University of Toronto’s Sexual Representation Collection

Playboy_1_1969

A Review of the University of Toronto’s Sexual Representation Collection in Toronto, Canada.

Researchers interested in sex and sexuality already know that locating and accessing primary source materials can be challenging.  Government and university archives sometimes face significant invisible limitations to the collection and preservation of such materials.  Often, institutional concerns about collecting (and perhaps more importantly, circulating) explicitly sexual items, particularly those deemed private, distasteful, or pornographic, can mean that tracking down even mainstream publications like Playboy is not always as simple as one might expect.  Throughout North America, LGBTQ community archives and university-community partnerships have been working to collect and preserve such materials, making them as easily and widely available as possible, but often by identifying them with gay, lesbian, or “LGBTQ” (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) people, events, organizations, identities and activism.  Such collections also often feature materials on significantly related topics, such as HIV/AIDS and sex work, but, understandably, in a context of LGBTQ experiences and activism.  Collections like the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University and the Sexual Representation Collection (hereafter SRC) at the University of Toronto, of which I am the curator, are important exceptions, and can provide researchers with an abundance of interesting, engaging materials that document broader and sometimes more diverse perspectives.  In this article, I will provide potential researchers with an overview of both the SRC’s contents and procedures for finding, accessing, and studying its holdings.

The SRC is part of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, which offers both an undergraduate degree and a collaborative graduate certificate.  The SRC regularly employs and trains students from a host of disciplinary backgrounds to process, develop, and share this important collection.  Such students have produced or assisted in the organization and housing of the materials, the production of finding aids and researcher guides, and the promotion of the collection.  In 2014, an exhibit featuring materials from the SRC called Archiving Public Sex was named as one of the top 25 “must-see-shows” of the international Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival by Toronto’s primary news magazine, NOW.  The SRC also frequently offers tours and invites students, faculty, and researchers to explore its resources.

Since the SRC does not employ any full-time staff–I also teach in the Sexual Diversity Studies Program–research appointments are made on an individual basis to suit the needs of the researcher. I assist in determining which materials would be helpful to review and make arrangements for researchers to access relevant materials.  For researchers visiting from outside the Greater Toronto Area, extensive email assistance can make a research trip as efficient as possible; in any case, an initial email inquiry to me stating specific interests will help facilitate the process.  Potential researchers should keep the University of Toronto’s academic calendar in mind when planning a trip and note that the collection is not open during the winter break, from about mid-December to mid-January, and has limited hours during the summer term, from April to September.  Visitors specifically interested in LGBTQ materials may also wish to coordinate with the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (clga.ca), which is only a short distance from campus.

The SRC began intentionally but informally in the 1990s as an attempt to preserve materials that would document significant issues related to sex activism but which were at risk of disappearing.  Max Allen, a former producer at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and an avid activist on issues related to pornography and censorship, provided the first significant donation of materials to the collection.  His files and materials remain one of its highlights today, and provide extremely detailed holdings on a number of major issues related to public discourse and the policing of sex and sexual representations, such as promotional and educational materials as well as records from the Canadian Committee Against Customs Censorship, an activist group heavily involved in shifting Canadian laws and culture.  The collection lay dormant for quite a few years as it was being determined where these materials should be stored, and how they should be preserved and circulated.  As the Sexual Diversity Studies Program, founded in 1998, grew into its current state as the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, resources, and capacity emerged to allow the SRC proper care and enabled its expansion.

Today the SRC is composed of many sub-collections donated by a range of people who have produced or collected materials on these topics.  Some of our donors, such as Annie Sprinkle and Tristan Taormino, are famous as activists and artists in the realm of sexuality, particularly in relation to feminist, sex-positive, or sex-radical politics. Others are well-known in Toronto and internationally within their specific communities.  For example, Lord Morpheous is a very active leader in the world of bondage and kink as a practitioner, educator, organizer, photographer, and writer.  His donations include a wide variety of materials, from original lithography to “retired,” high-quality bondage ropes, many of which were hand-made by professional bondage rope-makers.  Likewise, Carlyle Jansen, who owns the Toronto-based sex shop Good for Her, has donated a great deal of materials related to the organization of the International Feminist Porn Awards and the Toronto Women & Trans Bathhouse Committee, both of which she has been extensively involved in producing, and both of which continue as major ongoing regular events.

In addition to rich holdings in BDSM/kink and sex-positive feminist pornography and events, researchers can explore many other topics at the SRC.  Our collections are particularly strong in media, censorship and legal issues, sexually-explicit representations (including pornography), as well as popular sexual education. The bulk of the materials in the SRC were created after 1970, with the majority produced in North America or collected by people living in North America from the late 1980s until the present.  The SRC has a large non-circulating library of both popular and academic books on a wide variety of issues related to sexuality and sexual representations, many of which would not be found in other libraries.  Titles range from classics such as The Joy of Sex to more recent publications like Adult Comics: an Introduction, The Exotic Erotic Ball: 20 years of the World’s Biggest, Sexiest Party, and The Anime Encyclopedia. We also have a substantial number of pulp novels from the early 1970s, many of which focus on sexual taboos, such as fetishism/BDSM and group sex.  Researchers interested in the technical and commercial histories of how sexually explicit materials have circulated can find materials across numerous collections, some of which document mainstream public discourses, others of which shine a light on more niche or radical activities.  For example, the SRC contains over a thousand VHS cassette tapes of commercially produced pornography, as well as runs of select print publications such as Playboy (for which we have over 350 issues spanning from 1963-2000), Screw (for which we have 26 issues spanning 1974-1978),  and others.  The diversity of these resources, can be especially invaluable to researchers of the pre-Internet era, who can compare content in, for example, Al Goldstein’s famously raunchy and purposefully offensive Screw magazine to that of the more “respectable” Playboy, as well as to Nude, a glossy art-photography magazine produced by Carrie Leigh, a former Playboy cover model and official First Lady of the Playboy Mansion as well as a photographer herself.

For scholars interested in activism surrounding pornography, the SRC provides materials related to censorship, feminist pornography, mainstream discourses regarding pornography, and activism produced to fight against the censorship of sexual materials.  Researchers can access television programs discussing sexuality, censorship, feminist pornography, and other related topics, recorded on VHS by Max Allen precisely so that they could be available to researchers in the future.  Some of these are currently being digitized by students, which will enable greater accessibility for future researchers.  Likewise, the SRC contains many materials documenting the work of Canadians Against Customs Censorship, a now defunct group which produced public education and undertook legal action to prevent the Canadian government from targeting and censoring representations of sexuality deemed dissident throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Many of the SRC’s materials also provide insight into the relationship between sexual representations and their commercial cultures, from advertising in niche markets to the politics of selling sexually explicit materials.  For example, a number of “industry publications,” with titles such as The X-Rated Videotape Star Index, Adult Gay Video News, Erotic Video Guide, and Adult Film World Guide Directory of Adult Films, advertised pornographic films and were used by businesses and consumers to make purchasing decisions. These all document the commercial side of pornography in the pre- and emerging-Internet era.

Though the SRC does primarily contain materials from North America, it nonetheless offers researchers taking a transnational approach many helpful items.  As Toronto has become a very diverse and global city, businesses catering to a variety of sexual tastes provide evidence of consumer interests from around the world.  One of our largest video donations, for example, arrived with numerous cassettes of commercially produced pornography created for consumers originally from particular areas, such as India and Pakistan, or perhaps for consumers specifically interested in viewing such sexual representations.  Some of these titles are in Hindi, having been produced in India for local markets and bearing classifications from the Government of India’s Central Board of Film Certification.  Others were produced for British or North American markets, and many are copies.  These may be uniquely useful for researchers interested in sexual racialization and diasporic sexualities. For researchers interested in homoeroticism and activism in the French diaspora, our collection of three hundred issues of Gaipied from 1983-1992, an international magazine produced in France, which circulated internationally, may be of special interest. There is also a small collection of Japanese-language materials, but these have not yet been translated or reviewed. Finally, there is a vast range of materials that would benefit researchers interested in the legal and cultural differences between the United States and Canada in the production, circulation, and regulation of sexual knowledge and representations of sex.

Scholars visiting the Sexual Representation Collection can expect individual attention and assistance as well as a quiet room in which to conduct their research.  Researchers must bring their own laptops and internet is only available to those with University of Toronto affiliation, so access to the internet is limited. The researcher rooms are in the basement of a nineteenth-century building, but there are large windows with natural light. A television with VCR and DVD are in use for digitization projects, but to avoid potential damage to tapes, videos are never screened directly from film.  Either I or an archival assistant will be on hand to provide an introduction to relevant materials and to facilitate researcher access.  Since there is rarely more than one researcher working in the collection at any given time, it is usually quite straightforward to request specific materials, which can usually be procured on the spot.  Video cassettes and some restricted materials, such as those which contain identifying confidential personal information, may not be as easy to access as they require prior review to ensure that items are not damaged nor any confidential information such as personal addresses and social insurance numbers released. Box art for videos are stored as files and can be viewed almost immediately, but for researchers primarily interested in viewing videos, advance consultation is important to determine the feasibility of access based on available resources. There are also several finding aids and researcher guides on-site that provide additional content, information, and direction.  These may soon be available online and some may also be available by request in advance via email, depending on the nature of the collection and research topic.

Researchers interested in visiting the collection can make arrangements by contacting me (nicholas.matte@utoronto.ca) and can find out more and look for updates at www.uc.utoronto.ca/sexual-representation-collection.  The collection is accessible for users of wheelchairs or other mobility devices; additional accessibility arrangements can also be made on an individual basis.

Nicholas Matte, Ph.D.
Curator, Sexual Representation Collection
Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies
University College, University of Toronto
nicholas.matte@utoronto.ca

Image: Cover of Playboy 1 (1969). Wikimedia Commons.

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