A new history of sex proving there really is nothing new under the duvet

BOOK OF THE WEEK

BEEN THERE DONE THAT 

by Rachel Feltman (Bold Type Books £20, 336 pp)

When the naturalist Dr George Murray Levick observed penguins in Antarctica in 1910, he realised that some of the males were engaging in homosexual behaviour. So shocked was Levick that he wrote his notes in code. 

‘There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins,’ he added. 

It really shouldn’t have been so surprising. Many species are known to form gay partnerships — indeed male penguins in zoos often build nests together and try to hatch stones. But Levick’s reaction is typical of how ridiculously worked up people can get about sex. 

Sexual healing: Catherine Deneuve in film Belle De Jour. A new book reveals many observations about sexual encounters in the wild

Sexual healing: Catherine Deneuve in film Belle De Jour. A new book reveals many observations about sexual encounters in the wild

The U.S. author Rachel Feltman’s wide-ranging and entertaining book is a healthy reminder that, when it comes to the oldest subject of all, there really is nothing new under the duvet. 

Take the Epic Of Gilgamesh, for instance. The 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian text, cited as the oldest known work of great literature, features a sex scene that lasts for a fortnight. 

In the Bible, Moses sentences thousands of enslaved women to death to stop the spread of a new venereal disease among his soldiers. And in 16th-century Timbuktu, men who wanted to get their partner aroused were told to wipe her eyebrows (and, in fairness, their own eyebrows, too) with the gall bladder of a fox. 

Of course — as Levick’s gay penguin outrage shows — attitudes can, and do, change. British men could still be imprisoned for homosexual acts back then, though that was better than the death sentence they’d faced in previous centuries.

Lesbian sex wasn’t mentioned in the legislation. In 1921, MPs debated whether to include it, but decided not to on the grounds that even mentioning it might encourage some women to try it. 

There have been some interesting cures for impotence down the ages. In 8th century BC India, the great surgeon Sushruta recommended poaching goat testicles in milk then eating them with sesame seeds and porpoise fat

There have been some interesting cures for impotence down the ages. In 8th century BC India, the great surgeon Sushruta recommended poaching goat testicles in milk then eating them with sesame seeds and porpoise fat

Feltman has read far and wide for this book. Everything from evolutionary theories such as the ‘grandmother hypothesis’ (we live beyond our own reproductive lifespan, so that we can help nurture our children’s children, thereby ensuring our genes’ longevity), to the history of venereal disease, so called because Venus was the Roman goddess of love. Such infections are older than humans, it seems — herpes was around when we were still fish. 

There have been some interesting cures for impotence down the ages. In 8th century BC India, the great surgeon Sushruta recommended poaching goat testicles in milk then eating them with sesame seeds and porpoise fat. 

The ancient Egyptians favoured writing the name of your worst enemy on a cake of meat and feeding it to a cat. 

These days there’s Viagra or, going back to 1983, the relaxant phentolamine. This was investigated by British physiologist Giles Brindley, who found that an injection of the stuff pretty well guaranteed an erection. 

He delivered a lecture on the subject to the American Urodynamics Society’s annual meeting in Las Vegas. As it was the last session of the day, many of the audience were already wearing black tie and ball gowns for a function they were due to attend. 

Brindley, on the other hand, wore tracksuit bottoms. This, his spectators soon realised, was to show off the result of the injection he’d given himself before the lecture. And just in case their imagination wasn’t up to the job, Brindley took off the garment and approached the audience, so they could inspect said result in all its glory. 

To increase sexual vitality in the 20th century, you tucked your testicles into a silk pouch full of radium salts, which was held in place by fabric tied around your waist and legs

To increase sexual vitality in the 20th century, you tucked your testicles into a silk pouch full of radium salts, which was held in place by fabric tied around your waist and legs

The book doesn’t only deal with humans. We meet clownfish, all of whom are born male: when two of them fight, the winner (not the loser, mind you) turns into a female so the pair can mate. 

There’s the liger (the offspring of a male lion and a female tiger) and the tigon (vice versa). And then there’s the bonobo, the ape whose leisure activities include penis fencing. This entails hanging from a tree and swinging your genitals into those of another bonobo. Perhaps someone should introduce them to Giles Brindley. 

Needless to say, there has always been money in sex. Don’t believe anyone who tries to sell you pheromone spray to help you score — we have never found human pheromones that make us attractive to others who smell them on us.

The early 20th century brought men the Testone Radium Appliance and Suspensory. To increase sexual vitality, you tucked your testicles into a silk pouch full of radium salts, which was held in place by fabric tied around your waist and legs. It was, of course, a load of… well, you know. 

Feltman is sassy and opinionated. Her self-consciously irreverent style can get a bit much at times (‘I can talk so much about koala chlamydia, you have no idea’). But on the whole I liked the fact that, despite much of her subject matter being deeply serious, she writes about it with humour. 

She has a lovely turn of phrase (‘as gay as a maypole’), and is alive to the comedy of names. The earliest known example of an animal that reproduced sexually is a fish called Microbrachius dicki, because its fossil was discovered by a man called Robert Dick. One of the leading experts on venereal disease during the U.S. Civil War was Freeman Bumstead. 

And, if nothing else, this book delights us with the line uttered by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, as he tried to define hard-core pornography: ‘I know it when I see it.’ 

  • Been There, Done That by Rachel Feltman (Bold Type Books, £20). To order a copy for £18 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 29/07/2022. 

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