A brief history of sex

A brief history of sex

Every wonder what our Paleolithic ancestors considered sexy? Or what a female condom looked like in ancient Greece? What about the arcane sex laws dreamed up by previous civilizations? Read on for more tantalizing tidbits about the history of ancient sexuality from prehistory to early Christianity.

In the beginning: Paleolithic sex symbols?

Imagine if modern civilization disappeared, and one of the few remaining clues to our sexual desires were Playboy centerfolds. Well, meet the Venus of Willendorf and her sisters. These women are nude and often obese figures, made of ivory, stone or clay. Venus of Willendorf, the most famous, is an essay in lumps: two lumps for shins, thighs, breasts and one large lump for a stomach. The vision has inspired many a modern woman to remember her roots (and subsequently eat a box of chocolate in one sitting).

But some scientists don’t believe that these Venus figures are really Paleolithic sex symbols. Some say that they represent fertility; the Goddess; stages of women’s lives; pregnancy; and even obesity. Just goes to show you—even back then, sexuality was merely in the eyes of the beholder.

And what about Paleolithic men?

Although archeologists haven’t unearthed any such figures of men, they have unearthed Ice Age phallic symbols, which are widely considered to be ritual objects. However, archeologist Timothy Taylor, author of The Prehistory of Sex, suggests that these “batons” are really Paleolithic versions of dildoes. The question will, I suppose, remain one of the great unanswered mysteries of prehistoric times.

The first civilizations: Sumer and Babylonia

Crude sex symbols and batons aside, laws, poetry and other writings provide a richer understanding of romance in the first civilizations of Sumer and Babylonia. Although these early cultures married for practicality, they did not lack for love, libido, or fishy sex rituals.

Indeed, Sumerian men might have actually put hot fish in the navels of their beloved. When scholars tried to translate a Sumerian document, one particular phrase kept emerging as “he put a hot fish in her navel.” It could have been a mistranslation. Or it could have been true, and fish could have been slang for penis, researcher Reay Tannahill muses in Sex in History.

Although we also can’t make much of the translation of the Sumerian word for love—”to measure the earth”—we do know that Sumerians knew something about love. After all, they wrote the first love poem which inspired Solomon’s “Song of Songs.”

The first sex law

Sumer’s successor, Babylonia, created the first known written sex law. The law prohibited sex with both relatives and animals, and was punishable by death. But sex with prostitutes was not prohibited. Quite the contrary—Babylonian prostitutes practiced their trade in holy temples. They were believed to, literally, take men to see God. These holy harlots were also revered for their healing powers, especially their saliva. Advice found on an ancient Babylonian clay tablet tells us that harlot spit is a cure for several different conditions, and eye diseases in particular.

The beginning of western civilization: Greek and Roman fertility methods

Thousands of years later, our Greek and Roman ancestors thought that nearly everything but harlot spit could guarantee pregnancy. In Rome, the physician Soranus advised that couples seeking babies should mate like animals, rear entry style. Massaging women and feeding them beans were also surefire fertility boosters. In Greece, if you wanted to choose the sex of your child, you could just feed the mother-to-be hot food (for a boy), or cold food (for a girl.) Because boys were more prized, Greek women apparently didn’t eat much Greek salad!

Birth control

But what if you wanted to prevent—rather than ensure—pregnancy? Men in Greece would place juniper berries on their penis as a form of birth control. And modern women who curse the female condoms, think again: Roman women used honey-soaked wool tampons for barriers.


If you believe Aristotle, homosexuality in Crete was a form of contraception. When an older Cretan man became taken with a young boy, he declared his feelings to the boy’s family. If the family approved, he’d take him away for a two-month vacation. What happened on this trip is unknown. But once home, the boy received a military uniform, a cup, and a sacrificial bull. Some historians believe that this event was an innocent rite of passage for adolescents. Others suggest that the relationship was sexual.

We may never know if this relationship was sexual, or merely affectionate. We may also never know if Sappho acted on her sexual feelings for young girls, or just liked to write about them. Sappho, a poetess, ran a girls’ school on the island of Lesbos. To her you can credit the term “lesbian.” One of her poems, which she wrote for a student who was leaving, laments, “And on soft beds…you would satisfy your longing.”

Heterosexual marriage

Most of us would rather not think that our western ancestors were attracted to children. But in heterosexual relationships, age differences were extreme. Greek and Roman girls married off in their early teens to husbands in their early thirties. This became a problem when much older men stopped being able to sexually satisfy their young wives. According to Plutarch, Athenians eventually passed a law stating that unless a husband could fulfill his “duties” at least three times a month, his wife could seek other companionship.

But this Athenian law pales in comparison to the imperial decree issued 300 hundred years after the birth of Christ. This edict banned all sexual activity between husband and wife, except vaginal penetration by a penis. Moreover, if you were a good Christian who followed the penance system, you did not have sex on Sunday, Friday, or Saints Days. When you did do it, you did it in the dark, partially clothed, with the man on top.

But some fourth century Church Fathers didn’t believe people should do it at all. St. Augustine had no use for sex, grumping that marriage was a sin and intercourse disgusting. Still, he prayed to God, “Give me chastity—but not yet.” St. Jerome thought that a man should respect, but not lust after, his wife. “Every too ardent lover of his own wife is an adulterer…” he advised.

But 13th century Church Fathers like Clement of Alexandria defended procreation and marital love. Clement declared that husbands and wives should feel love “…for the fulfillment of the universe…” Other Church Fathers felt this way too. Even as chastity was lauded, and the purity of marital and sexual union debated, most priests chose to get married. Romance, of a sort, marched on. No doubt it always will, at least until the next incarnation of Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?

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