Book Review: A Curious History of Sex // Kate Lister


Okay, look. I’m pretty sure I can guess what you’re thinking, but A Curious History of Sex isn’t porn – though it is definitely NSFW and features some unexpectedly raunchy Victorian postcards – it is history; bloody well-written and well-researched history at that.

Dr Kate Lister, lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, sets out in A Curious History of Sex to challenge people to think about where their beliefs and assumptions have come from, and to educate the reader on some of the sexual habits of people in the past, how attitudes to different forms of sex have changed over the years, and to debunk a number of stereotypes and urban legends along the way.

“This is not a comprehensive study of every sexual quirk, kink and ritual across all cultures throughout time… rather, 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.”

Kate Lister, A Curious History of Sex

Formatted as a compilation of thematically related essays linked by the author’s witty commentary and deadpan humour, A Curious History of Sex shies away from nothing, and covers everything. From Sex and Words (why is the most offensive swear word in England slang for a vagina?), to Sex and Machines (did Victorian doctors really invent the vibrator as a medical tool to treat hysterical women?), to Sex and Money (is sex work actually the world’s oldest profession like the saying suggests?).

Several angles are considered, and Lister includes examples from a variety of historical time periods, including the ancient civilisations, medieval and renaissance Europe, and early modern Asia. Where the source material exists to allow for their inclusion, the perspective of those of different genders, sexual orientations, cultures, and social standings adds a refreshing breadth and well-roundedness to her research that is so often absent in general histories. The last quarter of the book is taken up by chapter notes and a truly impressive bibliography, but don’t let that intimidate you: this book is fully accessible to non-academics and has none of the common readability problems you find in jargon-heavy texts. In fact, like me, you’ll probably fly through it quicker than you expected.

One of the main selling points of this book is the abundance of amusing anecdotes contained within it, and to further entice you to go and pick this book up, some of my personal favourites include: Victorian men fearing the orgasmic powers of the humble bicycle; the first recorded use of condoms in the mid-17th Century (apparently made of sheep guts, so there’s really no excuse these days, is there, boys?); the rise and fall of female pubic hair; Mr Kellogg and his libido-killing cornflakes (consume with caution), and the aphrodisiac properties of bread (of a certain shape, of course). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Some of what you discover will surprise you in a good way, some of it will shock you in a bad way, and some of it will make you cross your legs in horrified sympathy at just what qualified as acceptable medical procedures back in the day – but all of it will fascinate you, and propel you through each chapter wanting to find out more.

Words by Rebecca Harrison

For those of you whose interest has been roused rather than sated, you can find more of Kate Lister and her research on Twitter.

And you can find more books content (both sexy and unsexy) from us here


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