A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister review – from blindfolds to bikes
Arousal, adultery and desire … an anecdote-rich chronicle that uncovers layer on layer of oppression.
This book contains, as the title promises, many delightful curiosities. There are people, for instance, who get aroused by the sun. “Actirasty”, it’s called, which sounds like a probiotic yoghurt drink but would of course be life-changing if you lived in Málaga. James Joyce used to address his letters to Nora, “dear Fuck Bird”. The ultimate and – implicitly – best euphemism for the word “cunt” is “the monosyllable”.
As late as the 20th century, grafting a monkey’s testicle on to your scrotum was considered a plausible cure for impotence and general sluggishness. As early as 1139, it was signed into canonical law that impotence was grounds for the annulment of a marriage, so you can see why the try-anything approach persisted, when a person could be unmade by physical failure, publicly ejected from the organising bond of society. Dough has reminded humans of sex, one way or another, pretty much since the cultivation of wheat began; any loaf of bread worth its salt was originally designed to resemble either a penis or a vagina. But much of the significance of food, especially in the early modern period, was not its erotic redolence but its mediating role in the bewitchery of carnal urges. So a wife might increase her husband’s ardency by keeping a live fish in her vagina for two days, then roasting it and feeding it to him. Or she might, conversely, set out to kill him by covering herself in honey and rolling in wheat, before grinding the wheat and turning it into bread, which she then fed to him. But she’d have to remember to mill it in the opposite direction to the sun, whatever that means.
As late as the 20th century, grafting a monkey’s testicle on to your scrotum was thought a plausible cure for impotence
At the point at which bicycles were adopted by vanguard feminists as a source of liberation – the American suffragette Susan B Anthony said they had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” – they simultaneously started to feature heavily in pornography. This glances towards an original and rather buoying notion about men, women, desire and the patriarchy. Perhaps beneath the rich history of centuries of prejudice, outlined by Lister, in which women were denied sexuality even while they were accused of voraciousness, there has been a competing truth that freedom is, itself, arousing. Perhaps female emancipation was driven not by the arc of history (like the invisible hand, more convincing as a phrase than it is an observable fact) but by the fact that equality is a huge turn-on, and rigid belief structures are no match for that. Or perhaps not. Lister’s vivid and playful language observes no rules of academic turgidity – sorry, thoroughness, But you can hear the lecturer in her nonetheless: she drops facts in a dainty way, as if they are trivia, yet each triggers a deeper rumination on how sex interlaces with all other human fortunes.
Dildos, the clitoris, depilatory creams are all explored in her rambunctious style. A fascinating chapter, Colonising the Cunt, uncovers layer on layer of oppression almost too horrific to see collected in one place – black women and men displayed to a gaping public like zoo animals, a pseudo-scientific gloss applied on top. Lister quotes Dr William Lee Howard’s The Negro As a Distinct Ethnic Factor in Civilisation, on the “large size of the African’s penis”, one consequence of which is that “he will walk the alleys late at night with a penis swollen from disease, and infects his bride-to-be with the same nonchalance that he will an hour later exhibit when cohabiting with the lowest of his race”. The on‑the-spot diagnosis is rum, but so is the confusion of that imagery – that the shame of this other race lies in not keeping a spare, clean knob for the woman you’re married to. It says so much about what it does to one’s ability to reason and observe neutrally, when you come from a culture in which women’s wombs are the primary method of transmitting property.
Moral relativism often exculpates those living in the early 19th century; the idea that, high on their own adventures, blissfully naive, they simply didn’t recognise the common humanity in any but a small number of similar-looking foreigners. This, the book delicately shows rather than tells, is bullshit: in 1810, the African Association, along with the anti-slavery campaigner Zachary Macaulay, took the case of the South African Khoikhoi woman Sarah Baartman to court, arguing that to be exhibited for your buttocks might possibly be a dehumanising experience. The case was dismissed, and Baartman died of alcoholism six years later, at the age of 26. The point is made: if anybody could have seen this as exploitation, everybody could have.
Lister is creator of the Whores of Yore website, and writes here: “The truth is that I should not have used the word ‘whore’” on the site: “it’s not my word, and if you’re not a sex worker, it’s not yours either. It’s a term of abuse that sex workers hear every day by those seeking to devalue and shame them.” But most readers will surely be able to tell the difference between using “whore” as a term of abuse in 2020, and delving into its history, which started with the Norse for adulteress and only got its remunerative dimension much later. Not wanting to get bogged down in detail, Lister tells the less curious history – the workaday business of dates, laws, events – in rather broad terms. So, she notes, in 1580 Britain saw the first parliamentary bill to restrain “books, pamphlets … and other works that promote lascivious ungodly love”, and this was taken as the beginning of a new attitude to obscenity and, thereby, to sex. (Though it might have been worth referring to the invention of the printing press – there wouldn’t have been much need to restrict pamphlets before the 1550s: the moral panic may have been more about the tech than the sex.) This segues straight into the observation that the “licensing act of 1662 banned the publication of any ‘heretical, seditious, schismatic or offensive books … contrary to Christian faith”. Yet this was not explicitly or even implicitly prudish in intent: indeed, so soon after the restoration of Charles II, all the energy was geared towards forgetting the nation’s brief flirtation with fundamentalist puritanism. The Act is more commonly understood as a re-enactment of the Order of the Star Chamber of 1637, or put more simply, a reassertion of monarchical order to make sure no one cut his head off again.
In her conclusion, Lister describes in passing the difficulties of building a historically accurate portrait of sex, when you have the testimony of the church but not of the sex worker, the chronicles of the courts but not of the adulteress. In the absence of individual accounts, she has aimed instead to build a picture of the religious, political and cultural structures that “framed people’s experience of sex”. This is an uncharacteristically dry account of a lively project, like giving the carb/protein/fat breakdown of a dish without saying how delicious it was, how an unexpected caper brought the whole thing alive.
The Roman author Aelian describes a virginity test that involves a woman trying to feed a barley cake to a snake: if it won’t bite or, wearing a blindfold, the woman fails to find the snake, then she apparently isn’t a virgin and should be punished. Although there are plenty of men in this book – and not just oppressors but young lads who become “withered and aged because of … constant masturbating” – it is unavoidably an account of injustice against women, and a compelling one.
• A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister is published by Unbound (RRP £25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.