Female Sexual Identity – Medieval to Victorian, Whores of Yore: Interview with Dr Kate Lister, Lecturer

Dr Kate Lister is currently a lecturer in Literature and History at Leeds Trinity University in West Yorkshire, northern England. She received her doctorate in medievalism and gender studies from the University of Leeds in 2014.

She is a board member of the International Sex Work Research Hub and advisor on the use of digital media and a member of Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies, the British Association of Victorian Studies.

She curates the online research project, www.thewhoresofyore.com. This is a digital public engagement project that works to make research on sexuality and the history of sex work publicly accessible by working across various medias; social, digital, radio and television. The Twitter feed has 90,000 followers and the website includes over 150 academic articles, as well as archived images, extracts from medical texts, antique erotica, and independent blogs from Basis Yorkshire and resident licensed sexologist. The project was nominated for the Sexual Freedom Award, Ally of the Year in 2016, and has led to numerous radio and television appearances.


School of Arts and Communication

NP:  You have a fascinating and remarkable research background in the study of female sexual identity, Medievalism and historical sexuality. How did you get interested in these fields of interest?

Lister: I would have to describe myself as intellectually slutty. I have never felt restricted by disciplines and have always indulged my curiosity as much as I can. For my post-doctoral research, I started by researching how the medieval period is often highly sexualised in cinematic portrayals, and that led to my researching sexuality during that period. From there, I started researching historical sexuality and was particularly drawn to ‘sinful’ sexuality and how attitudes around sexual morality change. I started the Whores of Yore Twitter feed to share all the historical ‘titbits’ I was uncovering and people seemed to enjoy reading about them as much as I enjoyed researching them.

NP:   An intriguing example of how a woman’s identity was viewed in the Medieval Age might be the myth or actual practice, the  act of placing a live fish in a woman’s vagina until dead, then cooking or roasting it and serving it to men to make them more ardent in their love-making. How does a superstition like that come into being?

Lister: That particular anecdote about the fish is less of a serving suggestion and more of a fear. It’s found in ‘Decretum’ by Bishop Burchard of Worms, (c. 950 –1025) which is a penitential (a Catholic text that indexes sin.) The text lists all manner of conceivable sin and gives the appropriate penance for it. There is no evidence that this really happened, but it is likely to be an old folk superstition that taps into primal fears around women controlling men through their vaginas. Myths about vaginas (and by extension, women) being dangerous to men are found around the world.

Many cultures have myths that focus on vagina with teeth that bite the penis. This is known as the Vagina Dentata myth and variations are found in South America, Shintoism, Hinduism and Māori mythology. Interestingly, pioneering psychologist Erich Neumann (1905-1960) recorded one version of the vagina dentata myth where ‘a fish inhabits the vagina of the Terrible Mother; the hero is the man who overcomes the Terrible Mother, breaks the teeth out of her vagina, and so makes her into a woman’ (The Great Mother, 1955).

  NP: Much as been written about the Victorian Age and female sexuality.  What are some of the myths of the Victorian Age about female sexual identity in contrast to the reality that may have surprised you in your research?

Lister: My doctoral thesis focused on how the Victorians wrote about the Middle Ages and sexuality, so I always have a soft spot for Victorian sexuality. Like every era, they are very complex and not easily categorised. The Victorians have a reputation for being very prudish, and that is certainly true in many ways; they thought masturbation was injurious to health, sex was not talked about in polite society and women were shunned for sexual transgressions. However, they were also absolutely filthy! They invented pornographic photography and films! All their suppression of sex was still talking about sex, and they were utterly obsessed with it.

One of the most pervasive myths is that the Victorians invented vibrators to masturbate female patients to orgasm to cure hysteria. Despite this being a widespread story, there’s no evidence for it at all. Victorian doctors had some very odd ideas about sex and health, but this isn’t one of them.

It might also surprise people to know that the Victorians really valued sexual pleasure in marriage. Many doctors believed women could only conceive if they had an orgasm, and there are numerous texts devoted to encouraging newlyweds to enjoy one another. It’s important to remember that Victorian attitudes around sexuality are rarely consistent. There are texts that argue masturbation will lead to blindness and eternal damnation, and others that strongly dispute this. Until science advanced and clinical trials were introduced, much ‘science’ around sexuality was guess-work and driven by moral agendas.

NP:  An historical assumption might be that wealth and power determine orthodoxy and to resist that orthodoxy is viewed as heresy with accompanying punishments. Wealth and power has been a male prerogative especially in patriarchal cultures. Is female empowerment related to man’s fear of female power?

Lister: No, I don’t think so. Female empowerment is not about what men fear, but with what women need. Some men may fear female empowerment, but that’s a different thing altogether. Historically, men have always held the money and the power. There are only three ways women could get some of that for themselves; they could inherit it, they could marry it, or they could shag it. But, being able to earn their own money is a very recent development for women. Women who insist on a share in the power require a relinquishment of that power. For as long as women have been questioning the ‘natural order’ of things, fears that women will banish men to the kitchen sink and keep their penises in a jam-jar have been rife.

It’s important that we don’t make simplistic distinctions between the sexes as cultural orthodoxy is a social issue, rather than a gender based one. Women have fought against their emancipation as hard as men have, and many men crusaded fearlessly for women’s rights. Queen Victoria famously called women’s rights a “mad, wicked folly” and believed “Feminists ought to get a good whipping”. There were female anti suffragette groups and numerous anti-feminist texts that have been authored by women. The anti-suffragette propaganda was vicious in its depiction of women as man hating, ugly misandrists who wanted to subjugate men; but, none of those fears were realised and now we couldn’t imagine things any other way. Any shift in the status quo is met with a degree of suspicion and fear, but that must not stop us from pushing forward.

NP: Whore has been given a bad wrap it would seem as the word can apply to both men and women. Where are we at today in our literature about whores and sex workers and how does that affect female sexual identity?

 Lister: We can use the word ‘whore’ today to mean a person who sacrifices personal principles or uses someone or something in a base or unworthy manner. So, you can call someone an, ‘attention whore’ and we all know what that means. But, the word still retains is associations of sexual promiscuity and judging female sexuality. I’ve heard the expression ‘man whore’ being used, which means a promiscuous man. But, ‘whore’ is associated with women. The fact that ‘man whore’ uses the prefix ‘man’ to make gendered distinctions is testament to that.

The word is so old that its precise origins are lost in the mists of time, but it can be traced to the Proto-Germanic ‘horon’, or “one who desires”. Interestingly, ‘Whore’ is not a universal word; the indigenous Aborigines, First Nation people and native Hawaiians have no word for ‘whore’, or indeed prostitution, as they do not shame sexuality.

The word ‘whore’ is also in a state of reclamation amongst certain groups of the sex work community (others reject it entirely.) The truth is that I should not have used ‘whore’ in whores of yore; it’s not my word, and if you’re not a sex worker, it’s not yours either. It’s a term of abuse that sex workers hear every day by those seeking to devalue them and shame them. I have had feedback from many sex workers questioning my use of the term, and for a while I gave serious consideration to changing it. But, the history of that word is an important one, and one that I want to retain, and emphasise. Debate around what ‘whore’ actually means is a conversation worth having.

NP: Given your research, are there more women becoming the primary breadwinners in western culture and is there any type of male perceived role reversal and what would be the positive downstream effects?

Lister: I haven’t seen any evidence that women are becoming the primary breadwinners in the west. There is data available to show that the proportion of women in Europe and the US who are working to support a family has significantly increased in past 20 years. In the UK, roughly a third of women are the main breadwinners in their family and a report in 2015 estimated 40% of American women as the primary earner. We need to remember that these figures also cover single mothers and same-sex couples, so all we can really say is that mothers are earning more than ever before. It’s quite reductive to view this as ‘role reversal’ as that suggests that there are ‘correct’ roles and that men have to lose rights in order for women to gain them (and visa versa). None of which is true. If more women are working, that doesn’t mean more men have to take over the domestic role.

NP:  Sex work is valuable yet erroneously labeled. What is the future look like for the sex worker? Do you think humanoids or sexual fantasy machines will take their place in this century?

 Lister: Sex Robots have been in the news a lot lately, but I can’t see them ever replacing real sex as they are trying to stimulate real sex. Sex dolls have been around for a long time and have remained a kink, rather than the norm. I expect sex robots will be the same.

There’s so much work to do in charging attitudes to sex work, but I feel like the tide is slowly turning. Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation and the Lancet all support full discrimination of sex work and present considerable evidence as to why this will help keep sex workers safe. Social media platforms have allowed sex workers to come together and have a voice that people now have to listen too.

There are so many myths and false narratives around sex work that cause enormous damage to the sex work community. Conflating consensual sex work with sexual abuse and rape, for example. Despite the excellent work done by feminists around sexual consent and bodily autonomy, many people still can’t accept that some people want to sell sex and can choose to do that. Sex workers are often assumed to be women and the clients, men. This is a very hetero-normative assumption and excludes the experiences of LGBTQ community and ignores the fact that many women pay for sex. Many of the stereotypes around sex work seem to come from outdated beliefs that women aren’t sexual, and therefore must be being abused. We need to listen to sex workers, rather than talking over them.