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‘A Curious History of Sex’ Covers Aphrodisiacs, Bicycles, Graham Crackers and More | Press "Enter" to skip to content

‘A Curious History of Sex’ Covers Aphrodisiacs, Bicycles, Graham Crackers and More

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There is no room to explain the context, but if the following is information you need during this crisis, perhaps you should print out this bit of Lister’s wisdom and post it somewhere visible: “A farting, giggling fit that lasts an afternoon is not an orgasm.” This is the sort of thing the C.D.C. will never tell you.

This is a poor moment for unnecessary surgery. Lister’s writing about the history of that butchery known as female circumcision burns with a furious glow. There are many villains here. Since I have already mentioned Kellogg, here is Lister on his contribution:

“If women were habitual masturbators, Kellogg recommended burning out the clitoris with carbolic acid as an ‘excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement, and preventing the recurrence of the practice.’”

Lister is aware that her book, dark passages aside, is a romp rather than an especially serious or comprehensive work of history or criticism. She has the double entendres to prove it: “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.”

This is a book of varying merit. At moments, when Lister is piling one fact atop another, “A Curious History of Sex” has a Wikipedia-page vibe. But she manages to pull out of these midair stalls. She’s mostly quite good company on the page.

What next for sex? Will the hazard lights continue to flash? Will we forever mourn a lost idyll? Will we ever get out of our athleisure suits? Will young people find themselves having only unconsummated love affairs, as if they were suffering characters in a Henry James novel?

Will flashing make an unwanted comeback, since it can be performed while social distancing? When England dramatically raised fines for this act in 1975, Auberon Waugh jokingly complained in his diary that only the rich would now be able to afford it. “It could easily be reduced to a form of status symbol or financial boasting,” he wrote.

Wherever we are heading, whatever your proclivities, Lister has this comment: “I promise, it’s all been done before.”


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