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Sexuality & The Rise of Sex Products – Sex History Series

Let’s talk about sex baby, let’s talk about history! We know how our current society talks about and functions around sex but how did we get here?? What sex history has brought us to where we are today?

Where did our current stigmas, beliefs, & sexual norms come from? Have some of these stigmas & “preferences” always been around? Is a lot tied to religion? When did sex toys become popular & were they always a thing? Listen, we’re going to cover all your questions (& probably some questions you didn’t even know you had) in this new series. 

Little disclaimer before we dive in: I’ll be using a lot of gendered terms in this article, such as “man + woman” since that is how history addressed gender over time. When we bring it back to the present day, we will go back to inclusive language that includes ALL genders, but for the sake of the history & understanding WHY some sex history is the way it is, I will use the “male + female” terms.

Alright, here we go!

Sex History: Ancient Times

Created by Jennah DuBois

It’s probably no surprise to you at this point that we are incredibly sexual beings. We feel our sexuality growing before we even know what the word sexuality means (I mean, think back to your childhood & what Disney characters you had crushes on). 

People have always been curious.. Back in 700 BC, Greek husbands would give their wives “bread dildos” (yup, you read that right) before heading off to war. It’s said that Cleopatra created a vibrator by filling a papyrus box with bees in 54 BC. You gotta admire that commitment to meeting her own needs! 

Some cultures encouraged sex before marriage such as some (emphasis on ‘some’) Native American tribes (Native American is such a broad term because people labeled as such are a massively diverse group). In fact, sex was not confined to marriage, at all!

Marriage also wasn’t religious in any capacity; It was practical. Couples would simply take their own personal belongings & split when they no longer wished to be married. No-fuss, no buts. They “allowed” women autonomy over their own bodies because they TRULY (truly, truly, TRULY) believed all people to be equal. 

Women were well respected & very valued in their communities. Their sexualities were THEIRS.

Native Americans also believed that gender was more of a continuum; That there is a “third sex” that basically referred to the feminine & masculine sexualities coming together to form intimate experiences.

Now let’s take it back to ancient China; Sexual intercourse was a way to enrich the spirit; Whether through means of heterosexual sex, homosexuality, or polyamory. 

Somewhere between 23 AD and 600, society normalized sex. Couples were given erotic silk art were married. Some men would even give their wives up for hospitable purposes (I couldn’t confirm if the wives were down with this, but I would say it’s safe to assume, Nah). 

Brothels were legalized & were even officially registered tax-paying businesses during this time. 

This relatively sex-positive culture seems to have drastically changed from the way most of China operates today as we’ll see happen to other cultures/countries throughout this article. 

Okay, so what does all this sex history mean & how does it affect us today? 

The progression (or lack thereof) of sex & sexuality over time & over a wide span of cultures, shows our organically sexual natures. 

Sex is universal. It’s natural. It’s holistic. So, why is it still so awkward in most cultures?

Popular religions of the time have heavily shaped our societal structures; Ours heavily shaped by Christianity. Wider American society doesn’t encourage, support, or even take some sexualities seriously.

Sexuality has always been around, always been curious, and always been stigmatized.

It’s sometimes baffling how something humans have been doing forever is still so nuanced & uncomfy to talk about. 

Even the adults in our lives charged with teaching us about something so natural find it an uncomfortable subject. Remember Health or Sex Ed? You probably only learned about STI’s, STD’S, pregnancy, abstinence & then you were likely tossed a few condoms on your way out the door. 

Nooooot…. very helpful AT ALL. Especially considering we don’t talk about anything outside of heterosexual sex. 

sex history quote against a coral background
Created by Jennah DuBois

Where did this repression begin? Honestly, as far back as sex history will take us. 

One of the most common religions we see sexual shame stem from is the umbrella of Christianity. Sex is viewed as a “sin” outside of marriage.  

Back in the Old Testament, arranged marriages were very common. These arranged marriages were actually a practice of trading your daughters for livestock (I will never stop rolling my eyes at this ever, ever, ever).

It often happened when the women (or honestly, girls) were very young (like puberty age); They were ofter viewed as “property” then traded through marraige.  

Therefore, if the women had been sexually active before their unchosen husbands, they were viewed as impure & unworthy of being traded. They were “ruined”. So, in order to stop this from happening & ensure a viable trade? Sex before marriage became a “sin.” 

In today’s day & age, we typically don’t view marriage like this (as a property exchange) but somehow this mentality is still very common when it comes to sex–and it’s so confusing! 

The idea is that our “virginity” is something like property & that our sexualities are not meant to be OURS, but our partner’s is still relatively prevelant. Think about it, how many times have you heard the phrase “give away your v-card”  Then, if we have partaken in sexual relations before our marital spouses, we have “taken” something away from them (excuse me, but no). 

PS. This way of thinking also implies that monogamy is best & the most normal.

It has almost become a hierarchy to label yourself as a “virgin” (this term sucks & is completely inaccurate, but roll with me for the sake of explaining religion). Individuals who remain “pure” until marriage are praised because they are seen as “denying their humanly flesh” for the sake of “God”.

However, a huge part of belief in God is that he made you perfectly in his image. In other words, God gave you your bits for a reason; Including all of the pleasure centers on the body. So, if God created those centers for pleasure why is it bad to use them? I TOLD YOU; Confusing.

Another very common misconception from Christianity is the misinterpretation of “homosexuality”. 

Back in the day, when the bible was first written, the verses that many people refer to when condemning “homosexuality” we’re actually referring to pedophilia. 

Yup, for real. How did we get it so wrong? 

Over time, individuals have translated & re-translated the bible; Causing incorrect translations of many passages. This has since honestly caused A LOT of damage. It’s amazing what a little research can do, isn’t it?? 

So, why is condemning, minimizing, or shaming individual’s sexualities viewed as beneficial to some people? It’s all about power.

The book, ‘The Ethical Slut’ has a quote that talks about why Nazi Germany suppressed people’s sexualities. “ Wilhelm Reich theorized that the suppression of sexuality was essential to an authoritarian government. Without the imposition of anti-sexual morality, he believed, people would be free from shame and would trust their own sense of right and wrong.” Sound familiar? 

Religious communities can use the same form of suppression to guarantee that people don’t fully trust themselves. Though in this case the Nazi’s and religious communities have very different intentions.

Another example of this, outside of the realm of sex (but still very closely related), was the condemning of witches. Many ancient women who were natural healers or “wise-women” were re-labeled as witches, according to a History Channel article.  

The article explains that right around when the majority of Europe was undergoing Christianization, a witch-craze really took hold, specifically targeting “single women, widows, and other women on the margins of society.” Really, this comes down to women empowerment & how throughout history, confident, single women have scared the shit out of men.  

Even women in Roman cultures (which we often think of as being sexually liberated), were only allowed to be sexually empowered in their marriages. 

Men, on the other hand, often slept with male colleagues. Even in that case the dominating male (in this case, the one “on top”) was also the “powerful” male. SO, once again, the patriarchy & sex-shaming is real even BY the people having a lot of sexual relations. 

While a lot of this might seem like an *extreme*, & we are definitely starting to make some moves in our society today, it’s no surprise that THIS is how we got HERE.

Not only were religions a major cause for sexual suppression, but for a lot of societies, suppressing, specifically women’s sexualities, gave men power over women. 

Back to the property exchange we previously discussed, we can see this in movies & TV shows.

Mad Men epics the women as wives, mothers, & caretakers (that are expected to respond to their husbands’ beck and call); While the husbands are out cheating on their wives regularly. 

The control or shaming of someone’s sexuality, decreases confidence & freedom within themselves. 

Shame is hindering & vicious. We see this in our current society in the debate over women’s rights over their OWN bodies, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, the consistent shaming of prostitutes & strippers. Even when it’s often men keeping them in business, and the political indifference toward intersectionality. 

Wow, that got dark. Don’t worry though, hope isn’t lost! 

Though this is the history of suppression, there are ALWAYS people who are making waves, to make a better future for those coming along after them,  no matter how small the wave may seem at the time. 

One example is women in the Victorian era would often cultivate very strong female relationships that society didn’t shame. Even though behind closed doors, these women were engaging in spicy, passionate sexual relationships that were more romantic than their marriages. 

Today, we see a rise in sex-toy purchases, normalizing the use of pleasure-centered products and masturbation! 

Though suppression of sexuality is nothing new to our culture, there have been some amazing leaps toward cultural sex positivity! The movement has propelled many to reclaim sexual shame, unlearn so many deep, deep-rooted narratives, and begin to heal our relationships with our sexual selves! 

Now, we learned A LOT today– that is for SURE. Truthfully, a lot of it wasn’t pretty; Unfortunately, most of sex history isn’t very uplifting. 

However, what’s important is we now understand where the shame stems from and the ways in which it is still alive & well today. 

With this knowledge, we can now move towards learning how to break ancient, outdated stigmas and become a more inclusive society– AND maybe even get to explore how the normalization of sex toys, sexual wellness products, hookup culture, gender, & sexual identity comes in to play! 

PS. Keep an eye out for the next installment in our sex history series; We’re excited to dive in even deeper!

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