History of Sex Part 1: Anciently Turned On

erotic sculptures on the plinth of Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho, India

When it comes to history, we rarely get taught about sex and sexuality – unless you’re taking a specific college course. In fact, we rarely get taught about sex and sexuality at all.

While it’s obvious that things change and progress over centuries (we aren’t exactly using carrier pigeons anymore), some stuff seems to have gone… backwards.



As long as most of us can remember, and generations prior, sex has been surrounded by shame. Shame if you have multiple partners, if your love story isn’t heteronormative or monogamous, the list goes on.

The question we’re left with is, why did this shame start? Was it always this way? The answer is no. Somewhere in the course of history, some things changed for the better, but others did not.

A sexual timeline is in the works (although it’s going to take awhile), but in the meantime, let’s take a look at some ancient cultures and their ideologies surrounding sexuality.  


Ancient Romans also had their own forms of contraception. An herb called silphium was used to “purge the uterus,” to act as ancient birth control. Women would drink the plant’s juices once a month, or they would soak wool plugs in it to create a gummy substance, and insert it inside themselves. While we have made lots of strides in contraception today, some people still don’t believe in it.



The Chinese were no strangers to pornography. In fact, ancient caves were full of sexual depictions – some of the most graphic in the world. There were even bisexual orgies with those involved wearing painted monkey masks.

Not only only was their pornography detailed and graphic, the Ancient Chinese were very open about sex in general. Both men and women were thought to “have sex to the fullest in order to transfer their yin and yang energies.” According to author Richard Burger, during this “Yin and Yang” period, homosexuality was revered as well.


In his book, Sex in China: Studies in Sexology of Chinese Culture, Fang Fu Ruan tells us that the Taoist sexual beliefs lasted for over 4,000 years and sexual repression was seen only over the last 1,000 due to changes in dynasty control.

Ruan continues to site the Lectures on the Super Tao in the World, which gave detailed instructions on the importance of foreplay, and how the woman should come first before the man.


The Greeks believed that human beings used to be round with two sets of arms and legs and two sets of genitals (either same sex or different sex). One day, Zeus split everyone in half at the heart, and had them wander the earth looking for their other half to feel whole again. This search, this yearning, is what determined your sexual orientation.


Sexual orientation was also more about the power roles each partner played. The Dom was the penetrator – the masculine of the two – and was of superior overall status, being regarded as the adult. The Sub was seen as the feminine, of lower status, and youthful. These roles were never switched. The submissive role outside of marriage would usually be held by prostitutes, slaves, or younger boys that would be taught how to be men under these arrangements.


In Ancient Egypt, there was no concept of virginity because the ideology of premarital sex for men and women was normal and even expected. Having sex was seen as a “coming of age” moment, but virginity in and of itself was treated with little importance.

Sexuality in Ancient Egypt Documentary

While adultery was wrong for both sexes, single women were free to take as many lovers as they pleased without consequence or stigma. So, casual sex was actually the norm way back in the day.


Somewhere along the lines, stigmas and shame were glued to sex. Yes, other practices in these cultures that would be atrocious if done today, but that is due to the growth in respect, equality, and human rights. Why should some freedoms be taken away to replace others that have been given? We gave up the bad, but why also give up the good?

The answers lie within our history.  


Rose Breedlove and Jaye Merrihue also contributed to this article with diligent research and writing!
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