Hermione Bird, our Love, Sex and Relationships Subeditor, talks us through the history of sex.
Sex is everywhere. Flicking through Instagram is like flicking through a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Sex is on our TV screens, in our perfume commercials, in the way we dress, even, for some, in the way a mother feeds her baby. Everything feels sexualised. You name it, sex sells it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next time I am idling scrolling through Facebook I see sex selling dog food – nothing feels safe.
And in my quiet musings, when I’m not wasting my time considering why a stick thin models sex life is going to make me buy a Range Rover Sport, I wonder how we got here and if society was always like this. Naturally, curiosity got the better of me and I delved into the history books to suss out how sex was viewed in bygone eras. And I stumbled on a few interesting snippets from our forefathers that raised an eyebrow.
The Victorian Detox:
In Victorian Britain sex was taboo, well at least talking about it was. Society was so concerned about sexual arousal that they covered the legs of chairs and tables because they were considered too phallic. As I stare hard at the foot of my kitchen table, I struggle to see how anyone would have found it stimulating but, I shrug, and decide to live and let live … or love as it were. It wasn’t just table legs that needed to be covered, but human, mainly female, legs too. Women were forbidden from showing their ankles, and if you did you were considered either a prostitute or indecently exposing yourself in public and you may have even been arrested. Anxiously glancing down at my mini skirt makes me thankful I was born in the 1990s, rather than the 1890s.
The Victorian attitude to the female orgasm is even more bizarre. It wasn’t right of passage for women to orgasm, but rather a medical procedure. If a woman was seen to be suffering from hysteria or depression, there were special ‘doctors’ who would alleviate their suffering by, well let’s just say giving them a hand. I’m awfully glad student services chose not to adopt this practice, something makes me think that it might just make me feel worse rather than better.
Narcissistic? Vain? Then Ancient Greece is the place for you as a woman. That is, of course, if you don’t mind being kept inside for your entire life and they didn’t even have Netflix to binge watch back then.
If somehow you did get out, and were beautiful, then you were seen as a gift from the Gods. One plucky girl used this to her advantage when she was on trial for blasphemy, the penalty of which was death. Her defence was simple: nudity. She stripped naked in front of the jury and asked them if they could really face killing her perfect body. (Disclaimer: do not try this in a modern-day court of law you will be arrested … again). But she wasn’t just stripping off for nothing, her defence was to show how the Gods had blessed her with a perfect body and ask how she could have blasphemed when she was clearly a Godly gift. If only we could do this now…
The Bible = Karma Sutra. I don’t mean to sound blasphemous (though if I were thank God I’m not in Ancient Greece), but, in the Middle Ages, the Church dictated your sex life: when, where, who and, most importantly, how. Forget trying out new positions, there was only one permitted by the Church – missionary. And if you did anything else then you could risk going to jail. Having the woman on top was a seen as a ‘deviant’ sexual position, so God knows what they thought about doggy style …
That said, the Middle Agers weren’t pretending sex didn’t exist like the Victorians. In fact, the most popular fashion accessory of the time, for men, was a codpiece, which drew attention to male virility. You’ve heard of the ‘bigger the hoop the bigger the ho’ – well, go back a few hundred years and it was ‘the bigger the codpiece the bigger the bro’.
Peace, love and the pill. This is the turning point for sex and how we got from no chair legs to Love Island. The 20th century saw the rise of the pill; a woman could now have sex with a reduced risk of pregnancy. It didn’t stop STIs though and the increased amount of ‘free love’ going on led to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases, the worst of which were HIV. For a period in the 80s and 90s there was an AIDS crisis, following the death of Queen singer Freddie Mercury. Think of the Mean Girls sex ed scene: ‘Don’t have sex, or you will get pregnant and die’. It was that sort of fear, not that it stopped people having sex.
And now we’re here. Sex is everywhere … except in the courts where stripping naked unfortunately will no longer grant you immunity. Courts of law aside, it’s actually hard to find a place where there isn’t something sexual. The idea of sex has changed, it’s a fun thing to let off steam as well as an act of love. Relationships aren’t necessary for sex anymore and, in some cases, neither is another person. My brief account of fun historical sex facts is only a bit of fun but does provide a stark contrast to how our views of sex morph throughout history. And who knows, maybe in a hundred years’ time, some student writer will stumble across our idea of sex and find it utterly ridiculous as well.
Hermione is a fourth year studying English and Philosophy. She has seen every episode of Midsomer Murders one hundred times over and still can never remember whodunnit.
If you would like to contribute to our Love, Sex and Relationships section you can get in touch with Hermione at firstname.lastname@example.org.