Lister, an Englishwoman, is a strong writer, and her book comes with a story attached. She operates the website (and excellent Twitter feed) Whores of Yore, about historical attitudes toward sex work and desire in general. Her book, like all books issued by the British publishing house Unbound, was crowd-funded, an idea whose time has surely come... Lister is aware that her book, dark passages aside, is a romp rather than an especially serious or comprehensive work of history or criticism. She has the double entendres to prove it: “This is a drop in the ocean, a paddle in the shallow end of sex history, but I hope you will get pleasantly wet nonetheless.”
This is a book of varying merit. At moments, when Lister is piling one fact atop another, “A Curious History of Sex” has a Wikipedia-page vibe. But she manages to pull out of these midair stalls. She’s mostly quite good company on the page.
Had Victoria Wood decided to write a scholarly book about sex, it would be like this. Lister has a saucy wit and I loved the deployment of ingenious euphemisms: baby-cave, lady baubles, sugared almond. I laughed out loud to learn that vibrators were never sold as sex aids. They were devices to cure colds, digestive complaints and flatulence, 'from which the patient finds much relief'. Most of all, though, the descriptions of the treatment of women are very angry-making — from the total ostracism of unmarried mothers and the horror of illegal abortions, to the insulting use of the word 'whore', which came to mean 'a woman who has authority over a man and must be shamed into silence at all costs'. There has been a lot of shaming, a lot of silence.
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... 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.
Lister, a history lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, has written about sex for Vice and the Wellcome Trust, as well as on her website, Whores of Yore, where you will also find vintage erotica and writing from sex workers. Her tone is warm, frisky and “intellectually slutty”, as she puts it. She has her finger on (or perhaps in?) the zeitgeist, always at pains to be open-minded and inclusive.
So many of the hang-ups and phobias about sex have a common origin, namely male fear of female passion. And that explains why this book needed to be written by a woman. Had a man attempted what Lister has achieved so perfectly, it would have been at best mansplaining and at worst rather creepy. It would probably also have been deadly dull — some of the most boring books I’ve read were histories of sex written by men. Bravo to Lister for her honesty, authority, candour and especially her humour. “We must keep talking about sex,” she concludes. Yes, please do.