Not What You Thought You Knew

'We’re all sex-obsessed': Fern Riddell on her new book

'Sex: Lessons From History' - Dr Fern Riddell
A powerful, inclusive and entertaining new cultural history of sex from one of the UK's most prominent historians

Sex: Lessons from History, the new book by Dr Fern Riddell - host of Not What You Thought You Knew - takes the reader on an illuminating journey to uncover the sexual lives of our ancestors, asking the question: What is sex for?

From flirtation to orgasm and everything in between, Fern Riddell shows us that they were just as preoccupied as we are with sexual identity, masturbation, foreplay, sex and deviance – facing it with the same confusion, joy, and accidental hilarity that we do today.

Sky HISTORY spoke to Fern over email about the book and what she thinks explains the changing attitudes towards sex throughout history.

1. Sky HISTORY: What inspired you to write this book?

Dr Fern Riddell: I think our modern sexual culture is a total mess, and I wanted to set out to write about why that was, and how history might have done things better in the past than we do today.

2. What do you hope readers will get from it?

This book is for everyone who is interested in pleasure, love, passion and sex, and how people have felt about those things over the centuries. It’s also for anyone interested in the history of LGBT people, and their treatment over the last few centuries. You can’t separate out those histories from each other, they are all inextricably linked.

3. What’s the biggest lesson you took from it?

I don’t know. Probably that I need about another 50 million years to even scratch the surface of the lives people in the past have lived. Even when you finish writing a book, it never feels like it’s enough!!

4. What were your most useful sources in writing the book?

Historians are incredibly lucky to have so much archival source material that has been digitised. So I work a lot with online records like prison registers, censuses, as well as the British Newspaper Archive Online. Nothing beats a trip to a proper archive though, and for me, the Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection in London, and the Thackeray Museum of Medicine in Leeds (which I’m a Patron of) are fantastic places for real, tangible artefacts. Holding something from the past in your hands can be absolutely life-changing because you learn so much more from the real thing than seeing just a picture of it on screen.

5. What are the biggest historical misconceptions people have about sex and where do they come from?

I think that people tend to think that the idea of sex or gender identity as diverse is somehow new or modern when of course it isn’t. In Sex: Lessons From History I trace this history of the words we use to describe ourselves, and the people who lived LGBT lives in the past.

One of my favourites was Charley Wilson, who was born in the nineteenth century as Catherine Coombes. A student at Cheltenham Ladies College, Charley was forced into an abusive marriage with a much older man, but always had a desire and need to dress in men’s clothing. After escaping from her husband, she lived as a man for the rest of their life, marrying twice and becoming a well-respected Union man and painter/decorator. His life story was told in the press and he was given a huge amount of support from local working men to carry on living as he wished. I think it’s really important to show ordinary lives like this, and the acceptance they got from their communities, to try and combat the bigotry many face today.

6. Which period of history do you think was the most sex-obsessed?

We’re all sex-obsessed, I think if anything writing the book has proved that to me beyond a shadow of a doubt. We’ve never had an era of history where sex wasn’t important. It turns out while governments and religious institutions were arguing about war and power or trade, ordinary people were basically just concerned about how to get the most pleasure out of life. For most of them, that meant how to have sex well, and with someone you loved.

7. How do modern attitudes towards sexuality differ from previous generations and why?

I think we’ve become more sexually repressed today than in the past. We’re fixated on definitions and boundaries, people have to fit into a specific group whereas sexual and gender identity in the past could be far more fluid. There weren’t the boundaries that people seem so obsessed by today. You know a lot of the terms we have for identity have only really come about since the 20th century, even though we have so much evidence that people lived those lives for hundreds of years. But I understand why those definitions have come about, we needed to fight to make our laws and our rights available to everyone, and you can only do that by defining who deserves them and if they’ve been discriminated against in the past. Unpicking the history of those definitions is something I really enjoyed, it surprised me to learn how new they really are.

8. Did you discover anything unusual about the sex lives of famous historical figures?

The book mainly focuses on the lives of ordinary people, that’s what I’m really interested in, but it also gave me the chance to talk about some of my favourite research into the lives of certain members of the British Royal family - but you’ll have to buy the book to find out more!!

9. What is the most bizarre sexual practice featured in the book?

I really want people to understand this is about celebrating our sexual historical culture, and the funny thing about that is: there really isn’t that much that’s bizarre. When you look at old sex guides from the last couple of hundred years, one of the things you find over and over again is actually really good, informative sex advice.

Take ‘The School of Venus or The Ladies Delight’, first published in 1680. This 17th-century pamphlet causes an absolute riot of excitement when it hits the London booksellers. It’s a sex guide for young or inexperienced couples, set out as a dialogue between two women. So it takes you through foreplay, what genitals look like, what sex feels like, you know?

This is really erotic, sexually aware, profound advice, that’s still as useful today as it was nearly 350 years ago. The great 17th-century diarist, Samuel Pepys is so scandalised by its existence he has to work his way up to buying a copy - which he then rushes home to hide from his wife - and then writes about happily reading in bed. And it’s moments of connection like that I really love. It’s not about the bizarreness of sex, but its brilliance.

10. You specialise in sex and gender but is there anything in the book that made even you blush?

The history itself doesn’t make me blush at all, but recording the audiobook was a different story!! There’s lots of bawdy song lyrics and rude medieval poetry from Chaucer that I never expected to say out loud, and getting through that without laughing has been a bit of a challenge. There are definitely a few moments that have needed a Benny Hill soundtrack!...

Sex: Lessons From History, is available to buy from 3 June