If you’ve been a frequent visitor to Twitter recently you may have noticed the emergence of an unusual trend. For once, this has less to do with Donald Trump and everything to do with the odd bit of Victorian pornography that’s started wheedling its way into your feed somewhere between the political updates and the dank memes. For that, you have Kate Lister to thank.
Lister, a post-doctoral lecturer at Leeds Trinity University on the history of sexuality with an emphasis on sex workers, has been tweeting snippets from her research under the moniker of Whores of Yore (@WhoresofYore) since September 2015. In that time, she has amassed over 60,000 followers all eagerly awaiting their daily dose of public domain porn and the definition of such eloquent euphemisms as “sneezing in the cabbage” and “sling-the-jelly” (I’m not going to define them for you, but I’m sure you can figure it out). The feed is fascinating, funny, and often cringe-inducing, and it seems we can’t get enough of it.
“Favourite thing that I’ve posted; d’you know what, I’ve got a real soft spot for the vintage adverts that I do,” Kate says, “and there’s a number of them for Lysol, which was a disinfectant floor cleaner, basically, from the 1930s to the 1950s – but it was marketed as a vaginal douche. The adverts for it are amazing, because it’s normally a picture of a wife with her husband leaving her, right, and then the headline will be something like: ‘If only she had remembered feminine daintiness!’ Her husband would never have left her if she remembered to clean her vagina with disinfectant. They’re so unashamedly awful, I can’t believe that they got away with that. They were subtly marketed as a contraceptive, because douching was a very popular method of contraception. Shite, of course; it didn’t work, but that’s what they thought worked.”
Kate Lister is clearly very good at her job, and at this point is probably the go-to internet personality if you have a pressing desire to learn about how the Victorians spent their time in the bedroom (flagellating each other); how porn actresses styled their pubic hair in the early years of film (they didn’t); or even historical methods of contraception (“They did have condoms. They had animal gut condoms that would tie around the end and be reused. But I suppose when the option is gonorrhoea or syphilis…”). Her use of the word “whore”, then, may strike you as slightly odd or even on the regressive side, given its historical connotations. Well, Kate has thought about that.
“If I was to ‘fess up completely, when I first came up with the idea of ‘Whores of Yore’ it was because ‘yore’ rhymed with ‘whore’,” she explains. “People started coming back to me and explaining that it is a very loaded word, and it’s a word that is still a term of abuse, and sex workers hear it every single day.… Stupidly, I hadn’t thought about [that] as much as I should have done, so I was doing some thought into changing the word and maybe changing the name of the feed or something. But then I started looking into it – into the actual history of the word – and I thought that it’s really interesting, just the history bit of it. Who gets called that, and why do they get called a ‘whore’?
“So, I was looking at it more and more and I was noticing that it isn’t – that in its original use, it didn’t necessarily mean a sex worker. It just meant ‘a woman that was having sex’. It’s used as a term of abuse…. So I thought, rather than trying to do away with it, I’d keep it as a defiant stance, and pin the tweet about it to explain that it isn’t a term of abuse, but it’s more of a recognition that, at one point or another in history, we would have all been called whores.”
According to Lister, one benefit of Twitter as an educational platform is the opportunity it affords academics to interact with the public on a large scale. The website gives users the ability to open a dialogue with people from all walks of life:
“Twitter gives you that instant reaction, and the fun thing about the feed is it’s not just sex workers that follow it. It’s got broad reach so you can bridge that gap…. You can bridge it between normal – well, “normal” – people who know nothing about sex work and then suddenly they can have a dialogue with a sex worker and things. I love that about Twitter, and I think that’s extremely powerful.”
Remaining conscious of the fact that she is tweeting the history of what remains a largely marginalised and stigmatised group is something that is clearly important to Lister, who was recently nominated for Ally of the Year at the Sexual Freedom Awards, and she admits that sex workers “[sometimes] don’t react particularly well to a milk-white academic tweeting their history”. By maintaining an ongoing dialogue between Kate Lister herself, her wider audience, and sex workers, Whores of Yore has the potential to be a strong force for good in terms of changing attitudes towards sex work and sex more generally. As Kate put it, “If I lose the sex workers, if I lose the people whose history I’m tweeting, then it’s all for nothing. Then it’s nothing at all.”
“I think that so much of our current attitude towards sex work is steeped in morality, and it’s steeped in this idea that sex is naughty; sex is bad; we shouldn’t be doing sex,” she says. “Also, it gets conflated with the issue of sex trafficking, and sexual exploitation often gets conflated with sex work, you see, and that’s something that needs to stop happening. If you’ve been trafficked into the country, and if you’re being forced to have sex, you’re not a sex worker. You’re a victim of rape. That’s something completely different. And we’re not helping victims of trafficking by calling them ‘sex workers’, and we’re not helping sex workers by assuming they’re all trafficked and marginalised…. The [anti-sex work stance] is that sex workers are always an extension of a patriarchal society where men think that they can buy women. That is a very blinkered view, because it immediately eliminates men that sell sex and women that buy sex. Or women that sell sex to other women. Or trans people. It assumes that the only people selling sex are women, the only people buying are men, and it’s not helpful. I think also it’s rooted in this idea that women aren’t in charge of their own sexuality; that they can’t make those choices, that they’re always inherently exploited. But I get it, I get the argument. I don’t agree with it, but I can get it.
“What I think that we all should be agreeing on is that a criminalised environment makes everything more difficult. It makes everything harder. I was speaking to someone from the English Prostitute Collective, and she started sex working… because her son was severely disabled and she couldn’t make ends meet. She started sex work to pay the bills, right? But she found that when she was in a position to not do sex work anymore, there was no help available for her to leave sex work because how do you explain to a new employer what you’ve been doing for the last four years, because there’s so much shame attached to it? She couldn’t seek out benefits or help or any of those things because it’s shame, shame, shame. It makes it harder for people who are abused and vulnerable and maybe being forced or coerced into doing this to leave, because there’s so much shame and stigma attached to it. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to at least say to consenting adults: it might not be my choice, but whatever you want to do.
“Human beings are sexual creatures. They want sex, they like sex, and we shouldn’t be judging people. So I hope, I long for the day that that happens – that we can see trafficked people as what they are, which is victims of rape, and it’s terrible and they need help; but consenting adults can choose to buy and sell sex, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It might not ever be your choice, but let’s not judge people that are. That’s what it is; we’re still caught up with this idea that sex workers – that ugly word, a ‘prostitute’ – that they’re all drug addicts and they’re all seedy and that they’re somehow worth less than other people. That’s where it comes from.”
Our attitudes to sex and sex work are ingrained in society and the legal system – it isn’t difficult to recognise a strange double standard when it comes to Irish laws regulating the sale of sex, for example: prostitution isn’t an offense in and of itself, but the State has outlawed many of the activities associated with it, such as public solicitation. There’s also reason to see the omission of pornography or mention of anything beyond the mechanics of heterosexual sex in classroom discussions as a cause for concern. Especially when compared with the kind of material Lister posts on Whores of Yore, modern porn has become increasingly extreme even as young people are beginning to turn to it in higher numbers to learn about sex and sexuality. Should we, I asked Lister, be teaching the kind of material covered on Whores of Yore in schools?
“What I really like about the old porn is… the women actually look like they’re enjoying it. They look like they’re enjoying having sex,” she explains. “They look like they’re enjoying it; it looks like it’s fun. They’ve got hair and little pot bellies and the guys have got penises that are less than fifteen inches long. It’s real sex! And you just don’t see that. We don’t see that anywhere. We see highly stylised porn that has to fit this quite extreme narrative. That worries me, that that is the dominating version of porn that we have at the moment. It’s not working now, this idea that we shouldn’t talk to children about that.
“I think we need to get to the place where sex is an academic subject in and of itself. I think that, as far as schools go, is we need a lot more than ‘the penis goes into the vagina and then the sperm meets the egg and’ – it’s not enough now. We have to get in there and we have to say ‘this is porn! You’ve probably seen it! But this isn’t real sex, this isn’t normal sex. This isn’t about tenderness or connection or intimacy. You won’t have sex like this – probably’…. What boys and girls think of as ‘normal sexuality’ now is very, very violent, really. Like, young girls are expecting to be slapped and they’re expecting that that’s just part of it and, yeah. Not good. I would love to go into a school with a pile of Victorian pornography and go, ‘let me talk to your children!’”
In the meantime, we still have a long way to go, and it’s easy to get disillusioned with the current state of things when so many people are directly affected by our love-hate relationship with sex. Will we ever get to a point, I wondered, where we’ll be comfortable enough to deal with it?
“The thing is, I know it’s really easy to look at where we are and say that we’ve got such a long way to go, and the fight is not over – it’s definitely not over – but we are closer now than we’ve ever been, I think,” according to Kate. “We are moving in the right direction. I think that’s a really, really important thing to hold on to, and not to stop fighting and not to stop going, but occasionally just to recognise we are closer now than we’ve ever been and we are winning, basically. That’s important.”