Esmé Louise James is the QUEEN of kinky history. The sexuality expert is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne; her thesis 'traces an aesthetic of the erotic across eighteenth-century literature.' During the pandemic in 2020, Esmé made a name for herself when she started posting TikTok videos about the history of sex. As her popularity grew, so did her career - she became a TEDx speaker, podcaster and now even an author. With over 2.4 million TikTok followers, Esmé has easily become TikTok's favourite historian.
It was such a delight speaking with Esmé and picking at her brain. This bisexual icon is truly the Gretchen Wieners of Kinky History - she knows everything about everyone. From Victor Hugo's love for brothels to Albert Einstein's love for non-monogamy, Esmé is the master of sex history.
What’s the weirdest sex advice people used to say in history?
They used to encourage women to put fish inside their vaginas to encourage their husbands to have sex with them. The idea was if you were struggling to conceive and your husband wasn't interested, you should shove a fish up your vagina and serve it to him for dinner. It would be an aphrodisiac for him. This was around late medieval times.
If you could learn about the sexual history of any historical figure who would it be?
There are lots of people on my list but number one would be William Shakespeare. There's all these arguments that he could've been in all these queer relations. I think he would be fascinating and it annoys me that we still know so little about him. Because if I can turn around one day and say, "hey besties Shakespeare was gay," I would be so happy.
What historical artefact are you dying to see in real life?
I need to see King Edward the VII's sex chair. I need to see it in person, I need to grab it and I need to work out exactly, once and for all, how it works.
What was the first sex scene you ever watched? Was it in porn or in a movie?
The first very explicit sex scene I remember watching was True Blood with my parents. It was the opening scene with two people fucking in a car.
Do you remember the first time your mum gave you the sex talk?
When I had my first boyfriend she came into my room and was like, "honey do you want to have a chat?" And I was like, "absolutely not!" But at the same time we've always had a close relationship. I remember asking her advice when I wanted to go the next step with my first boyfriend and wanting to try oral. I remember having such a real open honest chat with her.
What was sex education like for you in school growing up?
It was so bad. I remember one sex education class where the boys were in one class and the girls were in another class. The girls were taught how to avoid sexual assault. The boys were given condoms and got to blow them up like balloons. I think it was one of the main reasons I was really passionate about going into sex education. You can't be taught sex by a giraffe in a truck - that's what we got taught in Australia! It's ridiculous. No shame to Healthy Harold but he wasn't the one to teach me about lubrication!
You and your mum were essentially in school together and uni together. What was that like?
I have never really existed without my mum being there. With my brother being disabled we basically had to co-parent really early on. So when I was a kid I wasn't really a kid. And it's so interesting because as soon as I kind of hit 18, that relationship changed even more so to being best friends, because it was already so established. Because when you are looking after a human, that's so vulnerable, you need to be always frank about things and trust in one another. It kind of got all of the stuff out the way that takes mum and daughter relationships a long time, if ever, to establish.
And even when I got into university, she'd actually been headhunted by the same university at the same time, but she didn't want to tell me because she thought I was going to be really mad at her for following. But the fate always put us together and that was just something that was always embraced because it worked. Now, she lives around the corner from me.
If you could have sex with any person in history who would it be?
Gertrude Stein. I've read her erotic poetry - I'm there! I got paraphernalia of Gertrude Stein all around my house. Fuck me with your words and your poetry, Gertrude.
Who were you most surprised to find out was a kinky bitch in history?
Albert Einstein. Not for being kinky but how he was so against monogamy.
Who do you think was the biggest womaniser of history?
Victor Hugo would be pretty high up on the list. He was out every single night at various brothels. So much so that on the day he died, they actually closed every single brothel in Paris for a day of mourning because so many of the workers knew him so intimately. And according to one policeman at the time, their workers wore a black crepe-cloth around their genitals as a mark of respect for him on the day.
He also always wrote his books naked. When writing "Les Misérables" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" he took off all his clothes, gave them to his servants and would be like, "do not give me my clothes until I finish this book." He fucking hated writing. But it made him so famous that he would sit there really depressed writing naked just to get his clothes back.
Who is your favourite bisexual icon?
I've already talked about Gertrude Stein, so it'll have to be Virginia Woolf, she is really high up there for me. For so many queers that were also bibliophiles, Wolf's letters to Vita Sackville-West was such a staple experience for people discovering their queerness. I even have a collection of pictures of her on my wall.
Which person in your life is most sick of hearing about sex facts?
From my study you can see directly into the hallway and kitchen. And so when I'm filming my videos my partner can literally watch it and hear it. This man hears everything - he can probably do kinky history better than I could because he just knows it to death. He goes to parties and he'll be like "did you hear about James Joyce liking farts?" Or he'll be at work functions and call me asking, "honey which one likes to be fucked in the ass," as he's showing people my videos.
You’re obviously passionate about sex and history. Is there something not sex related people would be surprised you actually like?
I'm actually a really big gamer. I love the Sims - I live vicariously through the Sims. It's some kind of therapy honestly.
You’re always seen wearing red lipstick. What’s your go-to lipstick brand?
Mac Ruby Rue - that one will stay on till dusk till dawn. That is my saviour! I have them in every single drawer and every single bag in the house.
What’s on your TikTok FYP/feed at the moment?
It's just "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild." As soon as that Zelda game came out, my FYP was like, "you want to see this, you want to buy this?" And I've been trying to say, "not interested" because I'm trying to work on my thesis. But TikTok has a way of being like, "I know what you really want and it's Zelda." Zelda is the game for the queers. Link is the ultimate bottom.
What’s on your phone background?
It's a picture of me and my partner.
Chandon - it's Aussie which is bloody beautiful.
Favourite type of sex toy?
Do you know what I'm a huge fan of the magic wand. It's a staple, it's so versatile. And finally a fantastic back massager. I love the versatility of it and it works on every body type in different ways.
What’s your favourite kinky book?
"Story of O" by Pauline Réage.
What’s the pettiest thing you’ve done after a breakup?
I did witchcraft. That was my first boyfriend. And with your first boyfriend, you don't really know how to handle the relationship. So I just went to the black arts. I was like, if you don't want me back, I'll make you come back. I studied love spells and googled spells so no one else would ever fall in love with him. I would have been 17.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Oh God my first job was in a bakery, which wasn't bad, but I remember standing behind the counter and writing my essays and everything on the receipts underneath the counter in Baker's Delight. I would write my novel plans and all of that. It wasn't necessarily a bad job, but I remember just not quite fitting in with that life.
I did work in a sex toy store for a while. I finished up my thesis and I'd gone out shopping with my best friend and we saw this lingerie in a sex toy store. I'm like, "okay why not, for a bit of a laugh.' My best friend started chatting with the manager and telling them I studied sex. The manager was very jokingly said, "oh, we need a Christmas casual." I had nothing to do because I've just finished my thesis and it really filled a gaping hole in my life. I ended up working at this place for like three months. And it was so great, I learnt so much.
What book are you currently reading?
I've got Marquis de Sade's "Philosophy in the Boudoir" mainly because it's my final thesis chapter and so I've been rereading this bad boy like no tomorrow. I wish I could say I was reading for fun, but studying kind of has to be my fun at the moment. I left it open as well on this page where it was just like "jerk me, fuck me in the ass, I'm coming." And I realised I left it out for my cleaner today. So that wasn't good.
That's not the worst thing that's happened. My Nan came around because she has a habit of cleaning everything. She's a compulsive cleaner. And I had a series of whips out on my bed. Not for personal use, but I was taking them to a party for friends. My Nan took all the whips and she lined them all up in height order because she's a compulsive cleaner. And I called her, I was like, "Nan, I can explain."And she's like, "no, honey, we don't need to talk about it." That wasn't good.
There are many conspiracy theories and legends regarding sex, relationships and history. I'd love to know your thoughts on these sex myths. Firstly did JFK actually have an affair with Marilyn Monroe?
I think there is enough evidence there that that absolutely happened. And I think one of the things that came out was some of his agents went into her house after she died and ransacked it. She knew something. And I think hers is such a tragic story. She was absolutely most likely with him.
Did Catherine The Great really fuck a horse?
Catherine didn't fuck a horse. She was an incredibly sexually autonomous woman. Like, she was orchestrating affairs and lovers for political gain while reaping the benefit. Like, she was amazing. And I think very much like Cleopatra, historians and political motivators tried to use that to destroy her image. And so almost as soon as she died, the rumour was spread because she was also a great horse rider.
Was Jesus asexual? Was he secretly having sex with Mary Magdalene?
Mary Magdalene, in terms of, like, if you want to call her historical or fictional character, she's such an interesting figure because obviously we've got this image of her being a prostitute, which was deliberately done only a few years after Jesus's death. I think if you look at anything to do with Jesus's sexuality or his views on sex, he's so accepting and open about everything, and even including sex workers, he protects people who would be classified as queer and gender nonconforming in scripture. So I think Jesus would have been really open. There's one writing and they actually talk about Jesus as occupying a third sex, like, what would be today as non binary or even transgenderism, if they had a term for that. But sometimes third sex was applied to men who had relationships, like romantic relationships with other men.
Does Quentin Tarantino have a foot fetish?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I can't even remember the film, but there's a girl at a bar and she drips alcohol down her legs, and then a man licks it off her foot. He wrote that and then cast himself in that role. You don't do that if you don't have a foot fetish.
Describe the book writing journey in three words.
Unexpected, alcohol-infused and exhilarating. When you read the book you'll be able to tell when it gets alcohol infused.
What’s the biggest misconception people often have when you tell them you’re a ‘kink historian’ or a ‘kink history influencer’?
That it's frivolous to be a sex historian - that's one of the number one things. There's this prudish idea that we've only started being freaky in the last 100 years and that women have only just started to enjoy sex in the last 100 years. That simply is not true.
What’s a career goal you recently achieved?
It feels like this insane dream come true that my book Kinky History is going to be available in so many countries around the world, and there's already plans for it to be translated.
Be sure to pre-order Esmé's upcoming book, Kinky History.