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|Written by Roxy Munro|
|Thursday, 09 April 2009 19:00|
There's an episode of Sex and the City in which Samantha asserts, "How we are in bed is how we are in life." Call me a Samantha devotee because I agree with her, at least with regard to my own life. I like variety in bed and variety elsewhere - on my shoe rack, on my bookshelf, and on my iPod, for example.Just the other day, I was dancing around to Britney's "I'm a Slave 4 U" when her heavy panting soon transitioned into the innocent ‘60s ditty, "Then He Kissed Me." Granted, they're both pop songs, but their lyrics couldn't tell a more different story. The Crystals gained popularity for singing a song focussed on the act of kissing. With one guy. As the song goes on, the talented kisser brings the girl home to meet the parents, then pops the question and makes her "his bride." The way this scenario plays out matches the Pleasantville view of the years before the sexual revolution that many of us have grown up with. After all, prior to the eruption of social changes that started in the late 1960s, social mores were more rigid, heternormativity reigned, women were seen as less than equal in the public and private spheres, and religion exerted a stronger influence on public and private life than it does now.
The Sexual Revolution marked the point when our society shifted towards sexual progressiveness and when sex for pleasure started to gain more popularity. It's no coincidence that rights-based activism, like the gay rights movement and second wave feminism, were taking root at that time. As Tom Hickman, author of The Sexual Century, says, "There was probably more sexual exploration, more celebration of sex in the twenty or so years up to 1980 than in any comparable period of history." As true as this may be, I think that what is often missing or underemphasized from our general understanding of society's sexual past is that the evolution of sexual attitudes has been anything but linear. Just because we think we're living in a sexually progressive era now doesn't mean that the past was entirely repressive. Attempts to repress sex have existed and persisted through the ages, up to and including today. Still, there have been points of rebellion and subversion, acceptance and celebration. If you indulge in a little historical voyeurism, you'll see that there have been periods when taboos were non-existent; pregnancy prevention was a matter of home remedy and not state control; erotic art was an everyday enjoyment for the masses; and vibrators could be ordered alongside other department store necessities.
A SEXED-UP START
Based on an analysis of prehistoric cave paintings, researchers have determined that sexuality was an important part of culture over 30,000 years ago. Sexual activity likely wasn't controlled by religions, norms or superstitions, and taboos were probably nonexistent. In fact, it's supposed that prehistoric peoples didn't understand the role of sexuality in reproduction. This tells me, then, that our prehistoric ancestors were having sex for pleasure and without shame. Imagine that.
PREGNANCY PREVENTION - NOT SO DIFFERENT FROM TODAY
Once people started to understand reproduction, methods to prevent pregnancy began to emerge. Whether it was crocodile dung mixed with a paste or lemon-soaked sponges, women were using barrier methods for centuries. The basic ideas behind some of these antiquated contraceptives still hold for 21st century birth control. Clearly, there's a long history throughout the world of wanting to have sex "without consequence." There could be a lot of reasons for ‘playing it safe,' and pure pleasure was probably one of them. So, it makes you wonder about today's anti-pleasure crusade. You know who I'm talking about - those folks who lobby for abstinence-only sex education; who fight to make birth control inaccessible . . . How can they win when people have been seeking -- creatively, I might add -- ways to have worry-free sex for centuries? Maybe they could succeed at banning birth control (as they did with comprehensive sex-ed in the U.S.), but then what? A crusade against crocodiles and lemon trees?
SEX ON DISPLAY
Erotic depictions have been present in almost every ancient and modern civilization, allowing us insight into sexual attitudes of a time period. In earlier times, art with erotic depictions wasn't viewed differently from other art and was often considered to be in good taste.
In the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868), Shunga, or erotic pictures, was popular among all social classes, men and women alike. Shunga features homosexual, heterosexual, and group sex images. The genitalia illustrated are often exaggerated and there is never any nudity, though this is a matter of aesthetics, not morals. As Greg Kucera of the Greg Kucera Gallery says, "...the diversity of sexual behaviors [sic] expressed within this art form offer a glimpse of the sexual freedoms available in previous eras and cultures."
And we think we're so sexually forward when we see a bit of side boob with a "come fuck me" face in a black and white Calvin Klein ad.
When going to buy a new vibrator, Sears would never enter my mind as a store to go to. But there was a time when the retailer sold "home vibrators." All of this came about in the early 1900s when women were, sadly, still sexually repressed. They were actually diagnosed as hysterical for showing any interest in sexuality. A doctor treated "hysteria" by manually massaging the vulva before electric vibrators came along. In the U.S., "The Chattanooga" was first available in 1904 and sold to doctors for $200. The high cost was certainly worth it as these hysteria treatments made up as much as three-quarters of doctors' incomes. Female sexuality was still not talked about in the public eye, but doctors and women started figuring things out. By the beginning of World War I, home vibrators were listed in the Sears Catalogue at $5.95. Given a recent report that their profits are dropping, Sears might want to consider re-introducing the $5.95 vibrator; it would bring new meaning to the term "one-stop shop"!
THE GOLDEN AGE OF SEX
These moments, and others like them, weren't mere flukes. These bits of history remind us that sex and sexual pleasure have pretty well been a dominant aspect of our lives since the beginning of personkind. Sex is as much an important part of history, as it is our biology. Now, thanks to the progress we've made with human rights, everyone is better able to enjoy their sexuality to some degree, making the present-day the most golden age of sex so far.
Crooks, R. & Baur, K. (1983). Our Sexuality (2nd ed). Don Mills, ON: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc.
Greenberg, J.S., Bruess, C. E. & Mullen, K D. (1993). Sexuality: Insights and Issues. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Publishers.
Masters, W.H., Johnson, V. E., & Kolodny, R.C. Human Sexuality (5th ed). New York, NY: HarperCollins College Publishers, Inc.