Explore the 2024 Program

Take Me Away Q&A with Esmé Louise James

As May rapidly approaches, we are so excited to welcome you to the Festival and to introduce you to the writers who make it all worthwhile. To awaken your Festival spirit, we're got a series of Q&As to introduce some of the 2024 participants. Get to know them as we discuss their reading, their writing practice and the Festival theme, Take Me Away.

Esmé Louise James is most well-known for her incredibly popular (over 3 million followers!) TikTok series Kinky History. She's now translated that series into a book exploring the history of human sexuality.

Which book would you take to a deserted island?

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – or practically any of Gertrude Stein’s works if I could sneak something extra in! 

What initially got you interested in the history of sex and what encouraged you to start sharing that information online?

My fascination with the history of sex began during my academic studies, where I noticed that much of the rich history of human sexuality was often glossed over or omitted entirely from mainstream historical narratives. I started to read the work of scholars who recognised the profound impact that sexual norms and practices have had on societies throughout history, and felt compelled to also explore this lesser-discussed facet of human experience. These were interesting stories to be told here and I couldn’t look away. 

The decision to share this information online? The official answer is that I was driven by a desire to engage with a wider audience, providing a platform to discuss, educate, and de-stigmatise aspects of human sexuality that are often considered taboo. The unofficial answer is that I had a bottle of wine alone in lockdown and thought TikTok might be really interested in what I was reading that day – turns out tipsy-Esmé was right!

What was it like translating your incredibly popular TikTok series into a book?

Translating the TikTok series into a book was both exhilarating and challenging. The format shift from short, engaging video clips to a more detailed and expansive book format allowed for deeper research and a more comprehensive exploration of topics. It required a careful balance of maintaining the engaging and accessible tone that made the series popular, while also expanding on the subjects with the depth and rigour that a book allows. The process was a fantastic opportunity to reach audiences who prefer the immersive experience of reading and to provide a tangible resource that could be revisited and studied. Kinky History has always been very conversational in tone, so it was really important to keep that kind of access alive, even while rigorously backing up everything that was said with academic sources. 

What do you hope readers take away from your work?

I hope readers come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of the complexity and diversity of human sexual history. My goal is for readers to recognise that many contemporary issues and discussions around sexuality have deep historical roots and that understanding this history can inform and enrich our current conversations. More importantly, I want to encourage curiosity, openness and a non-judgmental approach to learning about the varied ways people have expressed their sexuality throughout history.

You’ve done some events with your statistician mother in the past. Did you two collaborate on any of the research in Kinky History?

My mum, Dr Susan James, is a recognised co-author of this book. She contributed a large portion of the contemporary research in the book, as long as the global SexTistics survey which the book draws on continually in conversation. Working on this book with mum was one of the happiest moments of my life. We really were able to practice what we preached – we speak about the importance of open conversations about sex, whilst also sitting around a table together – as mum and daughter – discussing the statistical increases of sex toys and pornography during the pandemic. This collaboration really allowed us to approach the topic with a unique perspective, combining qualitative historical narratives with quantitative data analysis to provide a more nuanced and comprehensive view of sexual history.

What events are looking forward to attending at the Festival?

Katy Hessel: The Story of Art Without Men and David Wengrow: The Dawn of Everything!

Continue reading...