It’s been a year since A Curious History of Sex, your book about how attitudes to sex have changed through history, was published. To what extent would you say that the Covid pandemic has changed sexual relationships?

A very good question and one I’m not sure we will have the answers to for while yet. There is considerable research going on right on to gather data on how the pandemic and lockdown is impacting people’s sex lives, and it has had some interesting findings. One ongoing study by the Kinsey Institute in the USA has found that, far from expecting a boom of ‘lockdown babies’, that the pandemic has largely decreased people’s libidos. It seems that even though many of us are locked down with our partners without much to do, people are just too stressed to get into the mood.

Of course, there have been many pandemics throughout history and we do bounce back. So I am hopeful we will all get our mojo back once we’re through this one. There is some debate about what the long term effects of this will be. Will we have another ‘Roaring ’20s’, as they did after WW1 and the Spanish Flu, or will the effects of spending a year viewing each other as vectors of disease permanently change how we feel about touch and intimacy? We won’t know for a while yet.

How did the Whores of Yore project come about?

I’d love to tell you it was a well thought out and carefully planned project, but it wasn’t. I was researching medieval sex work and I found a sex worker who had been arrested in London in 1340 called  Clarice la Claterballoks, and it made me laugh so much, I wanted to tweet about it. So I started a Twitter account to tweet about my research and that was that. It was really just me wanting to share interesting parts of my research. I didn’t think it would be popular or have many followers, but it started to grow pretty quickly.

Then the Twitter account became what I was known for and what people wanted me to write about and talk about, so I kept at it. I am hugely flattered and humbled that people are still interested in what I do. I wanted to do something more than just tweet, so I built a website to host my articles but also the writing of other academics, as well as sex workers and activists. To me, it made complete sense that history should be informed by debate today and visa versa. I love what I do and hope to be doing it for a while yet.

Do you think the word ‘cunt’ will ever become more acceptable in ‘polite company’?

I hope not! I love that word and I especially love it because it’s so naughty! I think it would be a great shame if it lost all of its impact and became as normal and boring as ‘vulva’. Its a fantastic word! Having said that, it is very telling that one of the most offensive words in the English language is a word that means vulva. That is a bit telling, isn’t it? Are vulvas really that obscene? I don’t think so, but misogyny is engrained in the very fabric of our language. I hope we can continue to challenge that narrative, but I can’t ever see us dropping the ‘C-bomb’ in polite company,  or asking the GP for ‘a cunt exam’, can you?

In A Curious History of Sex you write of the danger and damage caused by shaming sexual practices, both in historical times and today. Is there evidence that societies are moving forward to be more accommodating of desire and difference?

I think so. There is evidence for that all around us, isn’t there? We certainly have a long way to go, but we are making progress and being more accommodating of desire and difference all the time. Would a book like mine even have been published 30 years ago? We certainly don’t live in a shame free, sexual utopia yet, but I don’t think there has been a more progressive and tolerant society than the one we live in right now.

I know that this isn’t true for everyone and there are many places in the world where sex and sexuality can be punished by death, but the fact that there are places where we can talk about sexual rights, sexual health, sexuality, desire, kinks, etc., is amazing. As is our concern with consent and sexual autonomy. We certainly have a long way to go, but just look at how far we have come!

A Curious History of Sex is available from publisher Unbound.

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Frances Forbes-Carbines

Frances Forbes-Carbines studied Latin philology at the Sorbonne and holds an MA in Classics & Ancient History from the University of Bristol. She has worked for the British Council and was a trustee of the London Gypsy Orchestra.