Dr Gabriella Onan: Sex Historian

The straight-faced and straight-laced archaeologist of smut

Arty Types

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Gabriella Onan’s career took off in an instant. One moment she was a newly-appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Strathclyde wondering if anyone was going to publish her recently completed PhD thesis Venereal Disease in Early Modern Perugia; its social and economic consequences, the next a researcher from Channel Four was on the phone to enquire if she would be interested in appearing as the “technical expert” in a series called Sex Life in Ancient Rome.

There are worse ways of making a living

Gabriella informed her department head that she would be taking a week’s unpaid leave, purchased a couple of black A-line skirts, had her hair done and cheerfully submitted herself to the attentions of the production company’s make-up team.

The series — extensively trailed in the Radio Times — was a success: several newspapers printed a photograph of her inspecting the interior of what purported to a be a brothel patronised by the Emperor Vespasian, and on the strength of it she was commissioned to write an article for i on classical courtship rituals, which, rather to her annoyance, was infelicitously re-titled “Why togas are a turn-on”.

Gabriella discovered over the course of the next year and a half that there was a considerable market for what she had always imagined to be a somewhat recondite expertise. No sooner had Sex Life in Ancient Rome concluded than she was approached by BBC2 with a request to fill the role of “historical adviser” in a six-part drama about two lesbian highwaywomen from the age of Charles II. This was followed by an invitation from Radio Four to front a series called Forbidden Fruit: The Secret History of Adultery.

Critics generally agree that the secret of Dr Onan’s success lies in her absolute professionalism. Not the least suggestion of prurience infects her precise academic tones and she can answer a question about cunnilingus in Revolutionary France or the bestiality statistics from the later Holy Roman Empire without turning a hair.

There was a memorable occasion on which, asked by an interviewer on the Today programme if she was interested in incest, she replied with an absolutely straight face, “Yes, but only in a very general way.”

Just at this moment, Gabriella is drafting the opening chapters of Cutpurses, Courtesans and Clap-mongers: the Georgian Sexual Underworld, recently commissioned by an enthusiastic editor at messrs Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and co-presenting a podcast (5,000 subscribers and rising) on The Latin Erotic Vocabulary with Dame Mary Beard, where the two dons dispute the meaning of such phrases as furor jejuni cunnis and inferior guttur. If her colleagues’ reactions vary between straightforward envy and grudging admiration, then everyone agrees that there are worse ways of making a living.

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