During the first week we were in town, several months ago now, Matt and I ventured over to Fortitude Valley, a neighborhood at the edge of downtown Brisbane that is known for its nightlife. [Australians love to drink! All night! Until the wee hours! Or so I’m told; I’ve not seen it.]
We, however, went in the middle of the day, in search of a discount sports store on the pedestrian mall, which was quiet, clean, yet a touch skeezy in the middle of the afternoon. We had no success at the shop, but stopped for burritos at what must be the only Mexican restaurant in town. It’s tucked in at one end of the mall among restaurants of a variety of stripes – Italian, Irish Pub, Japanese food, and so on – all of which had outdoor seating and presumably late hours to cater to drunken mobs of young locals and tourists.
In between the restaurants, discreet entrances to night clubs beckoned with posters. Some advertised live music; some, erotic dancers, who were mostly women, but at least one with a bevy of shirtless males with sculpted abdomens (that was “ladies only,” which I can only assume the gay men in town protest vociferously, but I don’t know — it was illegal to be gay in some places in Australia until the 1970s, and might still be highly suspect, if I understand correctly).
Before we went there, I kept calling the neighborhood “Fortunate Valley” instead of “Fortitude Valley,” and at one point Matt gently corrected me: the first settlers here, “they were Protestants.” It was all about fortitude and strength, and you didn’t want to catch God’s eye, by calling something so positive as to indicate you were feeling fortunate. (And perhaps in Australia, surrounded by all of the poisonous snakes, deadly heatwaves, etc., they were feeling the need for fortitude, and not quite feeling fortunate yet, but again I digress. The temperature highs that weekend were close to 40 deg C.)
Putting that sense of decent piety and Protestant thinking together with the genteel softcore porn clubs and near nakedness that passes for daily fashion here got me to thinking about how different cultures perceive sex and sexuality. Later in the week, on another of our foraging expeditions, we had popped over the hill in search of another commercial center near our house (in case the mall got stale or if we wanted to go to Sizzler – another digression in the making here, I can feel it). It was so hot, even in the shade. We stopped in at some secondhand shops and a local butcher who had been at his current storefront for 30 years to buy some award-winning sausages.
But our first stop had been at a discount pharmacy, packed with cheap sandals, shampoos, whatnot, with a drug dispensary at the back. Matt was in search of hydrogen peroxide, and a pharmacy assistant helped him out: On the shelf, at about 3% strength, was a small bottle for sale for a few bucks. For about twice the price, and more than double the strength (7%), you could buy a similarly sized bottle from behind the counter.
While Matt was figuring all this out and wondering why hydrogen peroxide would be considered a controlled substance, I was wandering the aisles, checking prices. I was particularly curious about the tampons and other women’s health stuff. As I was perusing the boxes, searching for my favorite brands or even brands I recognized, without much luck (except for Tampax, which seems to be universal – OB seems to be Libra here, which might be the same in Sweden but for some reason I’m blanking on that), in the same bank of shelves, all labeled as women’s health products, sat a row of vibrators. They cost about $50 AUD apiece.
I saw those and my jaw dropped. I walked away and had to walk back to take a photo. What were these dildos doing on the shelf in a drugstore, wide open to anyone?
If I were in the US, I’d have to seek out a sex shop like Good Vibrations, which has warnings on its website about the rules for shipping sex toys across some state borders. In Sweden, I’ve never seen a sex shop, and I’m always horrified by the ads for the men’s clubs out by the airport, with nearly naked women with gigantic fake breasts. In Zurich, the hookers in the red light district are seedy. The most reasonable red light district I’ve seen has been in Amsterdam, which seems so objectifying of the women sitting in the windows, but hey, it’s business, and maybe they’ll eventually get a few men in there sometime [or did they already? I feel like I’ve heard about this, for gay men, but I’m afraid to search online].
So imagine my surprise when I saw the same product (different maker) on the shelves at Coles, our local grocery store in the mall near our apartment. Perched at eye level for a toddler, they were showcased at the end of an aisle, sandwiched between soft drinks and the store’s clothing section.
What the heck?
Even stranger are the generic storefronts that we have since observed, painted in bright colors (like the yellow box trimmed in red, matching the McDonald’s sign above it), that are adult stores, plopped all over town, with suburban side streets stretching in all directions. Fascinating.
I am flummoxed as to how to think about this – here’s a British Commonwealth, similar to Canada and the US in culture and community, and I assumed in prurient interest, and yet, I come to find it’s not the same. I would like to contact an anthropologist or sex sociologist specializing in sexual mores and attitudes, to find out: why did Australians swing a different way than their closest Western colleagues? Is it the weather? It’s hot here, people wear next to nothing. Is it the history? Perhaps a former criminal penal colony thinks differently about sex?
But I expected gender to be just as rigidly constructed here, if not more so. Australia has its share of strong men (and strong women, living the frontier life), and it also has a woman as prime minister. Julia Gillard is the first woman to hold the post, and she’s in the news quite regularly, with her shock of red hair and beautifully outspoken statements.
What is the key? I won’t be finding out on this trip, but it’s been interesting to consider while I’ve been here. And here’s some links to research I meant to follow:
- http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.an.16.100187.000441 [1970s]
- http://www.amazon.com/Sex-Sexuality-Anthropologist-Fran-Markowitz/dp/0252067479