History of human sexuality  

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"Like other aspects of Roman life, sexuality was supported and regulated by traditional Roman religion, both the public cult of the state and private religious practices and magic. Cicero held that the desire to procreate (libido) was "the seedbed of the republic," as it was the cause for the first form of social institution, marriage, which in turn created the family, regarded by the Romans as the building block of civilization. Roman law penalized sex crimes (stuprum), particularly rape, as well as adultery. A Roman husband, however, committed the crime of adultery only when his sexual partner was a married woman."--Sholem Stein

Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray  History of human sexuality is part of the human sexuality portal
Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray
History of human sexuality is part of the human sexuality portal

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The social construction of human sexual behavior—its taboos, regulation and social and political impact—has had a profound effect on the various cultures of the world since prehistoric times.



Sexual speech - and by extension, writing - has been subject to varying standards of decorum since the beginning of history. The resulting self-censorship and euphemistic forms translate today into a dearth of explicit and accurate evidence on which to base a history. There are a number of sources that can be collected across a wide variety of times and cultures, including the following:

  • Records of legislation indicating either encouragement or prohibition
  • Religious and philosophical texts recommending, condemning or debating the topic
  • Literary sources unpublished during their authors' lifetimes, including diaries and personal correspondence
  • Medical textbooks treating various forms as a pathological condition
  • Linguistic developments, particularly in slang.
  • More recently, studies of sexuality

Reproduction and cultural gender roles

The biological phenomenon that women become pregnant and give birth instead of men has shaped the formation of gender roles in world cultures. A single male can impregnate any number of females at once, while a single female is usually only impregnated by one male at a time. Even if there were only one man left on Earth, humankind could probably recover, depending on the man's health and fertility. The gene pool of the species would be somewhat impoverished, however, so the species would be less able to adapt to changes in its environment. On the other hand, if all but one female were wiped out, it is doubtful humanity could recover.

In fact, it appears that even in early historical times, it was not clear that there was any male role in reproduction - there is no immediate correlation between sex and reproduction due to the delay in the obvious signs of pregnancy. However, all civilizations hit upon the concept of male reproduction and, even more importantly, paternity, most likely from the correlation seen during the development of animal husbandry. The discovery of paternity led to concepts such as fathership of children, the importance of ensuring fidelity, the role of marriage as prima facie proof of paternity, and holding individual males responsible for the support of their offspring.

Another school of thought (e.g. Jared Diamond in Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality) holds that the reasons behind the development of these concepts is biological, a result of a variety of unique elements of human sexuality (Sex for pleasure, hidden ovulation, etc.). Natural selection ensures that men that are able to be more certain of the parentage of the children they care for will be more likely to pass on their genes.

This division has shaped many of the gender roles that survive to modern times. As humans have gained increased mastery of the environment, these divisions become less and less relevant, but change, while it is taking place, happens gradually.

Sex in various cultures

Sex in various cultures


History of sex in India, Kama Sutra, Indian erotica


sexuality in Mesopotamia


sexuality in China


sexuality in Japan

Classical antiquity

ancient sexuality, biblical eroticism


sexuality in ancient Greece
homosexuality in ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, the phallus, often in the form of a herma, was an object of worship as a symbol of fertility. This finds expression in Greek sculpture and other artworks. One ancient Greek male idea of female sexuality was that women envied penises of males. Wives were considered as commodity and instruments for bearing legitimate children. They had to compete sexually with eromenoi, hetaeras and slaves in their own homes.

Both Homosexuality and Bisexuality, in the form of pederasty, were social institutions in ancient Greece, and were integral to education, art, religion, and politics. Relationships between adults were not unknown but they were disfavored. Lesbian relations were also of a pederastic nature.

In ancient Greece, it was common for men to have sexual relationships with young boys. These practices were a sign of maturity for young boys, who looked up to men as sexual mentors.

Ancient Greek men believed that refined prostitution was necessary for pleasure and different classes of prostitutes were available. Hetaera, educated and intelligent companions, were for intellectual as well as physical pleasure, Peripatetic prostitutes solicited business on the streets, whereas temple or consecrated prostitutes charged a higher price. In Corinth, a port city, on the Aegean Sea, the temple held a thousand consecrated prostitutes.

Rape - usually in the context of warfare - was common and was seen by men as a “right of domination”. Rape in the sense of "abduction" followed by consensual lovemaking was represented even in religion: Zeus was said to have ravished many women: Leda in the form of a swan, Danaë disguised as a golden rain, Alkmene disguised as her own husband. Zeus also ravished a boy, Ganymede, a myth that paralleled Cretan custom.


sexuality in Etruria

The ancient Etruscans had very different views on sexuality, when compared with the other European ancient peoples, most of whom had inherited the Indo-European traditions and views on the gender roles.

Greek writers, such as Theopompus and Plato named the Etruscan 'immoral' and from their descriptions we find out that the women commonly had sex with men who were not their husbands and that in their society, children were not labelled "illegitimate" just because they did not know who the father was. Theopompus also described orgiastic rituals, but it is not clear whether they were a common custom or only a minor ritual dedicated to a certain deity.


sexuality in ancient Rome

The citizen's duty to control his body was central to the concept of male sexuality in the Roman Republic. "Virtue" (virtus, from vir, "man") was equated with "manliness." The equivalent virtue for female citizens of good social standing was pudicitia, a form of sexual integrity that displayed their attractiveness and self-control. Female sexuality was encouraged within marriage. In Roman patriarchal society, a "real man" was supposed to govern both himself and others well, and should not submit to the use or pleasure of others. Same-sex behaviors were not perceived as diminishing a Roman's masculinity, as long as he played the penetrative or dominating role. Acceptable male partners were social inferiors such as prostitutes, entertainers, and slaves. Sex with freeborn male minors was formally prohibited (see Lex Scantinia). "Homosexual" and "heterosexual" thus did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist.

Depictions of frank sexuality are abundant in Roman literature and art. The fascinum, a phallic charm, was a ubiquitous decoration. Sexual positions and scenarios are depicted in great variety among the wall paintings preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Collections of poetry celebrated love affairs, and The Art of Love by the Augustan poet Ovid playfully instructed both men and women in how to attract and enjoy lovers. Elaborate theories of human sexuality based on Greek philosophy were developed by thinkers such as Lucretius and Seneca. Classical myths often deal with sexual themes such as gender identity, adultery, incest, and rape.

Like other aspects of Roman life, sexuality was supported and regulated by traditional Roman religion, both the public cult of the state and private religious practices and magic. Cicero held that the desire to procreate (libido) was "the seedbed of the republic," as it was the cause for the first form of social institution, marriage, which in turn created the family, regarded by the Romans as the building block of civilization. Roman law penalized sex crimes (stuprum), particularly rape, as well as adultery. A Roman husband, however, committed the crime of adultery only when his sexual partner was a married woman.

Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. Entertainers of any gender were assumed to be sexually available (see infamia), and gladiators were sexually glamorous. Slaves lacked legal personhood, and were vulnerable to sexual exploitation.:)

The dissolution of Republican ideals of physical integrity in relation to political liberty contributes to and is reflected by the sexual license and decadence associated with the Roman Empire. Anxieties about the loss of liberty and the subordination of the citizen to the emperor were expressed by a perceived increase in passive homosexual behavior among free men. Sexual conquest was a frequent metaphor for Roman imperialism.

The sexual revolution

Sexual revolution

The sexual revolution was a substantial change in sexual morality and sexual behaviour throughout the West in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One factor in the change of values pertaining to sexual activities was the improvement of the technologies used for the control of fertility. Prime among them, at that time, was the first birth control pill.

Psychology and sex

psychology and sex

Especially before the development of dependable methods of contraception, the control of sexual behavior was of extreme practical importance to parents in some societies. The methodologies employed by parents to try to prevent their children from prematurely becoming parents themselves could have a profound effect on the minds of those children. In some societies, guilt was inculcated in an attempt to prevent premarital sexual activity, and the guilt could contaminate the entire self image of the individuals who, after all, were biologically predetermined to have the "guilty" sexual impulses that their families (and, usually, their religions) were trying to head off. In other societies, shaming was done with the same goals and with similar psychological damage possible.

The ability to function sexually depends a great deal on activities that occur not in the sexual organs but in the brain. When the individual has been psychologically traumatized by abusive practices intended to control premarital sexual activities, he or she may be unable to perform well even after marriage has presumably legitimized sexual intercourse. Dysfunctions for males may include: inability to achieve an erection, penile insensitivity, premature ejaculation, etc. For the female they may include: frigidity, inability to achieve orgasm, vaginismus, etc. These problems may lead to secondary problems if, for instance, affected individuals self medicate with alcohol, marijuana (in the case of premature ejaculation), or even more dangerous drugs.

The treatment of sexual dysfunctions and the problems of low self esteem, guilt, self-destructive impulses, etc., has been one of the main activities of helping professions such as psychiatry, clinical psychology, etc.

Same-sex relations in various cultures

same-sex relations in various cultures

Religion and sex

religion and sexuality

Although not the case in every culture, most religious practices contain taboos in regard to sex, sex organs and the reproductive process.

Politics of sex

sexual ethics

With the rise of government and laws, personal behaviors, including sex, became increasingly politicized.

The politics (and, therefore, laws) in regards to sex vary widely. In several countries (and different states of countries) there are or were, laws, both civil and religious, forbidding some sexual practices or to forbid sexual intercourse between partners of difference races. Laws that forbid to have sex with a person younger than a fixed age are very common.

The laws generally fit into the following types.

  • Partner laws regulate the choice of the partner on the following attributes: specie, state, sex, age, number, group, time.
  • Species (human/non-human): Permitted: a human partner. Not permitted: a non-human partner. e. g. sex with animals (zoophilia) is not permitted.
  • State (living/dead): Permitted: a living human. Not permitted: a dead one e. g. sex with the dead (necrophilia) is not permitted.
  • Sex (opposite/same): Permitted: a living human of the opposite sex. Not permitted: a living human of the same sex e. g. sex with the members of one's own sex Homosexual sex) is not permitted.
  • Age: Permitted: a partner with a certain age. Not permitted: a partner with an age less than a certain age. These restrictions are of two types.
    • Absolute age: Permitted: a partner with the age greater than or equal to the age of consent as determined by the applicable law. Not permitted: a partner with the age less than the age of consent. The value of Age of consent ranges from 9 to 21.
    • Relative age: Permitted: a partner with the age greater (or less) than one's own age. Not permitted: a partner with the age less (or greater) than one's own age. E. g. a law that prohibits the woman being elder to the man.
  • Number (one/many): Number of partners for sexual activity.
  • Group: Permitted: a partner from one's own race, religion, caste, creed, community and/or group. Not permitted: a partner outside one's own race, religion, caste, creed, community and/or group. These are of two types.
    • Same: Permitted: a partner from the same group. Not permitted: a partner from a different group.
    • Different: Permitted: a partner from a different group. Not permitted: a partner from the same group. E. g. sex with one's blood-relatives (incest), sex with the members of one's own sex (homosexual sex) are prohibited.
  • Time: The time in the life of the partner e. g. a law that prohibits the woman from engaging in sexual activity while she menstruates.
  • Activity laws regulate the choice of the sexual activity e. g. a law that prohibits genital-genital intercourse. Activity laws are of the following types.

The laws sorted in the decreasing order of perceived severity for a single (number) living (state) adult (absolute age) human (specie) being:

  • Legend

AT = Attribute Type = [ A: Absolute | R: Relative ]

A relative attribute takes its value relative to a single living human being.

PT = Permission Type = [ Same | Opposite ]

A permission type takes the value 'Same' if and only if the permitted matches with a single living adult human being in either the specie or the state or the absolute age or the number.

Type Attribute Sub-attribute AT PT Permitted Not Permitted
Partner Specie R Same Human Non-human. Sex with animals i. e. zoophilia
__State R Same Living Dead. Sex with the dead i. e. necrophilia
____Group Sex R Opposite A partner with a sex different from one's own. Sex with a partner with a sex different from one's own i. e. heterosexual sex. A partner from one's own sex. Sex with a partner from one's own sex i. e. homosexual sex
____Group Family R Opposite A partner from one's own family. Sex with a partner from one's own family i. e. incest
____Age Adulthood with respect to the age of consent R Same A partner with age >= the age of consent A partner with age < the age of consent. Sex with a partner with age < the age of consent i. e. pedophilia
____Group Race, religion, caste, creed, community, etc. R Same A partner from a group same as one's own A partner from a group different from one's own
____Number At a single sexual encounter R Same One Opposite i. e. many
____Number In a particular period in life R Same One i. e. monogamy (monandry, monogyny) or many i. e. polygamy (polyandry, polygyny)) Many i. e. polygamy (polyandry, polygyny))
____Number In different periods in life R Same One i. e. serial monogamy (monandry, monogyny) or many i. e. polygamy (polyandry, polygyny)) Many polygamy (polyandry, polygyny))
____Age Relative R E. g. a woman elder than a man.
____Time E. g. a menstruating woman
Activity Genital-genital intercourse

The value of Age of consent ranges from 9 to 21.

Technology and sex

Scientific and technological advances have significantly affected the enjoyment and outcomes of sex, especially in recent history.

Recreational uses

Sex toys such as vibrators were introduced to the market in the late 1880s, some 10 years before domestic vacuum cleaners [1]. More recently, Internet sites dealing in sexual images developed the infrastructure for Internet commerce well in advance of most other sectors.

Birth control

Birth control

Withdrawal, various herbal contraceptives and abortifacients, as well as crude pessaries, were available to cultures in ancient times. The invention of vulcanized rubber in the nineteenth century, and the promotion of condoms made from that rubber, began the modern birth control movement. A large number of birth control options are now available.

Technology and infertility

In the mid 20th century advances in medical science and modern understanding of the menstrual cycle led to observational, surgical, chemical and laboratory techniques to allow diagnosis and treatments many forms of infertility.


Many cultures normalized or promoted adult males and male youths, usually teenagers, entering into pedagogic friendships or love affairs that also had an erotic dimension. These were usually sexually expressed, but chaste ones were not infrequent. If sexual, that phase of the relationship lasted until the youth was ready for adulthood and marriage. Other cultures saw such relationships as inimical to their interests – often on religious grounds – and tried to stamp them out.

See Pederasty, Shudo, Pederasty in ancient Greece, Historical pederastic couples


Prior to and outside the influence of the major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), sex with animals (also known as zoophilia, or bestiality) was sometimes forbidden, and sometimes accepted. Occasionally it was incorporated into religious ritual. The Abrahamic religions by and large forbid it, and make it a sin against God, and during the Middle Ages in Europe people and animals were often executed if found guilty. With the age of enlightenment, bestiality became subsumed into sodomy and a civil rather than religious offence.

Since the 1980s, many alternative sexualities have formed social networks, and zoosexuality (a more modern name for the spectrum of affinity and attraction to animals) is no exception to this. Although society in general is hostile, several decades of research seem to form a consensus that it is commonly misunderstood and mistaken for zoosadism. Regardless, although there are signs of slow attitude change over decades, it is usually considered a crime against nature in public, and illegal in most countries, and for that reason it is not much evidenced other than online, in private, and in the light of prosecution.

See main articles: Zoophilia, Historical and cultural perspectives on zoophilia



Prostitution is the sale of sexual services, such as oral sex or sexual intercourse. Prostitution has been described as the "world's oldest profession". Men, women and transgender people may engage in prostitution, although the majority of prostitutes in history have been women.

In some cultures, prostitution has been an element of religious practises. Religious prostitution is well documented in the ancient cultures of the near East, such as Sumer, Babylon, ancient Greece and Israel, where prostitutes appear in the Bible. In Greece the hetaerae were often women of high social class, whereas in Rome the meretrices were of lower social order. The Devadasi, prostitutes of Hindu temples in south India, were made illegal by the Indian government in 1988.



Abortion is a means of ending a pregnancy, practiced since antiquity. Its legality has varied from country to country. At the present time it is, particularly in the US, the subject of vigorous debate in political and religious circles due to claimed conflicts with the definition of life, issues of personal freedom, and other beliefs.

Sexually transmitted diseases

For much of human history, sexually transmitted diseases have been the scourge of humanity. They raged unchecked through society until the discovery of antibiotics. For a period of about thirty years (in the second half of the twentieth century) their threat subsided. However, due to the free movement of people and the lack of sexual hygiene in certain groups, new diseases resistant to antibiotics quickly spread and at the present time pose a threat to people who are sexually active.

sexually transmitted diseases


AIDS has profoundly changed modern sexuality. It was first noticed (although many historians feel that the first case was in 1959) spreading among gay men and intravenous drug users in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the majority of victims are heterosexual women, men, and children in developing countries. In most developing countries, fear of epidemic has drastically changed many aspects of twentieth century human sexuality. Fear of contracting AIDS has driven a revolution in sex education, which now centers far more the use of protection and abstinence, and spends much more time discussing sexually transmitted diseases.

Further effects of this disease run deep, radically impacting the average lifespan of afflicted countries. So stark is the difference that BBC News reports: "It is falling in many African countries - a girl born today in Sierra Leone could expect only to live to 36, in contrast to Japan, where today's newborn girl might reach 85 on average." [2]

See also

Sexual orientation

See also

world erotica

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