Kate Lister, creator of Whores of Yore

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I grew up in the lake district; a small market town. The nearest big city was Manchester – an hour away, which was a nightmare in the time before you could order cool stuff on the internet. You just had to hope someone had left something at Oxfam! We had to work to rebel, back then.

My childhood didn’t involve religion (although it wasn’t atheist, either). My family home had a ‘whatever you fancy is OK with us’ atmosphere.

My mum and dad are still together. They’ve made it 40 years now, I think. They’re doing a pretty good job. I’m very impressed with them – especially my mum! It was a very sturdy family, growing up. Lots of love, lots of encouragement…and lots of nature rambles!

I’m now 36, and live in Leeds. I’m a university lecturer – I teach in the school of arts and communications; history, literature, things like that. Kind of a jack of all trades! I love working with uni students. Seeing them come alive and thinking about things differently…it’s a real passion.

It’s a competitive field I work in, so to have a permanent job is amazing. I have an MA and a PHD, and got this permanent position last September. If I didn’t do this, I don’t know what I would have done. As with most things, I don’t really have a [career] plan. I just do things as they happen! The people I work with are very supportive. Studying for a PHD and an MA is tough, mentally. You’re doing it all alone.

I was diagnosed with dyslexia at 21 and ADHD at 33. It was a revelation, because for a long time I’d just thought I was quite stupid?! Which is something quite characteristic for those with adult learning disabilities. I got support at university, from lecturers. Once I had support in place, I was absolutely flying. I went from hating subjects to loving them. I looked up to my university lecturers and I wanted to do that for somebody else.

If I didn’t do this, I don’t know what I’d do. With an MA and a PHD, I’ve almost over-educated myself, really! Nobody tells you how psychologically tough it is doing these things.

I’ve had a few struggles [in my role]. I think that because I have a number of learning disabilities, it gives me some weak spots; organisation, administration, remembering details… I have to be quite careful and explain to people what the situation is. It can be difficult when researching personal subjects, e.g. sex and sex work. Unfortunately, the way things are at the moment, if you want to write a piece of research saying ‘sex work is the worst thing in the world, and everyone gets trafficked and horribly abused’ – they’ll fling money at you! If you come in and say ‘I’d actually like to write something that says perhaps that’s not the right image we have [of sex work]’, that’s much, much harder. You can get a certain amount of stigma about the subject you do research in.

I wrote an article about this for The Independent recently. There’s a heteronormative assumption around sex work. It can be really difficult to challenge that.

There’s all kinds [of highs in this role]! David Tennant once spoke about Whores of Yore in HIGNIFY…that was a highlight. Getting your work published is good. But also women privately messaging me saying I’ve given them more body confidence…that’s the best feeling.

I’ve managed Whores of Yore, coming up for 2 years. It wasn’t a well thought out and careful plan. It was much more reactionary! I was researching the history of sex work, spanning hundreds of years, and I kept finding scraps of humanity and wanted to share them – and thought ‘ooh, what about a Twitter feed!?’ The more people spoke to me through Twitter, the more that shaped my work; the more sex workers who got in touch to thank me, the more inspired I got. It just grew and grew…!

I could define [my sexuality] as ‘mostly straight’. I like that we’re in this groovy time now where we don’t have to put labels on things. Saying you’re ‘straight’ puts barriers around things. It excludes possibilities. Can I say I’m a ‘reluctant heterosexual’?!

“How often am I having sex with people and not saying what I want?!”

I’m single now, and have been for 2-3 years, I think. I came out of a very long term relationship back then, and am very much enjoying learning to date again in my 30s. I have been really fortunate in making more and more contact with people in various types of relationships…and can see people can make it work. I wouldn’t say I’m ‘on the hunt’, but I’d be open to a polyamorous relationship.

My sexuality hasn’t been a huge journey. Everyone has that time in their teens when their sexuality ‘wakes up’ and starts noticing things. I think the real struggle I have had is being a single woman in her 30s after being in a long term relationship. I climbed aboard the ‘Slut Train’ for a while after that, which was quite exciting…then I realised it wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. But I’m glad I did it.

I once had a lover who was really up on consent. They kept stopping to ask “is this okay?” It was a real liberation to be with someone who encouraged you to say what you did and didn’t like. I realised I’d never been in a situation with a partner where I felt comfortable saying that, where I could use my voice and say what I liked and what I didn’t like. It really made me think, “how often am I having sex with people and not saying what I want?!”

…that’s quite daring, isn’t it? Saying what you want.

When I got out of the long term relationship, I was in a lot of debt. I signed up to be a ‘sugar baby’ for a while – and sugared my way out of debt for 6 months. Sugaring is a strange, grey area of sex work. Or at least, it thinks it is. You are selling sex; I met men who wanted to have sexual relationships with no strings attached. They paid my rent and paid my debt, paid off my credit cards…I wouldn’t have had sex with them if they weren’t giving me money. That was the arrangement we came to. And we had fun!

Sugaring was an exploration, but in quite a limited way. It was different to wanting to make babies, or really fancying someone. I was having sex to make money. The sex itself was pretty straightforward…nothing to ring the bells about.

I’ve been to a few sex parties, and thought they’d be the pinnacle of sexual liberation…but found them oddly disappointing. I’ve never liked nightclubs, and that’s what this was like, but with people having sex in the corner. It was missing something. There was a lot of ego and bravado there. It was maybe missing an intimacy I had maybe hoped was there.

I feel very enthusiastic about masturbation! You don’t have to get dressed up for it, or worry you’re not going to call yourself back the next morning – masturbation is surely the most fun you can have on your own?

I’d recommend the Hitachi 1 [to blog readers]. It’s one of my favourite toys; it’s a nice little vibrator, like goldilocks – not too big, not too small, just right! The Hitachi wand is famed for being the ultimate orgasm tool. It’s a clitoral vibrator, but is really powerful with a wide head – so it stimulates the whole of your external vulva.

The longer you’re single, the harder it gets to be in a relationship. I just want somebody to support me and at no point try to take ownership or control of what I do.

Female sexuality is so very unexplored, uncharted…women still aren’t very comfortable in their own bodies.

[Speaking about sex] has developed over the years. In the 80s and 90s people weren’t open to talking about it. Women talking about sex has been a real rupture in feminism; sex was apparently exploitative and objectifying. The new generation of women are taking ownership of that sexuality. I think the fact that women are more empowered to talk about it [now] is a very important thing. But we mustn’t assume everyone is this way, that everyone wants to talk about sex. We’re moving to a more accepting place, slowly.

I used to get in trouble for [talking sex] at school; I was always fascinated by it. I’ve always been open to talking sex, and enjoyed having sex. And now I’ve made a living from talking about it!

Female sexuality is so very unexplored, uncharted…women still aren’t very comfortable in their own bodies. I can see that from the reaction online, every time I tweet a photo of a Victorian woman with her pubic hair out, and the whole internet loses its shit completely. We’re just not comfortable with what a real body looks like. Bodies are becoming very stylised; there’s big fake breasts, waxed genitals, bleached anuses and trimmed labia… We see nudity all the time, but aren’t comfortable with real nakedness.

Advice I’d give to women nowadays…obviously, sign up to Scarlet Ladies! The female positive space is so important; there’s no pressure, and it’s a place to explore. Also, listen to what sex educators are talking about, and if you are closed down in your own body or scared about sex, there are some fantastic places you can go and sexological bodyworkers you can see about getting back in touch with yourself. Generally, TALK to somebody.

Now, I’d tell my teenage self… “Ask for what you want.”

Photos via the author.

– As told to Scarlet Ladies.

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