Sex – Lessons from History

Can we look towards history to teach us more about our sexual selves?

Since the publication of her first book in 2014, The Victorian Guide to Sex, Fern Riddell has established herself as a cultural historian of gender, sex and suffrage in the 19th century. Her new book, published in June this year, Sex – Lessons from History, is an ambitious attempt to look at sex in history and discover what we can learn from it. It is a historiography that turns, at times, into a fascinating polemic about modern times.

The first chapter of Sex – Lessons from History surveys sexual slang in books and songs, from the medieval period onwards, to illustrate how people referred to acts like anal sex and fellatio, as well as words to suppress impulses deemed as unnatural. Words show us “that our ancestors didn’t live in a barren one-dimensional sexual landscape, but in a world full of exploration, surrender and desire.” And this is really the mission of her book – to contextualise, and thereby normalise, the multitude of sexual identities that have always existed. She goes on to look at examples of women loving women, men loving men, and “Loving who You Want” – exploring fluidity, both gender and sexual. It then has a chapter on the body, is “how we look, and how our genitals look,” a modern obsession? Before moving into subjects as diverse and amorphous as flirtation, masturbation, technology, orgasms, sex work and contraception – “the one area, above all others, that demonstrates humanity’s clear commitment to sex for pleasure’s sake, and not reproduction.”

Yet, Riddell has more of an agenda than simply to contextualise sexual pleasure. It is also a polemic about modern attitudes to sex, how our “quest for sexual pleasure” has become so utterly one-dimensional. Her final chapter, “The Future of Sex”, is an attack against the commodification of sex and the slide away from genuine intimate connection. “We are at a seminal moment in our sexual culture. Our modern sex lives have become geared solely towards our own individual experience, and the emphasis on sex as shared pleasure – something that was so important to our ancestors – is being erased.” She bemoans modern pornography for it’s focus on orgasms rather than eroticism; a television culture that hyper-sexualises images of male and female bodies and turns finding a life partner into a monetary competition. The 2019 series of Love Island got 3.4 million viewers. She asks how the modern feminist sexual debate has become so barbaric, stagnating over an obsession with genitals, and the right to pleasure is bypassed. Ultimately, she believes that we need to “reclaim” a “celebration of sex” from the past.

In many ways, Sex – Lessons from History is an important and relevant book, but the sheer breadth of the question can make it flounder. The bulk of her examples are from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, as they are her specialism, she uses much evidence from 19th century court records, for example. However, to call it Sex Lessons from History is somewhat misleading as her evidence from previous periods is sparse. This ought not detract from her debunking of myths such as the use of vibrators for hysteria, the freedom of women in music halls and how homosexuality was rarely sought out and punished in the 19th century. But, I would argue, that the domination of the church until the 18th century meant that a “celebration of sex” wasn’t a cultural reality. Women’s lives were ruined by indulging in pleasure for it’s own sake outside wedlock. Of course it went on, but for every upbeat Fanny Hill there were ten young women rejected by their communities and dying of syphilis in the gutter. The impact of a strict moral framework on pleasure can’t be underestimated, and it still has ramifications on our lives today.

On the whole, I commend Riddell’s book for attempting to normalise sexual pleasure in history; to re-evaluate gender fluidity and homosexuality; and to question the focus on individual pleasure in our liberal society. It’s important to shift the argument away from the assumption that sexual freedom was granted in the 1960s and to look at the more negative effects our commodified culture has on mutual pleasure and love.

Sex – Lessons from History by Fern Riddell, Hodder and Stoughton, £20