Interview with Kate Lister

Sex historian Kate Lister on her unusual sleeping habits, Victorian pornography and challenging the stigma of sex work

March 19, 2020
Kate Lister

Kate Lister is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Communication at Leeds Trinity University, who researches the medical humanities, material culture, Victorian studies and neo-medievalism. She curates Whores of Yore, an interdisciplinary digital archive for the study of historical sexuality. Her book, A Curious History of Sex, was published by Unbound last month.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in a small Lake District town called Ulverston in 1981.

How has this shaped who you are?
I’m not sure. I left when I was 18 and have lived in Leeds since then. Maybe Ulverston gave me my love of Beatrix Potter figurines.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Probably quite a challenging one. But it was my university lecturers who suggested I get screened for dyslexia and ADHD. Thanks to them I was diagnosed with both and got the right support. I had no idea I had learning disabilities. I thought I was daft. I couldn’t do very simple things, like spelling or times tables. To find out that there is a reason I struggled was a revelation. Once help was in place, there was no stopping me.

The Whores of Yore Twitter account has more than 360,000 followers. Have you been surprised by its popularity?
I couldn’t have predicted its popularity in my wildest dreams – and I have some pretty wild dreams. I’m constantly amazed that people are interested in my historical titbits. People’s daily engagement with it is also very pleasing and humbling. Sometimes it feels very silly, like when I post a funny word of the day, but it can also feel very important. I had an email the other day from a young woman about an image I posted of two nude Victorian women. She said that it was the first time she had ever seen her body type looking beautiful. It really blew me away.

What are main challenges running the Whores of Yore project?
There are a lot of challenges. When you talk about sex a lot, some people think you want to talk to them about sex, or that you must want to have sex with them. I get a lot of dick pics and creepy messages. I’m pretty sure David Starkey doesn’t have to deal with that. People object to all kinds of things and the use of the word “whore” is certainly one of them. But in my defence, it rhymes with “yore” really well! For me, “whore” pretty much sums up patriarchal attitudes to women’s sexuality throughout history. But, just because I want to use the word that way doesn’t mean it’s not offensive to other people. Many women, sex workers in particular, have very different views on the use of the word “whore” and have challenged my use of it, and I’m glad they have.

What was the most surprising piece of information that you unearthed during research for your book?
One of my favourite facts is that “fuck” originally meant to strike something, rather than sexual intercourse. One of the reasons we know this is because fuck turns up in people’s names in the Middle Ages. For example, there’s a record of a dairy farmer from 1290 called Simon Fuckebotere (Fuckbutter).

Do you worry that the blog’s light-hearted tone disguises the reality of sex work, which can be dangerous, exploitative and abusive?
It’s important to understand that sex work can be dangerous, abusive and exploitative, but that it is a far more complex experience than that. It’s very important to listen to sex workers and not make assumptions. Organisations such as the English Collective of Prostitutes and SWARM are amazing groups that advocate for sex worker rights. The work they do around stigma is so important. I urge everyone look them up and start listening. The blog and Twitter feed are more broadly about the history of sex, and sex can be pretty funny. I use a lot of humour in my writing, but I would never make light of sex work. I try not to disguise anything, rather I hope to use my platform to amplify the voices of sex workers. I try to listen and be an ally. I work closely with groups that support sex worker rights to make sure I centre their experience in everything I do. I am also donating pre-order profits from my book to Basis Sex Work Project, a charity that has been supporting sex workers for over 30 years. It felt important to give back to the sex worker community and not just take.

How will historians look back at sex in the 21st century? Have Tinder, Grindr and internet porn fundamentally changed society’s approach to sexual relations?
New technology always creates panic that it will corrupt people. When the novel was invented in the 18th century, people worried that novel reading would derail morality. Radio, television, and computer games all caused panic about loose morals, [and] now it’s the internet’s turn. The internet has absolutely changed attitudes to sex and dating, but the sex itself is just the same as it was when we first crawled out of the primordial sludge. 

What keeps you awake at night?
I don’t stay awake. I have sleep issues instead. I walk, talk, shout, scream and do all manner of mad stuff when I’m asleep. I’ve phoned people in my sleep, talking all kinds of nonsense. I’ve smashed things up and once woke up to find I had thrown all my books out the window. When I was a kid, my mum used to tie bells to my bedroom door so she would hear if I sleepwalked out of my room.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Ashish Jha has been named the next dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Currently faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, he will join Brown on 1 September, succeeding Bess Marcus, who is returning to full-time research and teaching. Professor Jha has previously served as dean for global strategy at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Professor Jha said he was “enthusiastic” to join a university that recognises “academic institutions function best when they partner with public health agencies and individuals to test ideas”.

Lisa Bayliss-Pratt has been appointed pro vice-chancellor for health and life sciences at Coventry University. The chief nurse at Health Education England since 2012, she originally took on the role at Coventry on an interim basis but will now join the university permanently. John Latham, Coventry’s vice-chancellor, said that Professor Bayliss-Pratt “brings a wealth of experience in leadership and innovation to our health and life sciences faculty and it is fantastic that she will be continuing her Coventry University journey.”

Viv Ellis has been named the new dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. He is currently professor of educational leadership and teacher development at King’s College London, having previously been head of the department of education at Brunel University London.

Gordon Harold is joining the University of Cambridge as professor of the psychology of education and mental health. Professor Harold, currently Andrew and Virginia Rudd chair in psychology at the University of Sussex, will be the first holder of the new role.

William Tate has been appointed executive vice-president for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina. He is currently dean of the graduate school, vice-provost for graduate education and the Edward Mallinckrodt distinguished university professor in arts and sciences at Washington University in St Louis.

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