Esmé’s journey to sexual history educator

Esmé James discovered her niche career path – educating her social media followers on people’s sex lives throughout history – through her time at the University.

At the beginning of her studies, graduate researcher Esmé James didn’t predict she would be educating her TikTok followers on people’s sex lives throughout history.

But through the influential relationships and culture of curiosity that Esmé experienced at the University of Melbourne, she discovered her niche interests and how to pursue them in an unconventional way.

Although Esmé is in the final stretch of her graduate research program at the University, her career is already well underway.

“I’m currently a PhD candidate in my final six months which is awfully exciting, and my research looks at the history of human sexuality,” she shared.

“I do a lot of work across Tik Tok, Instagram and YouTube communicating my research to a widespread audience, and that's turned into a podcast and my book that will be released soon.”

It was a series of events throughout her entire journey at the University that led Esmé down the path of harnessing a career on social media.

While working on the student magazine Farrago during her undergraduate degree, Esmé was given an intriguing assignment – an article on the history of the dildo.

It wasn’t until years later, during her graduate research program, that Esmé revisited herarticle.

“I first downloaded Tik Tok when Melbourne was in lockdown, and an art historian that I did undergraduate studies with popped up on my screen,” said Esmé.

“Seeing a fellow alum doing incredible work inspired me to communicate the article I’d written on TikTok too, and it was reading that article that started my social media career.”

Discovering new paths

Along with kickstarting her career, Esmé’s writing assignment at Farrago also foreshadowed her interest in a field of research that she hadn’t yet envisioned pursuing.

“I came to the University of Melbourne originally to study the history of religion,” said Esmé.

“I remember one of the things that really struck me during my undergraduate studies was how the questions about gender identity and sexuality that were being raised in books published hundreds of years ago were the same questions that we’re seeing in the media today.”

Esmé’s fascination with these long-standing attitudes continued to grow, and she often dedicated her course essays to interrogating how contemporary visions of sexuality can be traced back through history.

“My PhD supervisor, Dr Tom Ford, turned around to me at one stage and said, ‘Esmé, you keep on coming back to this idea of religion and spirituality, but have you noticed that all the books you're interested in are about sex and sexuality?’

“I think sometimes your mentors can see where you're heading a lot more clearly than you can, and it's because of people like Dr Ford that I felt encouraged to explore this path.”

Growing confidence

Beyond her graduate research supervisor, Esmé credits many of the relationships and experiences she had at the University to helping develop her identity and passions.

“Sarah Balkin, a lecturer in English and Theatre Studies, ran every single literature subject that changed my life,” said Esmé.

“She introduced me to Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, who I now have posters of everywhere in my room, and I remember she would come into lectures and read the most incredible and controversial poems with so much confidence and empowerment.”

Esmé said the culture of self-discovery at the University is truly invaluable to shaping students’ future careers and personalities.

“There is no other period in your life where you're just allowed to discover yourself, and that's really what the University’s entire learning experience is about,” said Esmé.

“You do subjects that you don't think you’ll be interested in, and they turn out to be the things that light that fire inside of you.

“I wouldn't be who I am today if it wasn't for everything I discovered about myself over the course of my undergraduate degree.”

Long-lasting bonds

Outside of the educational experience, the friendships and memories that Esmé collected over her time at the University have also become integral to her life.

“On my first day, at the very first lecture I walked into, I found one person that I recognised from a local country school from doing theater together,” said Esmé.

“We sat together that day with a few other girls, and those girls that I met in my first few weeks are still my best friends all of these years later.”

Esmé also fondly reflects on her favourite study spot on campus.

“At the very top of the Baillieu library, there's a few seats that look out over the South Lawn,” said Esmé.

“You can just look out and see everything happening, whether it was people studying or an artist playing music down below while you study.

“I will just sit there and think, ‘this is such an incredible place’.”

Along with the inspiring relationships and memories that Esmé has built over her time spent at Melbourne, she is also thankful that it has fostered curiosity and confidence within her.

“Every time I had an idea or an interest that deviated from what I was meant to be doing, I had mentors that encouraged me to pursue the path that was less trodden,” said Esmé.

“Now, what I do as a career has its own path, so that’s absolutely the most valuable thing that I really owe to the University.”

Get tickets to Esmé James’ Australian book tour for Kinky History: The Stories of Our Intimate Lives, Past and Present.