My God, my children, where will the end of it be?

It was thoughts such as these that led me along the only path available to one such as myself: I undertook a systematic examination of the problem from every angle; fierce study of the situation, unbending, taxonomical study of the matter as it stands, with neither fear nor favour. 

I’m talking, of course, about sexology. Particularly its origins in the mid-nineteenth century, when the pioneers – Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfeld, Iwan Bloch, Albert Moll: all German, all extravagantly bearded – began making their groundbreaking discoveries. I learned all about protogynous asynchronous hermaphroditism and the varieties of copromania; I buried myself, at times literally, at times figuratively, in the Mystery of Woman (and of Man, though only for form’s sake). Finally my researches bore fruit. And what an odd, dry, cracked, weeping, rank-smelling fruit it was. I began to write a regular column for the Erotic Review, in which I examined the beginnings of sexological thought and how it had shaped our own twenty-first-century understanding of sex.

Did it help? No, not really. But it was all rather interesting. Before these Germans got their hands on it, sex had never been dispassionately examined, at least not in quite this ravenous way. Of course, people before this time were aware of sex, had developed the habit of having children and even expectorating despairingly in public; but never before had a group of Bearded Ones decided to probe, to investigate, to journey within, to tabulate, in quite the way they now did.

Some evidence for this claim? The term ‘homosexual’ was only invented in 1868 by the Hungarian writer Károly Mária Kertbeny. Before then there were numerous terms for homosexuals, but never any that had existed primarily to describe and not to judge. And ‘homosexual’ was not the only terminological contender in this period of ferment. Other terms included ‘Urning’ (in German) or ‘Uranian’ (in English), in reference to the god Uranus, who had given birth to Aphrodite without intervention from any woman: Aphrodite had stepped from the foam produced when his testicles were cut off and thrown into the sea. Others favoured ‘unisexual’ or ‘monosexual’. 

The term ‘transvestite’ was only invented in 1910 by Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld, through his own extensive research (he was a habitué of the gay bars of pre-war Berlin, where he cut a flamboyant figure and was known as ‘Tante Magnesia’), discovered – and surely it is a discovery on a par with, or more important than, the discovery of the neutron or the coelacanth – that large numbers of transvestites were not homosexual. How had this been overlooked?

And what about Ernst Gräfenberg? He didn’t just describe a new behaviour. A sexological cartographer, he did nothing less than to explore, map and subdue an entirely new part of the body. This was the G-spot – named ‘G’ after him – which is to be found on the anterior wall of the vagina, about two inches in. How, in the entirety of human history, could it have been missed? Must we blame the Patriarchy? Or was it just that people had never allowed themselves the intellectual freedom to study – systematically, dispassionately, fiercely, lovingly – the subject of sex (from all angles), and publish the results?

Or how about Marie Stopes? Marie Stopes was perhaps the single most influential figure, sexually, of the twentieth century. Her Married Love (1918) was the first widely-available sex manual in English, written with a strange mixture of mysticism and spade-calling, so that on one page she speaks of the sex union that ‘vaporises [each partner’s] consciousness so that it fills the whole of cosmic space’ and on the next discusses ‘vaginal mucous’ (this at a time when some physicians were still asserting that lubrication was a sign of female hypersexuality). ‘It should be realised that a man does not woo a woman once and for all when he marries her,’ Marie wrote. ‘He must woo her before every separate act of coitus.’ People were genuinely surprised.

These early sexologists became my heroes. They brought me joy for their courage, for their self-belief, for their eccentricity, for their belief that they were doing good, for their determination that sexual behaviour was to be questioned but not judged, for thinking that it was ludicrous that it should be hidden and repressed. Not difficult to think in these ways now, but very difficult then. 

Perhaps the figure that interested me the most was Havelock Ellis. Ellis was not the most important of sexologists – he made no single major contribution and left no school – but he was a great explicator of the work of others, and more importantly for me, he wrote in English (my German is stuck at ‘O’ Level and I’d had to read the Bearded Ones in translation). 

Ellis’s major work was the seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897–1928). In it he discussed literally everything, from auto-eroticism (a term he coined) to zoophilia, passing though bed-wetting, menstruation, shoes, bananas, society, postillions, thighs, sewing-machines and the rest, describing a universe now suddenly populated and filled to the sweltering brim with sexuality (another term invented around the mid-nineteenth century). His filthy precision made him an object of horror, almost: even Marie Stopes, when she read him, said it was like ‘breathing in a big bag of soot’, and moreover that it took her three months to recover from the experience. He can still have that effect today. 

As I became more interested in Ellis’s work so I began to be interested in the man. He was a person of unconventional sexuality himself, preferring not to have sex with women but to watch them urinate, especially when they were standing up: characteristically, he coined two new terms for his predilection, ‘urolagnia’ and ‘Undinism’, after the Greek water sprites, the Undines. Undinism became the centre of his erotic life with his companion Françoise Cyon, who he persuaded – despite her initial misgivings – to urinate covertly in Oxford Circus while he watched. (His pet name for Françoise was ‘Naiad’ – his water nymph.)

I began to meditate a fiction based partly on the life of Havelock Ellis, and conceived the idea of the novel The Oxford Despoiler. My Havelock-figure was Henry St Liver, a sexological detective, whose Watson was Olive Salter, amatory idealist and author of The Story of an Australian Barn. I took away from Havelock his urolagnia and his beard, giving him instead a large moustache that quivered with appetency, grew masterful, became dejected, lively or pensive. I gave him a small terraced property in Shoreditch filled with junk, through which he traced sheep-paths. I made him monumentally unobservant. I placed him in a society which hardly dared speak of sex and yet one in which the root cause of any crime, any mystery, any anomaly – even the theft of an apple from a fruit stand – was the upwelling of some anarchic drive. None of it was very probable.

Having said that, wasn’t the theft of an apple the greatest sex crime of all?