Sydney Writers Festival – ‘History of Sex’

Words: Olivia Adams

“You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her. \\ Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty little fuckbird!.”

This is the first thing I read my boyfriend when I got home from the Sydney Writer Festival event ‘History of Sex’ led by sexpert historian Esmé Louise James and historian David Baker. As a grand introduction, Esmé quoted James Joyce’s dirty love letters to edge the audience’s engagement. Now, my boyfriend calls me his farty fuckbird, and I love it.

Esmé had a playful, unfiltered, flailing hands in excited energy about her that night. She holds a PhD, is a TEDx Speaker and is the creator of the Kinky History TikTok account that has racked up over 3 million followers. Now she’s coming in even harder (your dirty mind is in the right place) with her book Kinky History, published by Pantera Press in Australia and Tarcherperigee worldwide. She’s received funding from Screen Australia’s Every Voice initiative for her TikTok series SexTistics and last year she was honoured with The University of Melbourne’s Rising Star Award for Young Alumni. It’s no wonder SWF booked her in to chat about Kinky History and open the conversation about the history of sex.



David Baker, the other featured writer, took us on another approach to the history of sex. As a science historian, he was reserved, slightly cynical but authentically open-minded in his deliberations. He is known for writing harrowing 3-hour epics on the world’s worst serial killers for ‘The Casual Criminalist.’ He produced a quarter of the content for the Bill Gates’ ‘Big History Project’ curriculum and collaborated with John and Hank Green on a special series of ‘Crash Course’. His most recent literary works are Sex: ‘2 Billion Years of Procreation and Recreation and The Shortest History of the World.’



Introducing and leading the questions on this panel was Robert Brooks, a professor of Evolution at UNSW Sydney and a popular science author. Robert studies the complexities and conflicts that sex and reproduction add to the lives of different species. Robert began the night with an expansive question– why is learning about the past so important?



Embracing history gives us the chance to experience a 1000 lives, David reiterated in response to why learning about the past is vital. Esmé’s short take on Robert’s question was simple but effective– Empathy. To squeeze your modern feet into the shoes of the past, you learn a whole new perspective of that world and culture and gain empathetic attitudes to those who lived it.



Robert asked the two writers to share something weird they had discovered during their contrasting research on the history of sex. During Esmé’s exploration she had stumbled upon Shakespeare’s constant urge to allude to cuckoldry and painted the imagery of horns in his plays.

In Othello (Act 4, Scene 1), Othello, consumed with jealousy, speaks of the horns of a cuckold: “A horned man’s a monster and a beast”

David was baffled by how the first act of sex has been hypothesised by scientists as the exchange of genetic material which may have occurred through one cell swallowing another and absorbing its DNA. This is a primitive form of sexual reproduction in its earliest form at a cellular level.


The dialogue continued on the path of evolution in sex. David raised the point that fetishes don’t revolve around the intention to reproduce and can often disput our human instincts. He established that fetishes can be a source of arousal that resists fundemental needs and wants. In contemplating this, this suggests that fetishes and desires can sometimes challenge and conflict with our conscious intentions and values. This could particularly ring true with desire intercepting our needs. Like when you ignore red flags for a good fuck. It’s interesting to note the intricate interplay of human sexual behaviour with its mixture of instincts and learned preferences that form over time through influence of experience and association.


Esmé came across a study that found that foot fetishes were more prominent during pandemics. Investigating this, I found that during COVID-19 there was a rise in online searches and conversations related to foot fetishes. Kinsey Institute researcher Justin Lehmiller, detected that sexual fantasies and fetishes became more divergent during the pandemic. Lehmiller concluded that this is linked to more time spent at home and the desire to explore novel and non-traditional forms of arousal as a form of comfort, escapism and coping during stressful, monotonous times.


Shifting from fun and insightful discussions, Robert asked the writers an important question that is paramount when conversing about sex. How do you navigate the darkness? David had a punching reply. “I am very clinical when talking about sexual assaults”. He explained his efforts to keep to the facts and how he avoids writing melodramatically about those dark experiences. He brought up a point that isn’t often pondered– “we have to accept that a lot of sex acts within our family tree weren’t consensual”. A heartbreaking truth of history. Continuing on this, Esmé noted that it is irresponsible to leave out these dark parts in conversations. She brings up how normalised Pederasty was in Ancient Greece and that relationships with men and boys were a socially acknowledged practice. Evaluating old practices and the damage they caused, is how we have arrived here. 


Roberts latest book focuses on ancient ways and modern advancement in regards to intimacy. Robert commented that as a society, we may be more sexually repressed than ever. David acknowledged the possibility of this has ties to the revival of the gender war, Red Pill propaganda, Trad-wife trends and the isolation of the internet. He feels weary towards the inevitable negativity that resides within the advancement of technology, stating that it invades our sexual and social lives. For men who use dating apps, there are a lot of standards and expectations to meet before you’re lucky enough to get a text back. This experience has been confirmed by many of my male friends. For women, we are spoiled for choice but that choice lays out a large portion of matches that are creeps and assholes. It can be pretty bleak. In addition, David recognises the danger in AI intimacy. Often men who are seeking sex workers, crave intimacy and a chat. The increased use of AI for intimacy seems to point closer and closer to an isolating world. Rebuttaling this, Esmé credits the advancement of technology in allowing people of all genders to explore things that would not have been possible. She enjoys usings AI for cheeky smut on her own and like most women, has a boyfriend who doesn’t have a penis with a vibrator setting. She does agree that in the 21st century, sex is more dynamic with the rise against the glorification of toxic masculinity and with clearer research and terminology about sexuality and gender. Although past lives indicate what modern ideas have the words to say now. 


Closing the panel, the writers left the audience with two striking comments. Esmé stated that throughout history individuals had their dirty thoughts alone but now we can cum together and shamelessly post it, and David affirms that sex has always been chaotic and the response is to “fuck around and find out” what works for you.