Sin City

A History of Sex in London: City of Lust?

Catharine Arnold, author of The Sexual History of London, tells Kevin Canfield that the host of the Summer Olympics is the city of lust, and has had a particularly randy past—Londoners even believed that having sex kept them from the Black Death.

Frank May, DPA / Corbis

With thousands of performers, a pop-in from James Bond and an Oscar-winning director running the show, the opening ceremonies for this summer’s London Olympics will be a spectacle. But the city can handle it. London, after all, has witnessed a wild celebration or two.

As Catharine Arnold writes in her new book, The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City, there was a time, during Roman rule of the city then called Londinium, “when scores of Londoners thronged the streets in raucous festivities, parading alongside models of giant phalluses, while orgies took place in full public view.” London is about to put its most wholesome foot forward. But Arnold’s book is an extensive survey of 2,000 years' worth of amorous activities, and argues that the British capital has a particularly randy past. “Paris is the city of Love,” she writes, “but London is the city of Lust.”

Speaking from her home in Nottingham, England, Arnold explained why Pepys, the city’s most famous diarist, felt like a last-place finisher in the sack, what sorts of sexual athleticism visitors expected to witness when they turned up at one of the notorious “chuck houses” of the 1600s, and how the city became a hub for Olympian acts of fornication in the first half of the 20th century.

This is an entertaining book, but some of the material is pretty grim. For instance, you write about the many brothels to be found in Roman London. Isn’t it right that some of these brothels took hold because of an odd superstition on the part of visiting sailors?

They weren’t encouraged to bring their women on shipboard. It was regarded as tremendously bad luck. What happens is that legionaries that came over needed a supply of women, so girls were sent from all over the Roman Empire to be prostitutes in London, to serve the military. Brothels were like hutches, really, like kennels.

But then you have the women who go into the trade of their volition. In Roman London you have the high-born prostitutes who set themselves up in business, and would have a menu, and would issue brothel tokens, which were what the guy would be given to avail himself of various services.

The Black Death hits London in the middle of the 14th century, and you’d think that all that dying would put a damper of things. But you found that people were having loads of sex because they thought it might keep them healthy?

They were so desperate for a remedy that they actually believed that one way of avoiding getting the Black Death was through sex. It’s a great excuse, really: I have so little time left that I might as well enjoy what time there is.

In the 16th century, Henry VIII, of all people—who, as you put it, was well-known for gluttony and “wenching”— actually tried to rein in London’s sexual appetite?

He was the original good-time boy. He really liked to party. But in 1541 he issued an edict to close the stews, as the brothels were known. He thought that he could stop the spread of the insidious new strain of venereal disease that was coming in from other parts of Europe. It may have been brought in from the New World, but the jury is still out on that 600 years later. As it was, his attempt to close down the stews met with no success.

Samuel Pepys’s Diary is one of the most famous documents of Restoration London, but what does his frank discussion of his sexual prowess—or lack thereof—tell us about attitudes toward sex during this era?

He doesn’t come off as a great buccaneer, a great lover, as others liked to be seen, notably Boswell. He had rather peculiar tendencies, like masturbating at church on New Year’s Day because he’d seen a woman he fancied. It’s extraordinary that that kind of thing went on. You can’t imagine such things in St. Paul’s Cathedral today.

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Boswell, on the other hand, liked to boast about his sexual exploits?

I’ve got a quote from Boswell I’m looking at at the moment. He picks up a couple of prostitutes in Covent Garden, takes them out for a drink, takes them up to a private room above a bar and enjoys both of them, the oldest one first, in order of seniority. While he’s doing this he likes to think of himself as being like one of the great swaggering highwaymen. But Boswell was always self-mythologizing.

It makes sense that this happened in Covent Garden, because as your book points out, that’s the center of sexual adventure in the 1600s.

You had a mixture of bathhouses; molly houses, which were male brothels; and coffee shops where you could just pick somebody up and go off with them. And then you’ve got some extraordinary places, like chuck houses. It’s an ancient Roman trick: A woman would stand on her head with her legs apart—this is all consensual; she got it down to a fine art—while punters would take turns to chuck money into her vagina. Obviously you had to be quite athletic to do this.

“London,” you write, “reaches its zenith as a city of pleasure during and between the two world wars.” What was at play here?

It seemed to be a mecca. I think there were a number of things going on in the 1920s. You’ve got drugs and you’ve got freedom from the pressure of the First World War. In the Second World War you’ve got millions of servicemen descending on London looking for rest and relaxation. So you’ve got lots of bars, pubs, nightclubs—really a sense of a free-for-all.

Rather like going back to the Black Death, people thought: I might die tomorrow, so why not? You’ve got everybody determined to have a good time.