Sexing up history: how to study and tell the history of sex

From bodice-ripping in Poldark and Outlander on our small screens, to the mysterious contraption that is Edward VII’s custom-made ‘love chair’, it might be easy to dismiss sex history as a “bit of a giggle” – or at the very least a bit awkward. But for historians who study the sexual pleasures and predilections of the past, explains Dr Kate Lister, the history of sex is rich with sources that help to lay the past bare – and help us learn a little about ourselves, too…

A 15th-century detail from the Fountain of Youth, Piedmont, Italy. (Image by De Agostini/Getty Images)

Historical romping is all the rage on the silver screen. Whether it’s ripping bodices in Poldark, swashing of sex buckles in Outlander, or busting bonks in Vikings, it seems that people cannot get enough of leering at history with its skirt up and its bloomers down. Of course, the current obsession with sexing up the past says far more about our own time than it does about whichever historical period the TV is tackling. Tarting up the facts to seduce a viewing audience is one thing, but how do you actually research the history of sex? What can the study of sex bring to wider historical debates, and what is it like to be a sex historian?

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Prince Albert and Queen Victoria posing for photographer Roger Fenton, 30 June 1854. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Despite images of sex being everywhere in our society, we remain deeply uncomfortable with the subject. We may be happy enough to watch Louis XIV lust his way through the French court in BBC drama Versailles, but when it comes to talking about our own sex lives and bodies, we are far less enthusiastic. This cultural ambivalence around sex presents sex historians with a unique professional stumbling block – talking seriously about a subject that is laden with embarrassment, titillation, and a hefty amount of ‘OOOH Matron’. I have researched sex history for most of my academic career and the nature of the subject regularly presents me with socially awkward situations. For example, it doesn’t matter how grown-up you try to be, there will always be something mildly embarrassing about an editor calling you up to ask if you want ‘blowjob’ hyphenating in your chapter about sperm. And if you felt uncomfortable reading the word ‘blowjob’ on BBC History Magazine’s website, then you see my point.

We may be happy enough to watch Louis XIV lust his way through the French court in BBC drama 'Versailles' (pictured), but when it comes to talking about our own sex lives and bodies, we are far less enthusiastic, says Dr Kate Lister. (Image by AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo)
We may be happy enough to watch Louis XIV lust his way through the French court in BBC drama ‘Versailles’ (pictured), but when it comes to talking about our own sex lives and bodies, we are far less enthusiastic, says Dr Kate Lister. (Image by AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

I caught up with public historian Dr Eleanor Janega, who researches medieval sexuality and lectures at the LSE, to ask about her experiences of peeping up the skirts of history. Like all historians, Janega is passionate about her subject, but often finds it difficult to get past the giggles and wry smiles that she encounters.

“People act as though studying sexuality is unnecessary,” says Janega “or completely inappropriate because we still treat sex as something improper to talk about. As a result, it’s hard to be taken seriously. No one questions military history, because we all accept large scale violence as normal, but because sex is naughty people can act as though studying sexuality is just a bit of a giggle.”

Janega’s sentiments are widely echoed by those who research sex. In 2015, research carried out by Janice Irvine at the University of Massachusetts Amherst surveyed academics who research sexuality and found that “despite growing acceptance of the academic study of sexuality, both women and men perceived various types of problematic workplace experiences based on the subject of their research. Women reported a higher frequency of these subjective experiences with more destructive consequences”. The struggle is real.

Wall painting from The House of the Faun, built during the 2nd century BC in the Roman city of Pompeii, depicting an erotic satyr and nymph. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Sex history is a relatively new field of study and has only been regarded as a legitimate subject for the last 40 years or so. Faced with elevating sex history above the status of Carry on Cleo and being taken seriously, pioneering historians dealt with the inherent bawdiness of the subject by making it as academic as possible. Take, for example, the landmark publication in sex history, Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1976). There is no doubt that this text revolutionised the study of sex, but, ironically, the book isn’t actually about the act of sex – it’s about how we have understood and talked about sex. It’s about power dynamics, cultural control, and sexual repression – it’s not about what our ancestors got up to before the arrival of sex robots and Tinder. It’s a philosophical look at sex history, and while it’s incredibly clever and elegant, when it comes to providing detail on past sexual mores, it’s all Foucault and no knickers.

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But even those brazen historians who are willing to roll up their sleeves and conduct the most intimate examinations of history have to contend with the fact that sex is an incredibly difficult subject to research. Police and court records, medical texts and pornography are generally the ‘go to’ resources of the sex historian, but these sources always skew the data. What is almost totally absent from the history is the unbiased testimony of everyday folk to tell us how what kind of sex they were having, and what they thought about it all. For example, if you are researching the history of sex work, it is quite easy to find sources that will tell us what doctors, moralisers, and the media thought of the sex trade – but trying to find the voices of sex workers themselves is almost impossible. They are always just out of reach, filtered through the pens of people who had their own agenda.

Charles II and his parties

Take, for example, the 18th-century almanac of London’s working girls, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies (1757–95). The List was published annually and detailed the address, appearance, tariff, and skill sets of more than 120 women selling sex in and around the Covent Garden area of London. The various surviving copies contain an enormous amount of information of sexual practices on offer, but the List is a work of erotic titillation as much as it is a handy guide to the city, and we never hear directly from the women themselves. Could Mrs Griffin of Wapping truly “give more pleasure than a dozen raw girls”, and how did she feel about her review? Did Miss Harrington of Newman Street really have “pretty ringlets hang[ing] in tempting curls over the cupidinous font”, or was this simply good PR? We do not know because they never tell us.

'Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies' was published annually and detailed the address, appearance, tariff, and skill sets of more than 120 women selling sex in and around the Convent Garden area of London. (Public domain)
‘Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies’ was published annually and detailed the address, appearance, tariff, and skill sets of more than 120 women selling sex in and around the Covent Garden area of London. (Public domain)

Hallie Rubenhold is an author and social historian, and it was her book, Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies: Sex in the City in Georgian Britain (2005) that helped to bring the Listout of quiet academic circles and into popular culture. For Hallie, the value of a text lies in the fact that speaks so openly about sex at all.

“When I started writing The Covent Garden Ladies and reading volume after volume of what could be described as 18th-century porn, as well as diaries, memoirs and letters written about sexual experiences, I felt like I had struck gold – so much of what wasn’t talked about, what happened within people’s heads, their desires, their sense of taboo, their drive to be loved, their emotional injuries, their fears were just laid bare.”

While first hand testimonies about sex are rare, it is the job of the sex historian to piece together a picture of the world that contained people’s experience of sex. From there, we can begin to understand how sex was performed, experienced and controlled. While Harris’s List cannot tell us what the sex workers themselves thought of sex, it can tell us what was regarded as sexually desirable, and distasteful at the time. It can tell us something of sexual practices and perversions. But, most importantly, it offers a valuable counter-perspective on sex to the court records, medical texts and moralisers. And that is the ‘gold’ Hallie is referring to.

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An acrobat dancer, c1200 BC. (Getty Images)

But, why study sex history? What is to be gained by fumbling around in the pants of yore? Do we need to know the deeply personal and private lives of our ancestors? Is our knowledge of Toulouse-Lautrec made richer with the knowledge his penis was so large that he was known in Parisian brothels as the ‘tripod’? What does knowing that the future King Edward VII had a custom-made ‘love chair’ installed for his use at Le Chabanais brothel in Paris bring to our understanding the British monarchy?

Cultural historian Dr Fern Riddell appears regularly on tv and radio as an expert in Victorian sex and suffrage, and if anyone knows their history in this area, it’s Fern. With that in mind, I asked her why she felt sex history was an important subject to study she told me that “sex, in its absence or in its insistence, drives so much of our history it is laughable to argue any field of research does not need to examine it”.

Henry VIII. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

When I asked how she navigates with their inherent bawdiness of the subject, she replied that titillation is very much in the eye of the beholder.

“As historians all we can do is present the evidence we find, and doing so, without restriction, helps us to challenge other peoples’ deeply ingrained, and often incorrect, beliefs about the past. In many ways it is history, undiluted. Ask any sex historian and they will tell you that trans, gay, lesbian, bi and straight sexual identities and communities have existed since the dawn of time. We find them in every era of human development.”

It may be a difficult subject to research – I can’t pretend it isn’t – but the power of sex history lies not so much in unearthing fascinating nuggets about an individual’s sex life, but in using this history to contextualise and challenge current attitudes around sex. The poet Philip Larkin once joked that sex “began in nineteen sixty-three… between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban and the Beatles’ first LP”. But sex has a history that not only shows that desire and pleasure are very much part of the human experience, but that our ancestors were every bit as dirty, deviant, and diverse as today.

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Dr Kate Lister is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Communication at Leeds Trinity University and primarily researches the literary history of sex work. You can find her on Twitter @WhoresOfYore