Bookmarks: A paddle in the shallow end of sex history
A fortnightly look at books, writers, and reviews
Contrary to what the poet Philip Larkin suggested, sexual intercourse did not begin in 1963 between the unbanning of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the release of the first Beatles LP. It apparently started some time before that, at least according to two new provocative works, A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister (Unbound), and Strange Antics: A History of Seduction by Clement Knox (William Collins).
However, they are not so much books on sex, but rather accounts of sexual oppression and exploitation. Lister, an academic and historian who runs the online WhoresOfYore.com project, declares that hers is “not a comprehensive study of every sexual quirk, kink and ritual across all cultures throughout time, as that would entail writing an encyclopaedia. 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.”
Well, if we must. To which end, Lister has amassed an amusing compendium of curiosities and oddities. A lot of it is quite bonkers. By the end of the 19th century, for example, the grafting of a monkey’s testicle on to a scrotum was considered a possible antidote to impotence and “general sluggishness”. Such desperation was perhaps understandable: impotence was signed into canonical law as grounds for the annulment of marriages as early as 1139...