Sally and Phil Lister, retired teachers from the Lake District, were thrilled when the debut book by their daughter Kate was picked up by a publisher.
Phil enthusiastically told his friends that it was about Britain’s canals and railways. Her mother, Sally, was braver — and more honest — about their daughter’s first book, A Curious History of Sex.
Unlike her husband, who found it difficult to discuss the book in public, Sally regaled her local Women’s Institute in the town of Ulverston with tales of 20th-century testicle thefts, Roman penis innuendos and robot brothels.
Kate Lister, a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, has dedicated the book, to be published next month, to her family — but added the word “Sorry!”
The book was crowdfunded by more than 1,700 supporters after the 38-year-old’s online research project on the history of the sex trade, Whores of Yore, gained nearly 300,000 Twitter followers, attracting the interest of the Unbound publishing company.
“I have always been fascinated by sex,” Lister said. “I started the Twitter account because I was researching the medieval sex trade and I came across a reference to a woman who called herself ‘Clarice Clatterbollocks’. It made me laugh and I thought it might make other people laugh too.”
With a book contract in place, the academic started to peep up the skirts of the past and revealed in great detail that — contrary to what Philip Larkin wrote in his poem Annus Mirabilis — sexual intercourse began a good deal earlier than 1963.
Tales of Roman penis innuendos and robot brothels.
Her discoveries in various archives included a description of a 36,000-year-old bison horn sex toy found in France and accounts of medieval “witches” who were accused of keeping penises in trees as pets.
The book is peppered with historical slang for sex such as “tallywag” from the 1680s and “take a turn among the cabbages” from the 1890s, as well as chapters called “Vibrators and the Victorians” and “Sex and Smells in the Middle Ages”.
Lister airs details about celebrity sex lives including that of WB Yeats, who had a vasectomy in 1934 to improve his virility and the quality of his poetry.
Food features as well, including a medieval “love potion” that involved a woman keeping a live fish in her underwear before roasting it and serving it to the man of her dreams. The story of Zoe Stavri, a feminist blogger who used her yeast infection to bake a sourdough loaf in 2015, is also included.
There are some gruesome episodes, including a spate of testicle thefts in Chicago in the 1920s when a rogue surgeon started attacking young men to supply a growing black market fuelled by a belief that transplants, including from primates, could boost virility.
Using chloroform and a scalpel, the thief performed transplants to help his ageing male patients in their “quest for eternal youth”. Newspaper headlines branded the crimes “gland larceny”.
The book is peppered with historical slang for sex such as “tallywag” from the 1680s and “take a turn among the cabbages.”
Lister said she hoped some of the stories would serve as “cautionary tales” to the reader to avoid “modern quacks”, citing Gwyneth Paltrow’s jade vagina eggs, which were marketed as able to fix hormone levels and aid bladder control.
Paltrow’s company, Goop, was widely discredited by gynaecologists, who said the eggs could be dangerous. Goop was fined $145,000 in 2018 for “unsubstantiated” marketing claims.
Lister, who is single, added: “I noticed that things haven’t moved on. People will still go to extraordinary lengths to reboot a flagging libido. We never seem to learn. Like with Botox, which is literally poison. Is that any better than injecting ourselves with monkey bollocks?”
She acknowledged the difficulty of using “loaded” words such as “whore” and the possibility of offending prostitutes and transgender people and said she plans to donate half her profits from pre-publication orders to Basis, a support group for sex workers in Yorkshire.
Lister added that the book has unexpectedly brought her closer to her mother. “It has given us permission to talk about sex,” she said. “My dad is even considering giving copies to his church group.”
A Curious History of Sex will be published in the U.K. on February 6 — “Just in time for Valentine’s Day,” Lister said.