It’s official: TIkTok is an app that’s here to stay. Many of us may still think of it as the home of new dance videos, but as the app has grown in the past two years, and its creators have expanded into a variety of subjects. One of those creators is Esmé James, the creator of Kinky History, a wildly popular channel covering sexual world history in a funny, inclusive, and thoroughly researched way.
Recently I was able to sit down with James over a video interview, whose topics included subjects as wildly varied as Virginia Woolf, how to combat internet censorship, why she is co-heading a government-funded sex study with, of all people, her mother, and why a bottle of wine kickstarted a knowledge empire.
Read on to find out how this queer Australian became the darling of the historical side of TikTok.
JENNIE ROBERSON: How did you come to identify as bi or queer?
Esmé James: So I officially claimed a bisexual identity at the end of my undergraduate [studies]. That was the time where I was like, “‘Bisexual’ is right for me.” Realistically, I think I started to know and work it out [at] about fourteen. So it was a long time coming.
But the area that I grew up in was a very country, rural area and in my high school, there was only one teacher who was out as gay — let alone any other identities. So it was very closed-off in terms of actual awareness.
So it took me a very long time to actually find and understand bisexuality and be like, “Oh, that's me.” [Laughs]
Do you think that if you had more people who were out when you were younger, it would've been easier for you to come to terms with your identity?
EJ: Entirely, entirely.
During my high school, there was a girl two years above me who, at one stage, came out as bisexual and no one had heard of it before. And she was continually trying to explain what it was. And there was a very big aura of, “Oh, she's making this up.” “It's not real.” “We’ve never heard of this before.”
“You're doing this for attention.” That kind of thing.
EJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. I would've been about thirteen at the time. I was obsessed with her. [Laughs] I was absolutely obsessed with her, and I didn't understand why until [I was] much older. But I was always trying to ask her questions and, like, try and hear the gossip about what was happening with this girl and her sexuality. And I didn't understand that for a very long time.
But I think that kind of environment — where you have one person who discovered what our school, country, town thought was a made-up identity — there wasn't any room for really exploring that at a young age.
So how do you see yourself as an academic, and how does being bi fold into that?
EJ: In a lot of interesting ways. Back when I was writing my honors thesis and I was doing this project on Virginia Wolf and Gertrude Stein....
EJ: [Laughs] Fantastic!
And so I was working on this project and trying to argue for this transcendent experience that comes from erotic, romantic interactions. And it took about halfway through working on this thesis for my supervisor to turn around and say, “Are you sure it's not just an erotic experience that you're wanting to look at? Because this is all very queer. Like, all of it is queer. Maybe that should be your angle.”
And that was the first time that it had really come to my awareness that that was something I was actively trying to go out and research and find the history of queer figures. And it just hadn't actually come into my consciousness that that's what I'd been doing and that's what I was interested in. And so now it's just something I very much claim.
I think a lot of the time when I'm reading novels and working especially on my PhD research, I'm looking back at a lot of figures and writers from the eighteenth century in particular and seeing a lot of these erotic undertones which haven't been picked up on before.
Yeah. It's like, the “match burning in a crocus” that led to the flame of looking into queer-coded literature. I can totally get that through-line.
And it's always very interesting; at one stage, my supervisor had joked to me, he was like, “Everyone's gay in your eyes, but it's annoying because it’s absolutely there in the text. As soon as you tell me it's there in the text and show me, I can't unsee it.” I'm like, “I know!” [Laughs]
Is there anything about yourself you would like people to know about you that maybe isn't part of your public persona?
EJ: Yes. I think one of the big things about my personality and who I am — which I don't think is, you know, as evident on most of my social presence — is I'm actually the primary carer and guardian of my brother, who's quite severely disabled. And that's a huge part of who I am, is being a carer and looking after him all of my life.
I think that's something that I want to start talking about a bit more through my social channels. I think he has taught me so much in terms of patience and awareness of, like, accessibility issues and all of that kind of stuff. And that's all from what he's taught me. I owe so much of who I am to him. He's just this radiant light of sunshine every single day, and he's very much my motivation and my inspiration.
So yeah, I think that’s something that’s an unspoken part of who I am.
Thank you for sharing that. I think it's important to show the full humanity of people in these interviews. That's why I ask questions like that.
How did you get interested in the study of sexual world history?
EJ: Well, ironically, I came to university bright-eyed at eighteen, uh, ready to study the history of religion.
Hey, they’re not mutually exclusive subjects.
EJ: No! [Laughs] And it was a really fun twist for me because that was always what I was fascinated with. But in particular, I was fascinated with universal moments where everyone kind of feels out of their body and just kind of connected to everything, and how this ran through every religion, every spirituality. And I was really interested in just studying the history of that. And somewhere along my research, I realized that that seemed to often happen to people, collectively, during the act of sex.
So I started to deep-dive into that, and then move even further away from that, to how homosexual and heterosexual experiences of this kind of sexual sublime moment were different in various ways. And how a lot of historical figures, like Gertrude Stein or Virginia Woolf, when they were connecting with their partner, it often was more harmonious and equal. There was this respect for another party, whereas in a lot of literature of heterosexual unions, there was still this kind of domination factor going on.
What a shock.
EJ: I know, can you imagine? [Laughs] Plot twist of the century there.
So that's kind of how my research went from going into the history of religion to looking at this specific kind of erotic experience to doing all of the reading and writing about that to kind of putting me into the sexual history area.
And while I was studying and doing my academic thing, I started to write a lot of freelance papers with just that kind of leftover research — things like on the history of the dildo or about ethical pornography and everything today. And I think that gradually started to put me in this very niche category of research.
Niche, but apparently universally appealing.
So why did you decide to bring your work into the burgeoning world of TikTok, and what is it about the app that appealed to you?
EJ: My debut on TikTok started like any good story — with a bottle of wine, in lockdown.
One of my favorite things to do is just tell people about these incredible stories and tidbits from history that I found out, and I used to love to entertain friends and family at parties with them. And in lieu of that, I was desperate to talk about it, and my best friend didn't wanna hear about it anymore.
How could she not? I mean, you're going through millennia of research for her. But okay — I guess we all get tired of hearing our friend talk about that one thing.
EJ: And once you've told her about too many prehistoric dildos, she's like, “Esmé, move on.”
Fair point, fair point.
EJ: So I had been talking to her, having a bottle of wine mutually over Zoom. And I just said, “Y’know, if you're not gonna listen to me, then I'm gonna do a TikTok. You watch TikTok all the time, you’re not gonna be able to escape me.”
And so I did, at 11:00 PM at night. I posted this video, didn't look at the app for two days, and when I came back to look at funny videos, the video had blown up. So that is how it started.
That's amazing. That's like the drunken declaration that changed the world. I love it.
EJ: And it was so funny because I mean, in comparison to now, it had blown up for me in terms of never having a big, big reach on social media before. And it was sitting at like 100,000 views, and I was like, “This is — what has happened?!”
And all of these followers have started to trickle in and were asking questions, and they were legitimate questions. I just wanted to answer every single one of them. So I spent probably the best part of the next week making all of these videos to answer all these questions, and more and more people were coming. And it took until the first month where I was like, “There is a huge gap in our conversation and research that's accessible to people, and I actually have a platform now to fill that gap. How incredible.
So it really took off, and it took off very, very quickly. It was wonderful because there was this really constructive conversation happening via an app that hasn't really made it into the public yet — this was, like, the end of 2020. People were still kind of associating it with dance and funny videos.
And as I was starting it, I'd seen one person who was actually at the university with me, and she was creating an art history lecture series [on TikTok]. So we joined up and were just like, “What is this new app? How can we use it? How can we use it to educate? This is really great.” So she was very much my saving grace that I had someone to talk about this weird new world with. And we worked quite closely together for a good part of the next six months just being like: “How do you put a huge paper that you've written into a minute video?” It was an incredible experience in terms of seeing people and getting messages really early on, via TikTok or Instagram, of people just saying “Thank you; I have never felt seen in history before.” “I didn't know that there was an asexual figure.” “I didn't know that there was a trans figure.” “This has genuinely changed things for me; you've made me feel more comfortable.”
I think it was those messages and that support and that communication early on that was like: “This is an incredible opportunity to help people. What an honor. I wanna do this. I really wanna take the leap and do this.”
It takes a village to raise a sexpert.
What's something surprising you found in your studies that most people would not expect? Any favorite discoveries throughout history?
EJ: I think the most amusing one that always takes people by surprise is the prevalence of sex toys all throughout history. The oldest one is dated back to 28,000 years, and writing isn't even invented until about 5,000 [BCE], like, that is crazy, you know? We are quite happy to bring that and save the writing until later.
And how prevalent any kind of toys were. Like thirteenth-century China, they were inventing penis rings and they’re inventing clitoral stimulators and all of this kind of stuff. And our views about sex toys and about homosexuality really only change around that seventeenth, eighteenth century — which is why I'm researching that area so heavily at the moment.
But we have this really wide-ranging acceptance of both of those things — especially in Europe and America — that really changes, I think, [when] Christianity creeps into politics a lot more, and there is this burgeoning of racism between countries that also plays a massive impact on both things. I find that that really shocks people, ‘cause it shocked me, because our thinking has changed so drastically in that time.
I think even in the last hundred years, things that have changed in the early 1900s, we've forgotten about. We’re so wired from what our grandparents, our parents, others have learned. It's not the way things have always been or been for the majority of time. And that's always quite shocking.
How do you go through the span of your work with a non-judgmental lens?
Do you have to apply a scientific mindset to remain objective, or do you find your personal reactions to your findings helpful in explaining them to your audience? (For example, um, the recent video where you were talking about Herod the Great encasing his wife in honey and everything that went with that.)
EJ: One of the best things about TikTok and social platforms is that you are allowed to have an opinion, whereas in academia sometimes that has to be very, very, very objective. And in the social world, you are more than welcome to condemn a man who's carried the body of his dead wife around for seven years. Like, it’s almost weird if you don’t. [Laughs] I think that that's also really powerful and not something I take for granted. Because if you do add that commentary over the facts, you have to be really careful about what you're doing.
The message behind Kinky History is always inclusion, accessibility, and education. They’re the three things that I'm always doing. So when you are saying something like that and when you are making those sassy jokes, I am always very conscious that if there is any kind of criticism or sass towards someone, it's going towards the oppressing party.
Right. You’re trying not to kink-shame, but you're also gonna throw a jab at an oppressor.
EJ: Absolutely. And, I mean, we have jokes all the time, like from James Joyce's fart letters to Tesla having a kind of romantic interest in a pigeon. Those things are objectively weird. But at the same time, you wanna try and laugh with them. I don't think anyone with those kinks or fetishes is being like, “This is A-OK normal.” And that’s part of what's so great about Kinky History — we kind of just laugh at each other, at ourselves, at all of it.
We're weird. Human sexuality is weird. And I think that's a really fantastic way to bring that in.
Is it important or central to your work to center marginalized or intersectional identities in your findings such as non-Eurocentric experiences?
EJ: Yes, absolutely. A huge part of the ethos of Kinky History is trying to write people who have felt underrepresented back into history. That's a huge part of what I want to do, and why I think it's really important — once you have this kind of platform — to tell stories of queer experiences.
One thing that I'm really conscious about [is] I'm trying to start doing more collaboration with other creators. I really want to start talking and doing more stories that aren't so Eurocentric. At the same time, that's where all of my research and expertise is. So I'm conscious when I'm pulling stories — and I have like pulled stories before — that I don't feel like they're being as vigorously researched, and I'm scared of saying the wrong thing and not doing them justice. And also they're not my stories, but I'm conscious of that as well.
So I'm trying to move into a lot more collaboration with some fantastic creators that I'm really excited about where I'm gonna get them to tell these stories. They’ve done some fantastic research. That's one thing that I really think needs to be improved on the channel, and I just wanted to find the right way to go about doing that. So I'm looking forward to this [addition].
In academia, do you come across more support or raised eyebrows navigating your subject in Australia and the world stage? What types of challenges do you come across in your research?
EJ: I'm based at Melbourne Uni, and recently [attended] a conference that was in joint with the University of New York.
It's always really surprising because people really enjoy it. They are really, really actively supportive, and if it is something that comes across initially as quite shocking, people — grown academics — will giggle. And then we break down this barrier; when you go into these conferences — [with] very serious elitism sometimes as you go in — and then, you know, you're going in talking about anal sex. It breaks it down! Everyone has a chuckle — anal will do that. [Laughs]
I think sometimes it’s the speech that can make us all not take ourselves too seriously which I really love. So, so far I found a lot of support from the academic community.
Approaching it the right way and actually having confidence in what you're doing and why it's important has been a giant learning curve for me. Because rather sitting on the back burner when deans are asking you why they should fund a project in erotic literature, and kind of, uh, testing you out, you have the reasons. It’s important. People wanna hear this.
And I think it's wonderful to then have this social platform to be able to take education that's quite inaccessible and put it into a mainstream audience. They work really well together.
Though you haven't had to deal with much censorship with your research partners, you’ve definitely had to deal with that with TikTok.
How do you counter that? What kind of advice would you give to someone who's trying to bring across the same kind of information that you are?
EJ: Especially very early on, it was a tightrope of working out what I could and could not do on the app.
I was quite fortunate because TikTok is very young. It's only really, I would say, coming into maybe its preteen years at the moment. When I got about seven months into my TikTok career, I was reached out to buy a branch at TikTok Australia to join and see if they could kind of give me an account manager that I could talk to with any issues.
And one of the things that they had said to me, there and then, was that they were really eager to make education a part of their platform and expand TikTok from just being a fun app to actually doing a lot of education and had reached out to a lot of like educational creators. They were like, "We are gonna back you to do what you're doing at the moment,” which was fantastic. They started the hashtag #LearnOnTikTok and they were spotlighting all of our videos and making history sections or agriculture sections — all of this really cool stuff.
One of the best parts about that was I had someone to bounce back on when guideline violation came up to be like, “What is this? Can we not censor things like ‘lesbian’ and ‘homosexual?' Why are they censored?” Having a direct point of feedback to them, I think, was a mutually beneficial [relationship], because at first my videos were getting flagged left, right, and center, and it wasn't necessarily anything bad. A lot of the time naked statues, Michaelangelo [works] — get flagged all the time. And so being able to pass that straight back to TikTok and be like, “This is not what you're aiming to do with your nudity clause; it doesn't matter for education. That [clause] goes against that [purpose]. We need to be able to talk about that.” And I think they have actively taken that onboard, um, in this effort to kind of expand TikTok into an educational area. My videos won't get flagged anymore, and I know a lot of other content creators are starting to find the same thing.
I think that's one of the best things about TikTok being so young; creators are still playing a part in being able to mold it. So when creators do have issues, raising them up somehow is the best thing they can do.
Do you have any favorite talks that you've published or one that you were surprised went viral?
EJ: I never expected — I think my most viral video is on the history of [giving] head. I didn't expect that! It just blew up.
It was so funny because I had — I mean, talking about censorship — I’d made another version of that video initially where I actually got outside of my sixteenth-to-eighteenth-century porn and read some of it out loud. That one got flagged and taken down — and, fair enough, I was just reading porn. I felt that one in my soul. And, me being me, rather than just being like, “Okay, Es, you don't need to talk about the history of head,” I was like, “No, no, just try again, but I'll do some like crosses and I won't read porn actively on the internet. [Laughs] I'm very glad I did. That one, that one took off.
You now are on the cusp of *two million* followers on TikTok!
What kind of doors does that open for you? What's something you didn't expect about having such a huge following?
EJ: Well, I think most excitingly — and I can announce ‘cause it was finalized yesterday — I have a book deal, which is fantastic.
EJ: Thank you! That, again, has come out of TikTok and people finding the platform there and being like, “We wanna publish all of these stories that you're telling and also narrate a bit more about how sex is now.”
This also came about from another thing that came from TikTok, which is my government-funded series with my mum that's about to launch called SexTistics. It's all come out of TikTok. Me and mum are now taking the next six months off to research and produce this brand new series and write a book together!
It’s just one of those things that I couldn’t, in a million years have seen happening. But here we are.
And these are such important projects. The research we're doing into, um, finding stats on modern-day identity, sexuality and gender — based in Australia but using research that's been pulled from the UK and U.S. as well. But there hasn't been that much done that's just based in Australia. So we’re doing a comparison of how we look now compared to the rest of the world and finding out some incredible stuff. And being able to do this alongside my mom?! That's awesome!
Do you find any awkwardness with working with your mom — like the fact that it's your mom and not just another statistician with that? Or is it just really exciting to do this work together?
EJ: It’s very exciting.
I think this comes from having raised my brother together — we have a very best friend-like partnership/relationship. One of the best things about us is that we just laugh and talk openly about everything, and I think that translates really well into doing things like this series. It’s that very “practice what you preach” kind of thing; not only are we talking about sex and queer identity and masturbation — all of it — but we are doing that together. People are seeing an open family dynamic talking healthfully about these things! It's just fantastic.
It's a really exciting year ahead, and that's all thanks to TikTok
Gosh, it's like “the Gilmore Girls take on sexual world history.”
EJ: [Laughs] It is! It’s the sequel we never knew we needed.
There have been some other famous, wide-ranging sexual studies in modern history from the findings of Kinsey, as well as Masters & Johnson. What do you hope SexTistics will specifically bring to the discussion?
One of the main aims is obviously making these things a bit more accessible and fun. Because a lot of the time — and even this fantastic research that has been done — some of it has been published into books sold at bookstores. One of the fallbacks a lot of the time is that the statistics side of it can be very inaccessible still. They can have the jokes and the humor, but the numbers on the page still can't quite be conceptualized if you are mathematically inept, like I am.
And so I think one of the great things about how we are approaching this is that we are coming from very, very different faculties and ways of thinking. So when we are creating this project together, the aim at the end is that this can be read by anyone — from a statistician who is gonna find this interesting as sexual health research to just like the layperson who wants to know how their identity fits in the rest of the world. That's really where we're aiming at. And I think that's why it is gonna be very different, and we can't find anywhere really that's done this [before].
Do you think there's a strength in having different generations of researchers coming into this project? Do you have that in mind when you are approaching your research?
EJ: Massively so.
It's so fascinating in terms of when we are trying to explain various statistics and why, you know, maybe queer identity is more prevalent in a younger age group to Mum's age group, or conceptualize in time and throw a generational thing in there.
When we’ve discussed this with my nan, she sometimes will actually give us, like, a whole different perspective on adjusting our research that we didn't have before. We mentioned something along the lines of talking about the sex rates of her generation and why they were only having a smaller number of partners and we were just kind of explaining it [as] “we’ve become more progressive.” And Nan's like, “Well, no. How about it was the invention of the pill. And once I got the pill, I was more [sexually] active.” And she's like, “Have you looked at the stats on who bought the pill and how that changed?” And we're like, “No! No, we haven’t!” [Laughs]
And I think that's really, again, one of the really unique values of this is that when we are trying to put these into context of the place, we have three women there kind of ready to do it as well. [Laughs]
So is there anything I didn't cover that you'd like to make sure that we talk about? Any other upcoming projects or shows you would like to promote?
EJ: I’m launching a bit more on YouTube, which is always a bit fun. Because as fun as TikTok is, it's always great to kind of give that long-form of background information and more extensive evidence for people who want it. I think that's really important as well.
Finally, do you have any advice for those who are newly identifying as bi or queer, and/or any advice you wish you could give to your younger self before you came out?
EJ: Yes. I think one of the strongest factors for anyone who is finding their identity as bi now — we've spoken about how it almost wasn't believed as an identity back when I was growing up — and I really wish that had been. But taking confidence in that identity and not feeling like I think a lot of bisexual people feel — that they aren't bi because they haven't had a relationship with a woman yet, or they've only had relationships with men, but they find women attractive.
Being confident. Not feeling like you need to make exceptions for your identity and you are valid! You are absolutely valid. And that's something that I wish that people before this [era] had had — people that they can look up to that are bisexual. Which is one of the reasons why I think what you're doing at bi.org is so important. People need to see other people who they can look up to and be like, “Yes. Okay. That's my story as well. That's part of who I am.”
You're valid. You're absolutely valid.
** This interview has been lightly truncated for clarity and brevity.