Rakes, rapists and 'the Devil's teat': sex through the ages

Two new books, Strange Antics and A Curious History of Sex, shed light on the history of seduction

Premium
etail of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's painting Francesca Da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta
Caught in the act: detail of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's painting Francesca Da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta (1819) Credit: Getty Images

I used to have a running thought experiment I would whip out in front of friends: would it be worse to sleep with a professional magician, or an amateur magician? Worse to hitch your wagon to the sort of man who, with a half-smile flourish, produces your bra from out of his hat in the queue for the cinema, or someone who goes around tables at corporate events, wearing too much hair product, asking chartered accountants to pick a card, any card?

And so, it was with a mix of surprise and horror that, 14 pages from the end of Clement Knox’s considerable history of seduction, Strange Antics, I read his account of watching a young man perform a close-hand magic trick in a bar before, quite literally, falling on his arse. For Knox, this pickup artist shtick is the culmination of 320 years of shifting morality, dating back to the rake culture of the 1690s. For me, it was a dating nightmare made flesh.

Strange Antics isn’t a history of sex, but a history of what the public view of sex tells us about the age. Knox uses changing attitudes towards seduction to build a rich history of misogyny, wealth, racism, sex work, feminism, anti-Semitism, property, art and the law in both Britain and the US over 400 years. It is full of punchy political insight: “Early 19th-century Britain was a modern(ising) society with a medieval legal system”; “Byron and his like were used to a system of moral hypocrisy that served men. They could not abide a system of moral hypocrisy that served women”; “Socialism would liberate women, and in doing so liberate sexuality.”

There is actually very little sex in the book, aside from a startling first-hand account by Casanova of observing a pair of friends, “Tiretta” and “Madame XXX”, standing at an upstairs window having sex, while watching the execution of King Louis XV’s attempted assassin, Robert-François Damiens, in the street outside. This disturbing clash of sex, torture, class and titillation – as well as making me write some very Anglo-Saxon slang in the margin – is a perfect example of what Knox manages to weave through the whole book: the uncomfortable question of who gets to judge what is civilised, respectable, legal and lethal.

Knox’s statement, “All men could be seducers; only certain types of women could be seduced”, when describing the American legal system at the turn of the last century, could just as easily be applied to the rights of 19th-century sex workers, 18th-century women seeking abortions, or the 17-year-old Irish girl who in 2018 failed to win a rape case against a 27-year-old man after his lawyer told the jury: “She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” Who we consider a “worthy victim” tells us much more about the society that judges than the act itself. To look at the history of seduction is to look at the centuries-long struggle for sexual equality; at the slow march towards the recognition of all women as people with equal worth, equal appetite, equal intention and equal value.

Kate Lister’s A Curious History of Sex is much more concerned with the, ahem, nuts and bolts of actual congress. Whereas Knox uses individuals to give a historical account of their sexual era – from the serial 17th-century rapist Colonel Francis Charteris to the 18th-century campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft to the black boxer Jack Johnson in the early 1900s, by way of Mary Shelley – Lister divides her book into themes, with each chapter providing a potted history of its topic. And so we have a whistle-stop tour of, for instance, the clitoris, which King James VI of Scotland’s witch-hunting guide Daemonologie identified as the witch’s teat that “the Devil doth lick… in some privy part of their body”. There is also a history of sex toys that identifies Ovid’s story of Pygmalion as a 2,000-year-old warning about falling in love with an ivory sex robot.

King and witch-hunter: a 17th-century illustration of James VI Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library/AP

Perhaps the most interesting chapter, Colonising the C--- (and there is a whole other chapter about rehabilitating the c-word), concerns the history of racial fetishisation, from William Smith’s description of African women as “hot constitution’d Ladies” in 1744 right through to Sir Mix-a-lot’s Baby Got Back in 1992. The sad case of Sarah Baartman (1789-1815), who was taken from South Africa and exhibited in Leeds as a “Hottentot Venus” before dying six years later of chronic alcoholism (two events that are pretty likely linked), not only provides a sharp reminder of how bodies are always political, but how the so-called European “enlightenment” was often nothing of the sort. As Knox writes: “All racial politics are sexual politics, because all racists fetishise racial purity, and purity can only be sustained through the enforcement of a strict sexual apartheid.”

As a wide-ranging social history, Strange Antics is a more satisfying and interesting book, but Kate Lister’s humour makes hers, at times, a true romp. Both A Curious History of Sex and Strange Antics are full of share-worthy anecdotes. Of course I took a picture of the page detailing how Lady Caroline Lamb sent the poet Byron a locket of her pubic hair with a note signed “From Your Wild Antelope”, and sent it around my various WhatsApp groups. Of course I told a friend over dinner that ancient Egyptians made a contraceptive pessary out of crocodile dung and honey (we were luckily eating spaghetti at the time, not burgers). And yes, I did laugh over the 19th-century warnings to women that riding a bike may “damage the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity and shake them loose”, before putting my son in his bike seat and cycling off to our local playgroup. I’m only human.

But what does the rising popularity of this kind of from-the-bedsheets-up history tell us? Like a school group walking around a room of Renaissance paintings noting that “they look just like us”, there is a temptation in these books to use sex as a way of drawing out an easy, comforting, continuous thread of human nature. That despite the frills and bindings, we’ve always been just as susceptible to touch, to affection and to power as we are today. That sex is who we are, and the rest is just window dressing. But what is more interesting, and where both books become far more useful histories, is what sex tells us about the changing boundaries of human culture, particularly in terms of the treatment of subjugated parties; women, people of colour, poor or uneducated people. These are not hardback encyclopedias of titillation but a centuries-long look at who, over time, has been most screwed over.

Strange Antics: A History of Seduction ★★★★☆

A Curious History of Sex ★★★☆☆

Call 0844 871 1514 to order either of these books at a discount. Nell Frizzell’s The Panic Years (Bantam) is out in May

Comment speech bubble