In Review

Harlots, Whores and Hackabouts by Kate Liste: an amusing ‘smutty guidebook’

Lister’s new book is ‘strangely unsatisfying’ as a history of commodified sex

Kate Lister’s 2020 book, A Curious History of Sex and her website Whores of Yore established her as an irreverent and outspoken authority on the subject, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. Her new tome is “a more serious book about the history of sex for sale”.

Lister travels far and wide – from classical Greece to medieval London, from Renaissance Italy to Nazi Germany – and encounters “a few recurring and disturbing truths”. Sex has always been “a popular commodity, but one that provokes shame and censure”. And in their attempts to restrict or eradicate the sex trade, governments have invariably targeted sellers rather than customers.

Many of their punishments have been draconian (in medieval Bologna, prostitutes had their noses cut off), but none have ever worked: the demand to buy sex “never dies”, and “nor does poverty”, which motivates women to enter the trade. Punishment simply forces the practice underground, into places such as Codpiece Alley and Sluts’ Hole in 14th century London, or Ponte Delle Tette (the Bridge of Tits) in Renaissance Venice.

Lister’s book is filled with lavish illustrations, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. A Pompeii fresco of the god Priapus “carefully weighing his own penis” gets a full page. There’s a photo of Edward VII’s “Love Chair”, a contraption that allowed the king to manoeuvre his “walrus-like bulk” without squashing the woman (or women) beneath.

“Pleasurable” though the pictures are, they don’t always connect very obviously with what is ostensibly the book’s main theme: prostitution through the ages and its links with “poverty, disease and coercion”. Harlots, Whores and Hackabouts makes an amusing “smutty guidebook”, but it is “strangely unsatisfying” as a history of commodified sex.

Thames & Hudson 256pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Harlots book cover
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

Recommended

What is a ‘trigger warning’ and why are they controversial?
J.K. Rowling reading from Harry Potter
Getting to grips with . . .

What is a ‘trigger warning’ and why are they controversial?

Best properties: houses around the UK average of £270,000
2 Old Rectory property
The wish list

Best properties: houses around the UK average of £270,000

Tonga’s tsunami: the aid effort turns political
A search and rescue team looking for a missing woman
In Brief

Tonga’s tsunami: the aid effort turns political

Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beaut – this may be ‘the show of the season’
Madame Butterfly (2000) by Helen Frankenthaler 
In Review

Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beaut – this may be ‘the show of the season’

Popular articles

Are we heading for a snap general election?
Jacob Rees-Mogg
Today’s big question

Are we heading for a snap general election?

Is Bosnia on the brink of another civil war?
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik
In Depth

Is Bosnia on the brink of another civil war?

Why is New Zealand shutting its borders again?
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern adjusts her face mask following a press conference
In Depth

Why is New Zealand shutting its borders again?

The Week Footer Banner