Subversive Sex

(Approx. 3 minute Read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

The Exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum aims to explore this Club and its Collection through the three central themes of Subversion, Fantasy, and Power.  

Taken at face value, the objects from the Collection displayed within this Exhibition will likely elicit shocked gasps and exclamations, especially due to their appearance with many featuring phallic imagery. Certainly, as is explored in our ‘The Secret History of the Collection’ blog, these objects have been left undisturbed in storage since the mid-1800s as they were simply deemed too obscene to show to the public.  However, the Club’s fascination and celebration of sex must not be misunderstood and dismissed as merely raunchy. The Club used the idea of sex to be politically subversive, to fantasise about male dominated sexual exploits, and to exhibit power over women. This blog will briefly discuss the subversive nature of the Club’s relationship with sex, which is reflected by the objects from the Collection and the activities of the Club. 

Indeed, the surviving relics of, and records belonging to, the Club explicitly highlight their members’ convivial advocation of male sexual freedom. They emphasise the Club’s belief that sex should be enjoyed for pleasure, which at the time was extremely subversive, rebelling against the widespread belief in the 1700s that sex should be purely for procreation.   For instance, the records belonging to the Club, which will be presented as part of our online exhibition, describe a version of the initiation ceremony in explicit detail. From these we learn that new initiates to the Beggar’s Benison Club were required to demonstrate their ability to perform sexually. This included exhibiting his phallus to his fellow members-to-be, masturbating in front of existing members, and sometimes masturbating together as a sociable activity.  

The novice (prospective member) would be ‘prepared’ in a closet in which two members would ‘[cause] him to propel his Penis until full erection.’ Coming out of the closet (an interesting choice of words given the Club’s disapproval of homosexuality, as shall be explored in later blogs), the initiate was greeted by existing members who wore sashes and medals in full fanfare. He was required to place his phallus upon the Test Platter to demonstrate his ability to perform sexually.  

Test Platter from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Test Platter, 1783-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1072, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/test-platter/762421 

This action was accompanied by ‘four puffs of the Breath Horn’ to simulate ejaculation. The records then note ‘The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice Penis to Penis.’  

 Breath Horn from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Breath Horn, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1062, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/breath-horn/762410 

A wine glass displaying the Club’s motif was then used to drink a toast to the new member, who was bestowed with his own sash and medal. The ceremony was thus concluded by reciting the Club’s motto: ‘May Prick nor Purse never fail you.’  

Wine Glass from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Wine Glass, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1064, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/wine-glass/762412 

This ritual was inspired by the founding myth of the Club. According to this, in the mid-16th century, King James V travelled around Scotland pretending to be a common subject. He acquainted himself with his subjects in this way. In Anstruther, he met a maid whom he offered a golden coin for carrying him across a stream. In turn, she thanked him with a ‘benison’, a slang term for sexual favours.   

Another activity adopted by the Club in the 1700s was to add pubic hairs of mistresses to a wig. Specifically, the mistresses of King Charles II (1660-1685). The King offered it to his friend and Club member, the Earl of Moray. Later Minutes of the Club confirm in 1775 that new members must kiss the wig and wear it during their initiation ceremony. The collection and use of pubic hair in this way is an example of how these sex clubs attempted to objectify, possess and control the female body. It was an act to wield power over women through somber mockery.  

Initiation rituals were adopted by the Club to legitimize their male sexual activity and advocation of male sexual pleasure. They served to prove a potential member’s ‘manhood’ and sexual capability. Both these criteria were essential to be accepted into the Club.  

However, discretion had to be taken to ensure such interests did not cause public scandal, as such sexual conduct went against the moral and ethical teachings of the Church and State. Hence, the secrecy that surrounded the Club. As the historian David Stevenson, who has written a history of the Club, puts it, the Club’s activities had ‘the spice of being naughtily outrageous’.  

Indeed, throughout the 1500s and 1600s, there was a rise in religiously inspired sexual repression, where sex for anything other than procreating was strictly prohibited. Until the end of the 1700s, a strong taboo surrounded masturbation. This theme will be explored in a later blog, ‘Sex as Science’.   

The Age of Enlightenment in the 1700s and 1800s was important for developing new ways of thinking about sexual liberation (for heteronormative men). The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical revolution where scientific inquiry was favoured over religious faith. The idea of sexual freedoms and sex as pleasure fitted perfectly into progressive thinking at this time. As such, the attitudes of the Beggar’s Benison Club toward sex align with this wider movement. 

Fast forward to the present day, it is interesting to think that whilst the Beggar’s Benison Club was sexually subversive during the 1700s and 1800s, the Collection of the Club was still deemed to be too subversive and obscene to display until very recently. Indeed, our Exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum will be one of the first bold public displays of the Collection at the University. The exhibition aims to explore the theme of subversion further, and deconstruct and discuss the taboos surrounding the Club. Certainly, this chapter in Fife history and display of sexuality and sexual freedom, can also help us to explore and discuss issues relating to sexuality and sexual freedom ongoing today.    

Written by Leonie Leeder, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

Sources:

  • Peakman, Julie, Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteen Century, 2005 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001