Warning: This radio documentary contains sexual references.
A century ago, Australian sex reformer William Chidley (c.1860-1916) was locked up for speaking openly about a taboo subject, and ultimately died in Callan Park Mental Hospital. But the moral outrage he provoked was largely to do with the kind of sex he advocated. It’s also what prompted later historians to call Chidley a ‘true feminist’.
Chidley’s ideas about how sex should proceed still raise an eyebrow and provoke responses ranging from ridicule to alarm. In essence, he wanted to demote the erection, and elevate instead the woman’s readiness as the crucial determiner of when sexual intercourse should start. The Answer was dedicated ‘to womankind’.
As well as being a sex reformer, Chidley was a dress and food reformer. To combat the human misery he saw all around him, he prescribed vegetarianism, fresh air, sunlight and unrestrictive clothing. But it was his critique of conventional sex that led him into trouble.
In the years leading up to the First World War, he was a familiar sight in the streets of Melbourne and Sydney, dressed in a simple Grecian-style tunic, selling his book The Answer and addressing crowds for as long as he could get away with graphically describing his recipe for ‘natural coition’. He was repeatedly arrested and prosecuted; one police record lists twenty-five court appearances between 1912 and 1916.
Even though he was regarded by many as a crank, Chidley gained a following and found people willing to defend him from persecution by the state. His supporters included free speech advocates, socialists and feminists. In this way, his story intersects with the most significant social movements of his day and forms part of the Australian history of radicalism.
In the end, the arbiters of public morality defeated Chidley. The Answer was suppressed by a Supreme Court decision in 1914, and on three occasions between 1912 and 1916 Chidley was declared insane, with compulsory detention at asylums in Darlinghurst, Callan Park and Goulburn. He died of heart disease at Callan Park, just a couple of months after a failed suicide attempt in gaol.
Good Sex – The Confessions and Campaigns of W.J. Chidley reveals how Chidley came to develop his unorthodox sexual theory through promiscuous life experience and wide reading in public libraries. It places his ideas in the broader context of social reform efforts around the turn of the century.
Along the way, we glimpse a vivid and contested social order in early twentieth century Australia. We are introduced to the disparate forces that lined up in Chidley’s defence, as well as the machinations deployed by the state to suppress him. Ultimately we learn why Chidley’s critique of the politics of sexual intercourse was anathema in a patriarchal state on the brink of war.
Sally McInerney, Editor - The Confessions of William James Chidley – Keep an eye out for a new edition of Chidley’s Confessions which Sally McInerney is currently working on.
Associate Professor Frank Bongiorno, Associate Professor in History, Australian National University
Professor Mark Finnane, Professor of History, Griffith University
Dr Lisa Featherstone, Lecturer in History, University of Newcastle
Title: The Confessions of William James Chidley
Author: W.J. Chidley edited by Sally McInerney
Publisher: University of Queensland Press, 1977
Title: The Answer
Author: W.J. Chidley
Publisher: Australasian Authors’ Agency, 1911
Title: The Sex Lives of Australians - A History
Author: Frank Bongiorno
Publisher: Black Inc. 2012
Title: ‘Censoring Sex: The Case of W.J. Chidley’
Author: Lisa Featherstone
Publisher: article currently in press
Title: ‘The Popular Defence of Chidley’
Author: Mark Finnane
Publisher: Labour History (journal), November 1981
Title: What Rough Beast? The State and Social Order in Australian History
Author: Sydney Labour History Group
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 1982