One of the prime pleasures of Kate Lister’s lively A Curious History of Sex is getting a sense of the continuum between ourselves and our ancestors. It can be difficult to conceptualise people who lived centuries ago as vivid, funny individuals, but being horny, it turns out, is a great leveller of time. The major accomplishment of this history is to share enough arcane, surprising information about sex and sexual mores to make it a riot to read, while humanising the participants by way of their own silliness, abjectness and randiness. Who could fail to be filled with sympathy, for instance, by this bitter 1768 song about the legendary courtesan Lucy Cooper?
“Has she a better cunt than I
Of nut brown hairs more full?
That all mankind with her do lye
Whilst I have scarce a cull?”
In Strange Antics: A History of Seduction, Clement Knox also takes pains to dismantle the idea that sex was invented in 1963. Studying seduction as a political and cultural force through a series of biographies of notable figures, Knox writes not only about the 1920s moral revolution that enabled the free love of the 1960s, but about Mary Wollstonecraft’s ambivalent attempts to love outside traditional monogamy, and about the flexible mores in 1760s Italy, where Casanova found himself – unhappily for the most part – cicisbeo or cavalier servente (kinds of male concubine) to married women.
Lister doesn’t use sex as a route into broader cultural analysis in quite the same way that Knox uses seduction. Hers is a more straightforward observational approach, drawing on extensive investigation of sexual history for her popular research project “Whores of Yore”. The aim is not to cover every sexual quirk or trend, but to produce an overview of how sexual attitudes have changed over time and the often strange, often amusing, sometimes horrifying things we humans do to procure or deny orgasm.
Quite a lot here is straightforwardly, smuttily good fun. It came as news to me that bread and dough have such a longstanding erotic association, for example. As well as being pliant kneading material that grows stiffer the more it is touched, bread can be baked into suggestive shapes. A phallic loaf was proposed by the Roman satirist Martial (AD 40-104): “If you want to satisfy your hunger you can eat my Priapus; you may gnaw his very appendage, yet you will be undefiled.”
Bicycles, too, have been the source of much sexualisation. A symbol of increased female mobility and independence, their more prosaic physical potential was also a cause for concern. In 1896 the editor of a Canadian medical journal was quoted as saying “that bicycle riding produces in the female a distinct orgasm”. Bicycles, though not quite the orgasm machines they were feared to be by doctors, did indeed produce some measure of sexual freedom. They necessitated less restrictive clothes, for one thing, and for a woman to open her legs rather than keep them daintily crossed. Amusingly, the female craze for cycling also produced a precursor to the modern concept of “resting bitch face”; a Dr A Shadwell described women suffering from “bicycle face” as having “set faces, eyes fixed before them, and an expression either anxious, irritable, or at best stony”.
Beyond the arcane fun and games, though, the history of sex often turns out to be – depressingly, though unsurprisingly – a history of supressing women’s bodies. Gynaecology, until fairly recently, was little more than a series of brutal attempts to curb the completely normal variances of the female body, or to subdue sexual impulse. The sixth-century Byzantine Greek physician Aëtius of Amida describes in his medical encyclopaedia a gory method to remove an “excessive” clitoris. Clitoridectomies continued – one was performed in England in 1863 by a Dr Isaac Baker Brown on a 30-year-old woman who had developed “a great distaste for her husband” – and of course they continue today in the form of female genital mutilation.
A wince-inducing section about the use of Lysol disinfectant as a vaginal douche is especially demoralising. An 1885 advert is described in which a wife is abandoned and humiliated by her husband who can’t bear the smell of her “old lady”. Though we are thankfully less likely to buy actual poison to apply to our vaginas nowadays, the drive to deodorise and sanitise the perfectly healthy smells and sights of female genitalia has gone nowhere; there is a new brand of “wellness”-based industry aimed at making over our vulvas.
Whether you enjoy A Curious History of Sex or not may have to do with your opinion of Lister’s tone, which is exuberant and gleefully vulgar. One couldn’t write a history of sex without a decent dose of swearing, but it’s less the specific words than the easy, breezy “online” style that might be problematic. Quite a few chapters end with a not particularly great gag or innuendo, and one otherwise standout chapter on etymology ends with: “Welcome to #TeamCunt.” I’m all for de-academicising, but my teeth were regularly set on edge. Writing and speaking frankly like this is possibly very useful for people who struggle to confront their bodies and sexualities, but if you’re an unrepressed adult, it all starts to feel a bit Benny Hill.
Much of the book’s best, serious work overrides these tonal misgivings, though. Far too brief but most interesting of all was a chapter about racial fetishisation and the jaw-dropping treatment of black women by white Europeans. Sarah Baartman, a South African Khoikhoi woman, and Elizabeth Magnas, a black Englishwoman, were both put on display as the “Hottentot Venus” for audiences to gawk at, Magnas as late as 1840. Black men were also objectified as hyper-sexual and animalistic, as they still are today. Dr William Lee Howard published a paper in 1904 that claimed “the large size of the African’s penis” stopped him from becoming “civilised” and “moral” like the white man.
The intersection of race and sex is also one of the more fascinating elements of Knox’s book. The African American heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson’s earned glory was, for example, constantly overshadowed by furious persecution at the hands of white people. His peers refused to fight him, stalling his career. White boxers drew “the colour line” once they gained champion status: though they would usually fight black men on their way up the ladder, they considered it their duty to keep championships out of the hands of black athletes. Jim Jeffries, world heavyweight champion for six years in the early 1900s, said: “I will never fight a negro… Back to the boiler works first.”
Eventually Johnson reached world champion status, but on his way there he gathered a series of white sexual conquests and, most shockingly, a white wife. His shamelessness about who he chose to sleep with infuriated the white Americans who already hated him. He was eventually brought to court for violating the Mann Act, ostensibly a law designed to stop white slavery and enforced prostitution but which in practice criminalised a host of consensual sexual activity, including interracial relationships.
Strange Antics recounts the lives of notable figures whose experiences with seduction were in some way historically or culturally significant. We get to know in fantastically vivid detail the likes of Colonel Francis Charteris (a man who in the 1690s was known as the “Rape-Master-General of Great Britain”), Casanova, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, among others. It is less a general history or cultural analysis than a series of literary biographies unified by a theme. This makes for a diverting if sometimes less than coherent format.
Knox is a natural biographer with a flair for unveiling startling anecdotes with evident relish. I gasped aloud at the revelation that WT Stead, a journalist hunting for proof that teenage virgins were being sold on London streets, had conveniently bypassed the lack of evidence by simply arranging for such a trade to take place himself, paying a destitute woman £5 for her 13-year-old daughter and then shipping the terrified child off to the French Salvation Army.
At times it becomes difficult to discern what the biography at hand has to do with the book’s stated intent. A lengthy recounting of Bram Stoker’s early life and career in theatre was perfectly interesting but left me frustratedly turning pages, hoping to get to the point. Yet once it did arrive, it was one of the most satisfying of the lot, a brilliantly woven analysis of the anti-Semitic tropes in Dracula and in entertainment about hypnosis and somnambulism, such as George du Maurier’s wildly offensive novel Trilby with its Jewish villain Svengali, or the German 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene. Knox shows how the anti-Semitism in those works, drawn out by the Jack the Ripper murders, played to the heavily racialised conceptions of seduction: the fear of the shadowy outsider corrupting white women.
Enjoyable as Knox’s biographies are, Strange Antics is at its most exhilarating when looking beyond its subjects’ lives in a more active and rigorous way. In his Jack Johnson chapter he writes: “All racial politics are sexual politics, because all racists fetishise racial purity, and purity can only be sustained through the enforcement of a strict sexual apartheid.” Towards the end of the book, an overview of Marxist and socialist theories of sexuality is bracing and welcome, a reminder that not everyone considers the inequalities of our current sexual politics to be natural and inevitable. That seduction as an activity always concerns the larger power structures in which it takes place may go without saying, but in fact it is powerful and necessary to make that case explicit.
Knox’s voice is confident until it flounders at the book’s close. Seduction in the present day is more slippery terrain than the historical, but couldn’t, I suppose, be omitted. I do wish it had been. Michel Houellebecq’s grumpy pronouncements on the inhumanity of modern sexual exchange are quoted in apparent admiration and agreement. Neoliberalism has produced individualists, goes the argument, and the resulting romantic economy we now find ourselves in, where we size up respective sexual value on screens.
There are some very ropey and glib comparisons drawn between the behaviour of pick-up artists (mostly male communities who use strategised, often objectionable techniques to pick up women) and online dating. Both are “dehumanising” according to Knox. But pick-up artists scheme, usually, to attract women by manipulating their insecurities and lying to them. Using a dating app to meet a lover may be distasteful to Houellebecq and Knox, but it isn’t comparable. Certainly, we judge each other’s sexual value on Tinder but so do we in ordinary life. The boring fact is internet dating is not necessarily any different from “normal” dating except in the way it begins.
The #MeToo movement is dealt with swiftly in an afterword, somewhat understandably as the book was commissioned before October 2017. Even so, Knox’s rather half-hearted conclusions left a questionable taste in my mouth, as did an anecdote about seeing a young man try to hit on a woman using pick-up artist techniques in a Clapham pub before falling over. As the only first-person story in the book it was surely there for a reason but I couldn’t grasp the intended significance. Are we to feel sympathy for the pathetically portrayed young man? Or derision? Or take it that men are generally on the back foot nowadays, in the middle of all this change?
A final paragraph invites us to find equilibrium, to marry reason and passion instead of rushing to legislate or enforce bureaucratic measures in order to stop harassment. That’s an unobjectionable concept, but so unobjectionable as to be useless. Sure, let’s marry reason and passion, that’s a fine idea, let us know when it’s all done – what are we going to do in the meantime? Knox’s conclusion doesn’t bear out, or reflect the more ambivalent approach taken in the rest of the work.
The present moment could hardly be a more appropriate time for enquiry about sex and seduction, and how the two interact. Sex, with all the functional nitty-gritty, is its own wonder. The strange things we like to do to each other are endlessly interesting and odd. How we get there, though, and why, is the truly pressing question.
I find myself wondering if what we now call seduction can or should even exist in the kind of world I’d like to live in. That isn’t to say that I want to eliminate flirtation or mystery, as some anti-feminist critics believe. One of life’s great pleasures – my great pleasures – is to be surprised by attraction, to collide with people you never could have anticipated and enjoy each other without guile. But the prevalent form of seduction is about convincing, about overriding reluctance. I imagine a world in which there is no need to erode someone’s impulses, no need to rub away at reluctance, because sex happens only when two people frankly and openly and mutually want it.
A Curious History of Sex
Unbound, 384pp, £25
Strange Antics: A History of Seduction
William Collins, 528pp, £25
This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor