Desiring Objects

Chase Ledin explores the promises, fantasies and social values inscribed in the sexual objects held by Wellcome Collection. 

This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to write a short text exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection. 

In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed writes: “The promise of happiness is what makes certain objects proximate, affecting how the world gathers around us” (2010, p. 14). Speaking to her previous books, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) and Queer Phenomenology (2006), Ahmed argues that the phenomenology of objects is constituted not simply by subjects producing meaning of/for an object, which render the object intelligible and affective because of the subject. Rather, “feelings are how objects create impressions in shared spaces of dwelling” (p. 14). To exemplify, a friend gifts you a houseplant, promising that it will make you “feel better” during months of seasonal depression. This promise inscribes the object with an imperative: you will approximate happiness being near this object. In a sense, your friend has imbued the plant with affect. Hence the plant takes on the positive emotion and embodies the desire of “betterness” (even if you don’t, or perhaps never, feel it). To this end, Ahmed suggests the social injunction of an emotion or idea informs the shape and character of an object. In turn, the object becomes a container which “orients,” directs, or promises particular perceptions or emotions and proximates those affective states.

What are sexual objects?

Ahmed’s thinking is useful in examining the history of sexual objects. Sexual objects come in a variety of materials and forms, often associated with somatic encounters, but also, as a wealth of recent scholarship suggests, through digital/online and imaginary encounters (Race, 2015; Møller & Nebling, 2017; Hakim, 2019). They include, for example, videos, animation, photographs, drawings, medical and commercial instruments, clothing, sex toys, and other ephemera. Brought together under the label “sexual,” such objects take on the value not only of the bodies and images with which they interact; they also embody social values of non/desire, dis/pleasure, im/morality and other affective states (depending on their cultural and social context). The objects proximate forms of affect and desire, which are useful for understanding the history of the sexual body.

Fig. 1: Male anti-masturbation devices. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Exploring the Wellcome Collection archives, I have focused on a few of these objects. The collection has several objects from the 19th century, including anti-masturbatory devices (see Fig. 1), which are notable in the history of psychiatry. The history surrounding these objects is both well-examined (Stengers & Van Neck, 2001; Mason, 2008) and highly contested (Laqueur, 2003; Grove, Langlands & Fisher, 2016). Commonly theorised alongside Victorian pathology of “spermatorrhoea,” which, as Bill Bynum (2001, p. 726) describes “within the spermatic economy,” these devices were created to discourage ejaculation and reduce cases of “insanity”:

“Nature…endowed each male with a limited amount of the precious fluid, some of which is lost with each ejaculation […] too many ejaculations, and especially those of the wrong sort, could set up a vicious cycle, whereby the vital fluid was lost involuntarily, both through nocturnal emissions (a sure sign something bad was up) and a troublesome dribbling away of sperm during waking hours.”

The Victorian world imagined a limited supply of spermatozoon, and any unmediated release of these fluids would lead to insanity. Thus, medical professionals employed devices, objects, and instruments – validated and implemented as a material-and-scientific approach to controlling and maintaining personal hygiene – to preserve the ostensibly “natural” limitations of the sexual body. Such objects were directed at sexual organs and modified (extensively) to confront design flaws, both physically and conceptually, as they emerged (see Fig. 2-3). Modifications made them “naturally fitting” to/for the human body, producing a culture of “natural” development. In this process, the objects proximated moralistic, ethical and hygienic imperatives (“promise”). Especially through historiographic documentation, these objects became imbued with particular affective valances, defined against the features, promises, and desires of their social and cultural context, i.e. conservative Victorian sexuality.

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This phenomenology of objects illuminates the traces of material production and affective structures that help historians and sexual health researchers make sense of the objects’ ongoing utility and embodiment. Thinking of these objects as both historically contingent but also materially still relevant – especially through their adaptation in/as modern sexual objects – a phenomenology of objects that can capture the dynamic nature of these sexual objects as evolving affective containers (which themselves accrue meaning) is needed.

What are desiring objects?

We might understand this phenomenology of sexual objects as desiring objects. More than simply historically and materially produced, these sexual objects contain a promise: the promise that they have a relationship to human sexuality, that some “thing” which is sexual is contained or mediated by the material object. The coherence of that sexual thing may, in the postmodern tradition, be multiple and unstable, but through its somatic approximation, the object is capable of interpolating the forms, contents and meanings of an affective “sexual body”. Importantly, the object accrues values of desire as it transforms over time. Whether that desire is to repress human sexuality or, as recent reconfigurations of sexual objects have revealed, to liberate desires rooted in the fantasy of containment, enclosure, pathology or restraint (see Fig. 4-5) – these objects promise the sexual and, in turn, desire.

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Why is this approach helpful? Desiring objects are phenomena that enable historians and sexual health researchers to develop an affective logic of how objects accrue value over time. Such value may be understood as repressive, progressive or even static, but fundamentally, it tells us that these objects evolve according to the needs, desires and pleasures that make up our understanding of the sexual body. Intimate with the histories of sexuality, these objects inform the researcher of the regressive, progressive and transgressive significations of sexual desire. More importantly, by looking at sexual objects as desiring, the researcher can make comparisons and juxtapositions between historical objects that produce new associations, assemblages, behaviours and actions for the future.

The promises, fantasies and social values – accumulated over a host of historical periods – are inscribed upon and profuse in the production of sexual objects. But they are desiring objects because they retain traces of social, cultural, and historical value as they are taken up, transformed and repurposed throughout history. The promise of desire, which the sexual health researcher can draw from desiring objects, establishes how dynamic sexual cultures produce meaning through their sexual objects. Objects that desire inform us of how the sexual body might be expanded, shaped, and transgressed; hence desiring objects embody the progressive legacy expounded in the ongoing development of sexual health education and the future of human sexuality.


Chase Ledin is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Theory at the University of Edinburgh. His research explores the cultural representation(s) and epistemologies of “post-AIDS” in contemporary sociology, culture and theory.


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