The History of Sex: A Brief Timeline

Since it’s almost Valentine’s Day, I think it’s time. Let’s talk about sex.

I previously did a timeline post about the Salem Witch Trials. It was a fascinating way of seeing the build up to the event, the climax and then the descent back to normality, which reminded me of doing this type of post. WINK, WINK.

Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?


15,000 BCE

Cave paintings dating back from a LOOOONG time ago feature a man wearing what appears to be a stone age condom. Condom technology is hella old, you guys. Later on, the first documented condom (hand-sewn pieces of linen) show up in the Roman Empire around the time we switch from BCE to AD.


1754 BCE

Known as “the world’s oldest profession,” historical evidence of prostitutes has been found in basically every period in history in every part of the world. Prostitutes even get a shoutout in the Code of Hammurabi, published in Mesopotamia in 1754 BCE.


600 BCE

Some of the earliest references to same-sex relationships appear in Chinese documents. Euphemisms like the “pleasure of the bitten peach” and “the southern custom” are regularly used.


Between 400 BCE and 200 CE

The Kama Sutra, a manual featuring sex advice and descriptions of various sexual positions, is published in India. It is well-known today all over the world for being a sex guide, but it also features advice on love, living well, relationships, family and more.


186 BCE

The Roman Senate puts an end to Bacchanalia festivals, celebrations to honor the Greco-Roman god of wine, winemaking, intoxication, freedom, fertility and ecstasy. These parties began as three women-only events per year but men were later admitted and they became much more frequent. These parties got pretty crazy involving orgies, violence and lots and lots of wine.


79 CE

The Italian city of Pompeii is destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupts, hiding several erotic frescos on the walls of the Suburban Baths. Similar frescos were also found at a Pompeii brothel. These frescos are uncovered by archeologists in the 1960s. Historians believe they were created to advertise various services available at the bath house.


1494/95

The first case of syphilis is recorded in Naples, Italy. Some believe it arrived in Europe when Christopher Columbus’s crew returned from the Americas while others believe it could have already been in Europe before Columbus and just went unnoticed. Many notable figures throughout history contracted the disease (Adolf Hitler, Al Capone, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles VIII of France, Benito Mussolini, Franz Schubert, Édouard Manet and many others) although these are difficult to confirm.


1566

In an area of the New World now known as Florida, a French interpreter named Guillermo is executed by Spanish military authorities for having a same-sex relationship with a Native American male. It is the first known execution related to the illegal act of “sodomy” in the United States.


Nell Gwyn

April 1668

Nell Gwyn, an actress and one of the most famous mistresses of all time, begins her long-time love affair with Charles II of England.


1677

Anton van Leeuwenhoek is the first person to observe sperm cells under a microscope.


April 1725

Giacomo Casanova is born.


1880s

Victorian London physician Dr. J. Mortimer Granville invents an electric device to massage away muscle aches—the vibrator. Granville gets credit for bringing the device into the world in order to help ladies with their “female hysteria” but he actually denied ever using it for this purpose. (Alas, the delightful movie Hysteria is inaccurate.) By the 1920s, these personal massagers are appearing in early pornography so advertisers got uncomfortable about trying to sell them in newspapers next to other household goods twenty-ish years earlier.


November 1896

The earliest known pornographic film, Le Coucher de la Mariée (Bedtime for the Bride), is screened in Paris. The film features actress Louise Willy performing a “striptease.” In its original format, the film was seven minutes long but only two minutes of it survive.


October 16, 1916

Margaret Sanger and others open a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, NY. It is raided by police and closed nine days later. Sanger later goes on to found the American Birth Control League in 1921. In 1942, the ABCL would be renamed to Planned Parenthood.


1948 and 1953

Sex research and zoologist Alfred Kinsey and his team publish their findings of two large studies: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953. They are collectively referred to as the Kinsey Reports. The findings related to sexual orientation, frequency of sexual activity, sex while married and unmarried and more. The Kinsey Scale was originally featured in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.


1952-1957

Bettie Page works with photographer and filmmaker Irving Klaw. Their images and films were very popular in the quiet underground BDSM sub-culture. Klaw’s business would soon fold due to censorship laws and a senate investigation found him guilty of sending pornography through the mail.


December 1953

The first issue of Playboy is published. The premier issue featured Marilyn Monroe on the cover as well as fully nude inside. (Monroe’s first nude photos date back to the late 1940s before she was mega famous.)


1957

William Masters and Virginia Johnson begin their research in the area of human sexual response and treatment of sexual disorders and disfunction. They would continue their work together until the 1990s.


June 1960

“The Pill” is available for contraceptive use in the United States. It would not be available country-wide to unmarried women until 1972.


1971

A group of feminists publish a sex guide for young women called Our Bodies, Ourselves. The following year, the same women would go on to publish The Joy of Sex. The ninth edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was published in 2011.


1972

The book Open Marriage by Nena and George O’Neill becomes a bestseller. The book introduced the concepts of an open marriage and open relationships.


2012

Tinder, a dating and/or hookup app, is first released. Although online dating began soon after the internet came along, Tinder remains one of the most popular dating apps available today.


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jillianne hamilton headshotJillianne Hamilton is an author, history enthusiast, book lover and graphic designer. Her debut novel, Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire, was shortlisted for the 2016 Prince Edward Island Book Award. She is currently working on her first non-fiction book. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada's beautiful east coast.
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