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 the exhibition 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.
Today, the University of St Andrews has objects and archival material in its Collection which relate to the Club. The collection includes badges, sashes, seals, glasses, and a test platter used by Club members, with many being explicitly sexual in nature and often inscribed with sexual innuendos and phallic imagery.
This Collection is now being put on public display for the first time at the University in our exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum.
The Exhibition displays the objects through a feminist lens, considering the actions of the Club under the three main themes of Subversion, Fantasy, and Power. For our exhibition team, this was an opportunity to explore and learn from the past, by using the actions of the Beggar’s Benison Club to reflect upon and discuss continued issues in society today. Curated by an all-women team, the Exhibition served as a platform from which to address consent, sexual identity and freedom, and gender equality.
In their devotion to all-male sexual liberation the Beggar’s Benison Club participated in many sexually-themed activities. One of the more shocking events was its hiring of ‘posture girls’, an activity that occurred on multiple occasions. Young women, between the ages of fifteen to nineteen were hired to display themselves naked for the members’ pleasure. While the men were not permitted to touch the young women, the action of viewing them is a very literal representation of the male gaze.
To this day, women, particularly young women and girls, are often sexualised, objectified and represented in the media through the male gaze.
Thanks to television and social media, objectification and gender stereotyping is happening on a global scale, with real world consequences. From a young age, girls absorb hypersexualised images of women which can impact mental health, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Young boys encounter these images too, which can lead to forming of stereotypical ideas of gender roles. These ideas often encourage dominance and aggressiveness in men, which increases risks of violence against women. These stereotypical ideas also cultivate a cultural narrative that women do not have autonomy over their own bodies, but in their dominant role men do.
By displaying this Collection, the audience is prompted to consider the power dynamic that allowed the Beggar’s Benison Club to objectify young women and how this power dynamic still exists today. The exhibition also makes efforts to reclaim parts of the Beggar’s Benison’s legacy for women. Within the Collection only one object shows exclusively female genitalia, a seal with a heart surrounding a vagina. The seal alone is a strong representation of the Club’s possessive attitudes over women’s bodies. In keeping with the feminist theme, the seals design was chosen as the exhibition logo. This not only contrasts with the numerous phallic images in the exhibition, but also demonstrates how women can reclaim the image and use it to represent sexual empowerment.
The logo was also the key image used as a pattern for the first event of the Exhibition, an embroidery workshop, hosted on 8 March 2021. Non-coincidentally, the 8 March also marked International Women’s Day, an annual global day which celebrates the achievements of women and raises awareness for greater gender equality. The logo was embroidered alongside other images of women’s bodies to represent female reclamation of their own bodies. Embroidery itself is part of a wider subversive stitch movement which continues the long legacy of women using needle and thread in protest and resistance. Many of the issues that the Beggar’s Benison Club raise in modern times are issues feminism is still fighting and therefore it is fitting to connect the exhibition to other feminist movements.
In viewing this exhibition, audiences will explore the Beggar’s Benison Collection but will also be confronted with the negative power dynamics and objectification that the Club subjected women to. These actions reflect what, over two hundred years later, is still occurring to women. However, today, women have a much stronger voice, proven by the widespread feminist movements to reclaim their power. Audiences should consider whether their daily actions are taking this power from women or placing the power back into their hands
This article was written by Sarah Takhar, Museum and Gallery Studies student 2020/21.
- Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001.
- Swift, J. and Gould, H, ‘Not an Object: On Sexualization and Exploitation of Women and Girls’, UNICEF USA, 2021. <https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/not-object-sexualization-and-exploitation-women-and-girls/30366>