The joy (and frustration) of sex research

Coyness, contention and competing agendas all hamper historians and sociologists of sex. Matthew Reisz speaks to those who choose, nevertheless, to probe this most sensitive and intimate of subjects

December 9, 2021
Mating birds to illustrate The joy (and frustration)  of sex research
Source: Getty

Katherine Harvey’s new book, The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages, includes some astonishing material. One example is the story of a 15th-century Perugian woman, whose listed crimes “included making a love potion from semen, her own menstrual blood, and a powerful herb which she harvested on a Thursday before sunrise while mouthing incantations”.

Yet although “medieval society presumably consisted largely of people with unremarkable sex lives, happily married couples and successfully celibate priests”, the author points out, such people “do not tend to make much of an impression on the historical record”. Much banal, everyday sex simply leaves no traces.

This is only one of the major problems faced by academics working on the history and sociology of sex. Many of the sources that do exist – moralising sermons, medical records, police reports and pornography – come with pretty clear “agendas”. Even in more private communications, people are often boastful, coy or evasive about their sex lives, or put other obstacles in the way of researchers. The diaries of the Yorkshire landowner Anne Lister (1791-1840), which offer one of the most vivid and detailed pictures of lesbian life before the 20th century, are a striking case in point.

THE Campus resource: How to create an open atmosphere for discussing difficult subjects

They may now be the subject of the acclaimed 2019 BBC-HBO dramatisation Gentleman Jack, but grappling with their 5 million words proved a huge undertaking for researchers Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington, on whose work the series is based. Lister’s handwriting was difficult enough to decipher even when she was writing in standard English. The substantial sections written in a code that used Greek and algebraic symbols added a whole new level of difficulty.

Another problem for researchers in this field is that those who work on sexual topics often encounter hostility and resistance. When Jessica Simpson, now a lecturer in sociology at the University of Greenwich, wanted to investigate students involved in the adult entertainment industry, “some universities responded by saying none of their students would be sex workers so I was wasting my time and should try a post-92 university”, she recently told this magazine. Other institutions claimed that flyers Simpson had printed to help recruit research subjects “would have the potential to cause offence to other students opposed to the sex industry, and some [universities] said they felt it could be seen as endorsing students who did this job”.

Mating bees

Male ethnographers who join gangs, take drugs and get into fights seem to attract little comment, but a female researcher who briefly went underground as a sex phone operator, according to a 2016 paper in Criminal Justice Studies, was “ostracized by her male and female colleagues alike”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, peer reaction is even more of a problem for those investigating more unusual areas of sexuality. An interest in foot fetishism, “water sports” or the more extreme forms of sadomasochism may well attract amusement, discomfort or disgust even among people whose official view is that consenting adults can do whatever they want – and those researching such topics can experience a kind of guilt by association.

Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, has made a career writing about “difficult” subjects. Although this often puzzles or disturbs people, she says, her 2020 book, Loving Animals: On Bestiality, Zoophilia and Post-Human Love, “definitely aroused an additional level of discomfort...I have found it interesting that when I was writing about killing, dismemberment, militarism, rapists etc, no one for a moment thought that I was a participant in these activities; but merely mentioning B/Z [bestiality and zoophilia] seems to make a minority wonder about my sexual orientation! The only time where the historian-I and the identity-me have been conflated like this has been in my work on rape, but that is because of musings that I might be a victim.”

This suspicion that Bourke might be somehow involved in B/Z contributes to the “discomfort” that colleagues feel in talking to her about her work, she believes – because it “blurs some interpersonal boundaries”. The same level of discomfort is not in evidence “when people talk to me about, for example, killing, because ‘we’ are ‘on the same page’; they would probably feel very differently talking about killing to a mass murderer”.

“Sex is always going to be a very charged subject, isn’t it?” reflects Kate Lister, a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. “It’s not like studying the history of railway rivets. It’s always going to be quite an emotive thing, and how people respond will vary wildly...There is research showing that anyone who studies sex does experience discrimination and stigma just because of the slight awkwardness of the subject…A lot of sex academics deal with that awkwardness, and the fact that people can make jokes, by becoming incredibly academic, almost dry about it. With writers such as Michel Foucault, writing about sex becomes incredibly theoretical.”

This may be understandable, but it also means that academic writing about sex can feel as if it is missing the point, leaving it to novelists to try to convey the many ways that sex can be tender, exciting, disturbing or ridiculous. Lister has decided instead to “have fun with it and play a bit with the uncomfortableness surrounding sex”.

Although she has produced her share of peer-reviewed publications and spent time “digging around in archives to create a timeline of sex work in Leeds for Basis” (an organisation that supports sex workers in the city), she also puts out intriguing historical titbits on her Whores of Yore Twitter feed. In addition, she has written two books for a general audience, A Curious History of Sex and, published in October, Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts: A History of Sex for Sale.

Though largely and openly works of compilation, and so not subject to peer review, these books do draw on primary research, notably when dealing with the Victorian period, and A Curious History, crowdfunded through Unbound, was submitted as an impact case study to the research excellence framework. All the copies of the paperback piled up in British bookshops over the summer suggest that “sex sells”, though Lister donated half the profits to Basis.

That book includes some sharp polemics, notably about the taboos around menstruation and the way douching products are advertised to women as a route to “dainty” genitalia. But most of the book is an eye-popping survey of the many weird and wonderful things people have got up to. One researcher, it explains, “listed 547 different paraphiliac sexual interests and noted that ‘like allergies, sexual arousal may occur from anything under the sun, including the sun’”.

Amid such boundless possibilities, Lister has chosen to highlight “subjects that are close to my heart”, “deeply emotive subjects” and “subjects that made me laugh” (such as “orgasming on a bicycle”), as well as “subjects that provide valuable context for issues today”. It is hard not to be intrigued, for example, by the story of the feminist blogger who used the yeast from a thrush infection to bake sourdough bread (a recipe, we are informed, that “never really caught on”). And, in the light of today’s debates about consent, what are we to make of the extraordinary 1837 British legal judgment that “if a man attempts to kiss a woman against her will, she has a perfect right to bite his nose off”?

As an example of how peer-reviewed sex research can have real-world impact, Lister cites a 2017 University of Minnesota analysis of 1,269 studies of manual “virginity testing”, which concluded that it was “not a useful clinical tool, and can be physically, psychologically, and socially devastating to the examinee. From a human rights perspective, [it constitutes] a form of sexual assault.” The cause was taken up the following year by the World Health Organisation.

It is a cliché that academics cannot resist pointing out where we need more research. A Curious History of Sex mentions in passing that “there have been hardly any scientific studies of sex dolls and their owners” (though it is hard to imagine many such “owners” queuing up to be interviewed). More significantly, it suggests that the issue of women buying sex is still “a taboo and under-researched subject”, something that both reflects and reinforces certain common assumptions: “The narrative of the sexually exploited ‘prostituted woman’ dominates the rhetoric of those who would abolish sex work. No space is given to discussing the men who sell sex or the women who buy it...[as in the past] the abolitionists and those who want to ‘rescue’ sex workers will disregard that which challenges the narrative of the abused victim.”

Here, of course, Lister is stepping into some very contentious areas. Her Twitter feed, according to her book, attracts most comment when she discusses pubic hair. More serious attacks, however, reflect her views on other topics.

“I’d always considered myself a proper, card-carrying feminist,” she reflects. “But when I started researching and writing about sex, I suddenly realised there were a lot of feminists who don’t like me. It forced me to really think about my position. Occasionally, people on social media send me things because they think I’m a horrendous, awful person – but that’s OK, it’s an emotive subject.”

This is presumably because many feminists would simply like to see an end to both pornography and sex work, even if they disagree about how this can be achieved. For instance, “there isn’t much reason to think that throwing sex workers and their clients in jail will eventually lead to the end of sex work. (It certainly hasn’t done so yet),” writes Amia Srinivasan, Chichele professor of social and political theory at All Souls College, Oxford, in her recent book The Right to Sex. “There is, though, every reason to think that decriminalisation makes life better for the women who sell sex. From this perspective, to choose criminalisation is to choose the certain immiseration of actual women as a putative means to the notional liberation of all women.”

Similar questions apply in relation to pornography, where attempts to censor it “invariably harm the women who financially depend on it the most” and have also, in practice, led to bans on websites such as those “encouraging sex positivity, sex education and queer platforms”.

Lister, by contrast, avoids these debates but also attracts criticism by taking a relatively positive and “liberal” attitude to both pornography and sex work – even though she “recognises that there are abuses and people get hurt”.

On pornography, though she flags up major ethical issues when content is uploaded without consent, she still has “got nothing against anyone who gets enjoyment from watching other people have sex or who enjoys pornography”. (Her book also points to the fact that attitudes to the clitoris and female pleasure in 18th-century pornography are far more celebratory than what one finds in the writings of “the scalpel-wielding physicians” of the time.)

As for sex work, Lister points to another challenge for researchers, namely that there has been “a big pushback among sex workers about academics researching them, as with the disabled community in the 1980s”. Nevertheless, she regards it as vital to write about them from a position of first-hand knowledge: “If you are researching a particular demographic, especially a marginalised demographic, at any point in history and you are not engaging with that community today, then what the hell are you doing? Why are you writing about a group of people when you have no connection with them whatever? Speaking with sex workers will radically change your view. It’s difficult to maintain the view that someone is being horrendously exploited when they are sat in front of you going, ‘No, I’m not!’”

We can see something of how this plays out in Lister’s lavishly illustrated new “history of sex for sale”, Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts. In the introduction, she argues that “throughout history authorities have fretted about how to best ‘deal’ with those who want to buy or sell sex, moving through various stages of repression, toleration, legalization, control, moral outrage and abolition, before circling back again. History is littered with various efforts to prevent sexual exploitation by abolishing sex work. None of them have worked.”

Furthermore, sex workers, like everybody else, are “deserving of rights and respect, of being genuinely heard and seen, rather than stereotyped and silenced”. Lister therefore urges us to “move beyond the fantasy” and instead to “look, listen and learn”. This sounds both sensible and humane, but it also proves pretty challenging in a historical account. The book includes plenty about what moralists, medics, law enforcement agencies and what we can only call “satisfied customers” had to say about sex workers, but the voices of sex workers themselves are largely absent.

The illustrations include pictures of police raids, sex workers looking bored or morose, French women whose heads were shaved for “horizontal collaboration” with the Germans during the wartime occupation, lurid posters warning about sexually transmitted diseases and even medical illustrations of syphilitic ulcers. But they are greatly outnumbered by fabulous paintings, drawings and sculptures, some by very famous artists, of courtesans, royal mistresses and performers everywhere from ancient Greece to “the floating world of Edo [1603 to 1868] Japan” – not to mention a French brothel so elaborately luxurious that it won a design prize at the 1900 World Fair.

Reviewers have argued that the result ends up sanitising or even glamorising the realities of sex work. Lister responds that she has included “pictures of people who really were selling sex. It’s not for us to say, ‘You need to look more abused, more horrified than you are’...It’s not a question of ignoring the abuses but of bringing in a variety of experience, because it’s equally as dangerous to be pushing this narrative that it’s always abusive, always awful, always terrible.”

And this leads to the final question about researching the history of sex. Doesn’t it inevitably lead you into some pretty dark places?

Yes, agrees Lister, “I don’t think you can study the history of sex and not run into some pretty nasty things. There are harrowing things, children sold in brothels for the chance of a better life. That’s heartbreaking; that stays with you.” Then there are “the online ‘punter sites’, where clients go and review sex workers, which are generally a cesspit of awfulness and misogyny. Some sex workers really value those reviews because they can use them in their online advertising [but] some absolutely hate them. You can’t always believe what these people are writing – a bunch of lonely old men talking crap on their own on a computer. I wouldn’t recommend the punter sites.”

Yet even here Lister takes the robust view that she doesn’t “really care about what the clients have got to say, I care about the sex workers. If you are constantly centring what some dickhead client has said in an effort to abolish and criminalise everything, I don’t think that’s very helpful.”

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Reader's comments (1)

What a tragi-comical narrative !! But hardly surprise. ... even more than oxygen, sex paces everything in our world either because you do it or even more germanely because you don’t. Won’t/can’t chsnge anytime soon. So research into it is more inspite of it (and the halo around it) than because of it. Basil jide fadipe.