This book review is by third year History student, Charlotte Tyrrell.
SPOILER ALERT! I loved this book!
I wanted to read A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister for so long and I was not disappointed when I decided to treat myself. It was so well written, I was constantly sending pictures of paragraphs to my family saying, ‘you need to read this book!’ A word of caution however, I would not advise reading this around young children. Titles such as ‘A History of C**t’ or ‘Sex and Bread’ could lead to some awkward conversations. Kate Lister’s writing is so down to earth that it makes it accessible to general readers, whilst academics can enjoy it as she has fully referenced. Lister is witty throughout the book which kept me fully engaged. Descriptions such as, “In possibly the most champion act of mansplaining in the whole of human history, two Renaissance anatomists proudly claimed to have ‘discovered’ the clitoris in 1559. (Cue slow- clapping)” had me laughing out loud and cheering along.
A constant feature throughout was the changing terminology used for describing genitalia. Lister provided a whole new set of words and phrases along with the date they were being used. I thought I was fairly up to date with my slang, but I will now be using ‘flapdoodle’ and ‘pudding bag’ much more regularly. Lister explained how language and meanings changed over time. I now feel completely justified in my continual use of the word c**t as vagina is much more offensive (it is a sheath for a sword/penis).
The images used throughout are divine. If you follow Lister’s other Twitter account ‘Whores of Yore’ then you will be familiar with her historical sexual images. I think they are great as often they would be images deemed pornographic or shameful, but Lister encourages the reader to embrace them whilst contextualising them. Some of my favourites were the Victorian ladies who were naked cycling. Who knew bikes were such a controversial object.
One aspect that I think should be acknowledged and praised is that the book examines sexuality on a global scale. The focus was not white, European centred but explored sex in Asia, Africa and racial prejudices. Images from India of devils having sex were bright and beautifully designed whilst practical images from Japan about menstruation were fascinating.
Overall, I think this book is a must read whether you want an introduction text to the history of sex or an interesting read during lockdown. It wasn’t a complete history of sex, but Lister never claimed it was. If you are interested in the history of sex, medicine, gender, language or culture then I think this is definitely something you should have look at. I will be buying everyone a copy for Christmas!