“The Women Who Had Sex”: An Interview with ‘Whores of Yore’

Written By Lauren Mulvihill.

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 the rise of the alt-right, and everything to do with the odd bit of Victorian pornography you’ve started coming across on your feed (pun possibly intended). 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). Such was the feed’s popularity that it led to the launch of a companion website, TheWhoresOfYore.com, which provides a more in-depth look at Lister’s research alongside contributions from fellow academics and sex workers themselves. Whores of Yore 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 gonorrhea 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 nominated for Ally of the Year at the 2016 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 peoples’ 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.”

“There’s evidence that in some of the pre-Christian societies like Babylonia and Mesopotamia that there was something called ‘sacred prostitution’, which was where the sex workers were the servants of a goddess and that, by having sex with this woman, that they were communing with the gods,” she says. “…But there isn’t a lot of evidence that sex workers have ever been very respected. They’ve always been very marginalized, and as soon as someone came up with the idea that sex is naughty, were going to suffer from it. There was an enormous amount of shame in the 19th century particularly, because this idea that women weren’t supposed to be sexual was absolutely rampant to the point where you had doctors like Dr. Isaac Brown who was cutting out the clitorises of women who he thought were too sexual. There are instances of women being institutionalised, incarcerated, treated for ‘hysteria’ because they were sexual. They showed some signs of enjoying sex. Prostitutes represented everything that the Victorians feared about sexuality, so these women were very stigmatised and very marginalised. Worse than now, I suppose.

“There’s been so many different punishments for sex work over the years: tarring and feathering or execution, in some cases. Various really rigid regimes came in – there was one in Prussia and there was one in I think it was Mesopotamia – that said that, if a sex worker was caught wearing a veil, that she would have her head shaved and hot pitch tar poured all over her. They’ve been banished, they’ve been exiled, all kinds of strange measures have been brought in. And then of course there’s – in [England] and in parts of Ireland – public humiliation. Although sex work wasn’t a crime, you could be publicly punished if you were deemed to have had been sexually transgressive. You had something that used to be called ‘whipped to the cart’s arse’, which is you’d be dragged through town at the back of a cart and be whipped, or you’d be put in the stocks and the pillory. That happened to sex workers a lot. There’s an example in the Isle of Man in the 18th century of a “notorious strumpet” – I can’t remember her name, I think she was called Alice – and she was sentenced, I think, to be dragged behind a boat that was going through the harbour at the time. They have been punished and stigmatised for a long time, and of course the Nazis put a lot of them in concentration camps. They were ‘anti-socials and degenerates.

“They had something – the ‘whore’s mark’ or the ‘whore’s cut’ was a traditional punishment given to, not just sex workers, but any sexually promiscuous woman. The nose would be cut off, and the ears would be cut off, and that was known as the whore’s mark. That was done to disfigure the woman, but for adulterers and sex workers and, well, anyone they got pissed off with I suppose. When you look back at it, it’s quite mind-blowing. We also have to remember that these things still happen around the world. Women are still executed for adultery. Sex workers are still put to death in parts of the world. It’s a shame, but the history of it is fascinating.”

Our attitudes to sex and sex work are ingrained in society and the legal system. There is, for example, 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.”