Heart of the matter: the best books on love and sex just in time for Valentine’s Day

A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister (Unbound, £25)

How did the oldest word in the English language for a vagina manage to become the most offensive? This is one of the first questions Kate Lister, a lecturer at Leeds Trinity specialising in the history of sex, and founder of a website called The Whores Of Yore, investigates. “What did c**t do wrong?” she asks, pointing out that “medieval literature is awash with c**ts”. She wants us to reclaim the word, if only because the more neutral-sounding “vagina”, which first cropped up in the 17th century, derives from the Latin for sheath or scabbard, so to have meaning and function it requires a penis. 

The same goes for whore. From the 12th century, it was a term of abuse for a “sexually unchaste” woman, and by the 17th century, husbands whose wives had been called whores could bring slander cases against the women’s accusers. By 1817 however, British law ruled that such accusations were “no longer actionable”, and today, Lister tells us, it is being reclaimed by sex workers in the same way that the once offensive term “queer” has now been reclaimed by some of the gay community.

From here, Lister moves swiftly on to a brief history of the clitoris “and the endless efforts by Western doctors to understand and ‘fix’ it”. The word seems to have come into use in the 16th century, but the organ itself was identified long before that, obviously, and not, as some nitwits have claimed, as recently as 1992. 

The ancient Egyptians may have practised a version of FGM, while Soranus of Ephesus, a 2nd-century gynaecologist in Alexandria, claimed that excessively large clitorises were a “deformity and a source of shame” and should be removed with a scalpel. The anti-masturbation advocate and cornflake inventor John Harvey Kellogg likewise recommended burning the clitoris out with carbolic acid to dampen desire, while Alfred Kinsey suggested that performing clitoral hoodectomies could enhance orgasm. 

Interestingly Lister has relatively little to say about the widespread practice of FGM today, devoting barely a page to it, but then she also has a bit of an agenda, announced at the start. “Our ancestors had little understanding of gender fluidity and understood gender as binary and biologically determined,” she writes, as if all of humanity up until now had simply got it wrong. For the purposes of this book, she continues, that however “offensive to modern ears” it may sound, women are defined as having vulvas and men as having penises, even though “today we know that some women have c**ts and some do not, just as some men do and some do not.” Right! 

She has gathered together vast amounts of seemingly random material from many continents, cultures and centuries; the bibliography alone is more than 40 pages long. Lister romps her way through masturbation, menstruation and prostitution, the invention of condoms, the use of vibrators to cure hysteria and much more. Pornography and the penis get less of a look in, while her asides on the current trend for removing pubic hair verge on preachy: “It’s your hair and I fully support whatever you want to do with it. But this is what I want you to think about…” 

The parts of the book, especially the first few chapters, are better than its sum, and Lister’s tone, which veers between po-faced political correctness and smutty innuendo, is curiously unerotic. Still, the illustrations, especially the Victorian photos of naked ladies using root vegetables as dildos and, shock horror, a black man sodomising a white man dressed as a prelate, are glorious. KL

Strange Antics by Clement Knox 

Some subjects are so big they’re quite unwieldy. The publishers of Strange Antics proclaim it to be a “brilliantly original history, the first of its kind”, exploring seduction in all its incarnations. There may be good reasons, though, why no such comprehensive study has been attempted before. How can such immense tracts of past human experience be brought into manageable shape?  

Clement Knox is confident that he has the answer. “The unit of measurement for the history of seduction is that strange and powerful thing, the seduction narrative. The basic claim of this book is that the seduction narrative is a product of the modern world and serves as a vehicle for the exploration of modern values, modern experiences and modern concerns.”

The story is modern because seduction is fundamentally a conflict between reason and passion — and therefore a product of the Enlightenment. With this rather rough-hewn and rickety structure in place to hold up “the marquee of the book”, as he fancifully calls it, Knox proceeds to fill his big tent with potted biographies. 

His starting point is Samuel Richardson, whose great epistolary novels Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), in which the heroine reforms and marries her would-be seducer, and Clarissa: or the History of a Young Lady (1748), in which he rapes her and she dies, were “the moment when the Western world fell in love with the novel”. 

“Seduction was a problem born of modernity, and Richardson was the first modern to recognise it as such,” concludes Knox, happy to find his own thesis thus confirmed.

A little biography of Casanova follows (seduction as “a game which both parties played and whose consequences both parties suffered”). Then he recounts the development of rationalist notions of free love through the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont. 

A fragment of a memoir of her relations with Byron and Shelley, written by Clairmont in old age, was discovered in the New York Public Library only a few years ago. It is even now a powerful document, composed “with the intention of demonstrating from actual facts, what evil passion free love assured, what tenderness it dissolves; how it abused affections that should be the solace and balm of life, into a destroying scourge…”

“The age of free love was over,” summarises Knox, a 30-year-old London bookseller whose debut this is. Then, rather randomly,  there come lives of the black American boxer Jack Johnson, who outraged public opinion in the 1900s by his open relationships with sporty white women, and of Bram Stoker, creator of the evil seducer Count Dracula. 

The book ends with a chapter balefully contemplating contemporary sexual liberation and the sorry state of seduction narratives today. “Love did not become free, it became cheap,” he says, deploring “the unequal dynamics of online dating” and the cynicism of the pick-up artists. 

He is much impressed with the prophetic insight of Michel Houellebecq that sexual liberalism results in unprecedented misery: “In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.” 

In an afterword, he acknowledges that he wrote this book in the era of #MeToo but he is sceptical that any resort to “brute legislative and bureaucratic force” will offer a solution to “the underlying crisis”, “the wreckage of our social and emotional existences” that has come with “the commodification of desire”. 

“We are living isolated, atomised existences, sundered from any kind of larger community,” he laments. Still, you can always hope for a card, can’t you? DS 

Future-proof your sex life or forget it altogether?

Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire, and How to Futureproof Your Sex Life by Dr Karen Gurney (Headline Home, £14.99)

Mind the Gap by Dr Karen Gurney 

Gurney draws on her experience as a Harley Street psychologist and psychosexologist to explain why women have 30 per cent fewer orgasms than men but needn’t; the extent to which we are conditioned from an early age, as well as by the media and the porn industry, to have unrealistic expectations of sex; why younger people don’t prioritise it and how honest conversations with yourself as well as your partner, rather than red roses and lingerie, are the key. Lots of nuggets. 


Why Sex Doesn’t Matter by Olivia Fane (Mensch Publishing, £16.99)

Why Sex Doesn’t Matter by Olivia Fane

Sex isn’t all it’s cracked up to be these days, says Olivia Fane. “Sex is just a biological urge, nothing more, nothing less… There are other aspects to our human lives which are so much sweeter, so much more life-affirming.” 

Twice married and the mother of five, she has no time for it at all and even feels she has been “abused by the dominant ideology of the day: that sex is important and profound and you are obliged to join in”. 

Extremely articulate, argumentative and allusive, she’s also unexpectedly confessional about her distaste. The case against, firmly stated.


Love is the Drug: The Chemical Future of Our Relationships by Brian D Earp & Julian Savulescu (Manchester, £20)

Love is the Drug by Brian D Earp & Julian Savulescu

While falling in love releases natural hormones, two US ethicists make the case for using the psychoactive substance in drugs like MDMA and other psychedelics to improve or get over relationships, deal with past trauma and even suppress sexual feelings if required. Falling in love is an act of will, they argue, not something that just happens randomly, and to keep things sweet requires discipline, hard work — and maybe drugs. Challenging and a bit academic. 


Where’s My Happy Ending? by Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson (Bluebird, £14.99)

Where’s My Happy Ending? by Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson

Following on from the success of their best-selling book Parenting The Sh*t Out Of Life, journalists and hosts of the award-winning podcast Dirty Mother Pukka have co-written another sort of relationship manual, as entertaining as it is instructive. 

Still together after 12 years, with two children and busy lives, they sometimes wonder how they manage to carry on liking each other, let alone have sex. A lot rests on being able to say sorry and being kinder. Surprisingly funny and touching. 



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