A Curious History of Sex, by Kate Lister

Nine stars

I am always interested in books that force me to think and teach me something while I enjoy them. I have read many a biography or memoir, alongside books that expound on world history, all in hopes of coming away with more knowledge (or any) on a subject. However, when it came to Kate Lister’s piece, it was a few people who recommended it simply to see what I would write in my review that had me reaching for this piece. Lister tackles the wide world of sex, reproduction, and how humans have handled the enormous topic throughout history. Mixing detailed explanations with wonderful humour to offset any nervousness that might be found when discussing the topic, Lister produces a stunning account that is full of education, elucidation, and even ejaculation (alliteration can be so much fun)! Not for the prude of mind, Lister’s book is wonderfully detailed and easily digested, with just enough humour to keep the reader pushing further.

Before getting too deep into things, Lister makes sure to explore some of the common words that have arisen in the discussion of sex. Many of these words have become woven into the fabric of modern language, though few can trace them back to their origins. Lister makes a point throughout of explaining these words and where they may have first come into print, surprising many readers as to just how many euphemisms exist for vagina, clitoris, or even penis. This laying of the groundwork proves useful, as it is key to understanding how humans have seen the body and what means have been used to ‘decorate’ words to help them pass muster. Lister pulls no punches, which may be a tad too vulgar for some readers, but more on that in a bit.

From the medical to the personal realm, the act of sexual congress and its associated climactic events receive some interesting discussion. Lister explores the orgasm and how it affects both sexes differently. While men appear to turn into ‘sleepy bears’ thereafter, it almost energises a woman into wanting more, so Lister presents in some of her research. Medicine has sought to explore how to help or hinder orgasms over long periods of time, with the help of salves, instruments, and even ways to approach sex. All of this is highly intriguing, especially when seen over a long historical approach. To say that the Victorians were the first to seek the vibrator to assist would be incorrect, though orgasmic liberation may have come to its zenith at that time.

Lister also looks into some interesting social norms as they relate to the human body and how sex has played into it. From personal grooming sentiments to body odour balancing and even prophylactics, sex and the body surely go hand in hand. Social norms and expectations have surely changed over time, but Lister takes the time to tackle how and why these changes have dictated what is ‘accepted’ today and how certain stigma mount because of the super-sexualisation of society. She really gets to the heart of the matter, offering some of her own opinions, as well as key scientific studies to help substantiate arguments on both sides.

Lister cannot complete her journey without looking at sexuality and how it has evolved as a business, exploring brothels, prostitution, and all manner of paid enjoyment. While it can surely be called the oldest profession, prostitution and paid sex has not always been sinister and part of an evil realm. Lister seeks to better understand human need for sex and the lengths to which some will go to procure it, even briefly. Taking the stigma out of it lessens its impact and allows the reader to understand sex as a business, as well as how it as grown over the centuries. This proves enlightening, as laws around the world towards prostitution are becoming looser and the stigma appears to be lifting in some form or another. She parses no words or topics, seeking to expound on both male and female sex workers, including how they ply their trade.

While many prudish readers may shy away from the piece, I would encourage them to come back and give the book a try. Being uncomfortable or ‘scandalised’ is all a part of societal norms. Peeking behind the curtain to see what’s really going on may open one’s eyes in a positive way, rather than shunning something as ‘dirty’ and ‘disgusting’. Education is the great equaliser, or so I have come to believe. While it is not for everyone, Lister seeks to teach and keep things as light as possible. Open mindedness is a must with this piece, as is a desire to learn, though having a great sense of humour cannot hurt either. Lister is thorough in his analysis, using great examples in chapters that make sense as one moves along through the book. There is so much to learn and the photographs added throughout offer a wonderful addition to the experience. Then again, having listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, I have never heard so many “whore” and “cunt” references in the opening few chapters of a book as I did here. Still, it permitted me to better understand without feeling desensitised to the verbiage that has a strong connotation on this side of the Atlantic.

Kudos, Madam Lister, for such a great reading experience. I will have to read more of your work, as you really get to the heart of the matter and use humour to make it all a little easier to digest.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons