Dr Kate Lister is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Communication in Leeds Trinity University, but she is probably best known for her online research project Whores of Yore, a sex-positive, interdisciplinary archive of the history of sex and sexuality. This has no doubt provided Dr Lister with a plethora of sources for her latest release, A Curious History of Sex, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
‘This is a book about how attitudes to sex have changed throughout history,’ writes Dr Lister in her introduction, calling sex the ‘supreme leveller.’ It would not be too controversial to claim that the majority of us have been curious about sex from a very young age. Dr Lister writes ‘to say that humans have overthought sex is something of an understatement.’A Curious History of Sex really hits the (G) spot (geddit?).
The opening chapters provide the reader with a lewd lesson in linguistics by way of foreplay, before thrusting into the history of sex toys, pubic hair, menstruation, condoms, and sex bots. Lister provides her readers with the etymological and historical journey of the words ‘whore’ and ‘cunt’ – two of the biggest insults that we could hurl at women today. But why are they offensive? According to Dr Lister’s research, the word ‘cunt’ originates from a Proto-Indo-European root word meaning woman, knowledge, creator, or queen. What happened in the intervening years to turn it from a word of worship to one of abuse?
From impotence tests in medieval Europe, to testicle theft on the streets of 20th century Chicago; from the bicycle doing “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” to dispelling myths about the oldest profession in the world (it’s not what you think it is), A Curious History of Sex is an orgy of entertaining and thoughtful specifics about the sex of yonder year.
However, this was not written just to arouse our historical interests. This is an interdisciplinary effort combining penetrating research into religion, media, law, politics, economics, in order to paint a very rich painting of human sexuality. Dr Lister writes that ‘understanding historical attitudes to gender identity and sexual morphology is essential if we are to fully appreciate how heteronormativity and constructs of the binary of masculine and feminine came to dominate cultural narratives today.’ I would argue that Dr Kate Lister has her finger on the pulse of the current climate surrounding feminist debates around sex and sexuality with this prescient piece of work.
We are history in the making, and it is essential to look back and appreciate how our current values came about, for no idea is born in a vacuum. Lister’s chapters on sex work were particularly illuminating, professing that it is a difficult topic to research and that ‘sex work involves a vast spectrum of gender, sexuality, services, providers, and clients.’ It is not a straightforward issue as the current debate in the mainstream media would have you believe. Like all ideas, the negative attitudes towards the selling of sex are not permanent monolithic fact, but are culturally determined and sustained through the social structures society has constructed around sex. With this awareness comes the possibility of change.
As a born and bred Irish woman, the most significant chapter of this book for me was the one discussing abortion. For those who are not aware, on May 25th 2018, a referendum to remove a constitutional ban on abortion was passed in Ireland. (I wrote about it here for my college magazine in 2016). This was made possible by the tireless and determined campaigners who had fought against the eighth amendment for years, and supported by women who shared their deeply personal stories of travelling to the U.K. to procure an abortion. In Lister’s chapter “Bringing Down the Flowers” (a euphemism for abortion), she refers to court records citing the stories of women who died from botched abortions, and those who were indicted for trying to induce one.
In Britain after abortion was made illegal in 1803, women were prescribed herbs such as savin, pennyroyal, rue, and ergot to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Taking too much, however, could kill the mother too. When these methods inevitably failed, desperate women would seek the assistance of an abortionist, whose tools often caused permanent damage and infection to a woman’s body – but this was a danger deemed worth the risk. Lister references a young girl named Ann Gardner, who in 1708 was executed for ‘murdering her baby.’ This immediately reminded me of Ann Lovett, a 15 year old Irish schoolgirl who died in 1984 after giving birth, alone, to a baby that no one knew she was carrying.
When the UK abortion act was passed in 1967, Lister quotes midwife Jennifer Worth’s opinion that abortion is not ‘a moral issue, but a medical one. A minority of women will always want an abortion.’ Lister’s research demonstrates that many attitudes that should belong in the past are still alive and well today, particularly those regarding the sexual and bodily autonomy of women.
Ultimately this was a fun and charming read, and I hope that it helps to reject the shame and stigma around sex, as this shame is a factor in cases of abuse surrounding sex. In her concluding paragraph, Lister declares that we must discuss matters of pleasure and consent, masturbation and pornography, love, relationships, and our bodies. ‘Because the only way we will dispel shame is to drag sex out in the open and have a good long look at it,’ she writes.
There is not one history of sex, but A Curious History of Sex is a brilliant place to start. It is available in all good bookstores now. If you like your history quirky and your humour bawdy, and appreciate visual aids that leave very little to the imagination, then what are you waiting for? Purchase a copy and join #TeamCunt!
A Curious History of Sex
By Dr Kate Lister
353 pages. 2020.
Preorder for April 14th (US)