This book by Kate Lister is stuffed with anecdotes, scandalous excerpts from centuries-old texts, vintage erotica and a comprehensive list of slangs for describing genitalia in both rude and delicate ways.
The author states upfront that her book isn’t meant to be a comprehensive study of sexual practices and quirks, but rather “a curious history of sex and some of the things we have done to ourselves and to each other in the pursuit (and denial) of the almighty orgasm”.
Living up to its promise, the chapters successively dish out historical dirt on the words “whore” and “cunt”, genitals, the concept of virginity, anaphrodisiacs (the opposite of aphrodisiac), attitudes toward public hair, vintage sex dolls and even the Victorian moral panic over women riding bicycles and possibly orgasming from it.
A common theme running throughout the book is evidence that the desire to control female sexuality extends far back into time. Particularly distressing are the chapters on virginity tests, which have zero scientific basis and yet plague women to this day, and the clitoris, which has been mutilated through the ages out of fear that women might enjoy sexual pleasure without a man.
The author balances such painful accounts with a healthy serving of smutty humour. My personal favourite is her conclusion to the chapter on impotence, where she pays homage to Viagra: “If you ever pop a blue pill, please remember to give a full salute to all the ‘useless members’ who entered the history books because they were accused of not being able to enter anything else.”
As the creator of the popular Whores of Yore twitter account , Lister dedicates space for the history of sex work, dispelling the common myth that it’s the world’s oldest profession (originating from Rudyard Kipling). She sensitively highlights the racial fetishisation of native women by colonial officials, as well as the conditions faced by male and female sex workers throughout history.
The book draws largely from Western sources, although Lister makes efforts to include some Indian, Chinese and Islamic ones. Rather than an academic textbook on sexuality, she has produced an easy-to-read introduction to all things historically smutty, sexist and sexual.
Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★