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How has sex and sexuality changed over history?

How has sex and sexuality changed over history? - Sh! Women's Store

International Women’s Day is coming with countless exciting events, talks and things to do, celebrating women and the long way we’ve come towards gender equality and liberation. One of the spicier ones will be The Side Room's Debate, exploring sex and sexuality from Ancient Egypt to modern times.

Our very own Ky Hoyle will be on the panel along with Killing Kittens founder Emma Sayle and Dr Jen Grove, researcher at the University of Exeter with whom I had the pleasure of having a conversation as a prequel for the debate itself.

Jen researchers the collection of objects from past cultures that relate to sex and sexuality, and uses this research as a stimulus for discussing sex today.

Q: Your work as a Wellcome research fellow on the history of sexuality and sexual science is truly fascinating and I found the Sex and History project which produces education material for Relationship and Sexual Education especially interesting. How was the reception of this new methodology, using historical objects to stimulate conversations around sex, gender roles and health?

It was indeed very positive from both the educators and the young people involved in the classes. The youngest we worked with are 14 years olds but we got enthusiastic responses from all age groups. The strength of the method lies in the fact the students can distance themselves from the sensitive topics and issues somewhat, thanks to the historical context, which opens up the space for discussion. It also encourages critical thinking about models of relationships and sex. Besides, when they can see on an object from ancient Rome that people have been thinking about sex for several millennia, it creates confidence to talk about it freely today.

Q: Going through the available materials online I can see how the methodology encourages discussion and I hope that many RSE educators will pick it up and add to their toolkit. Speaking of which, what do you think about the state of sex education in the UK today?

Well, if we look at individual teachers and the many charities working on relationship and sex education in the UK the situation is strengthening in some ways: we work with and see a lot of committed and enthusiastic individuals working in the field. Not only in terms of sexual health, but issues like body image and critical thinking of different models of relationships are being addressed which is also very important and an important addition to sex education.

However, as shown by the recent blocking of mandatory Personal Social Health and Economic Education in British schools, which is where sex ed usually sits, , there is just not enough support or prioritizing from the government to drive schools to improve their delivery.

Looking at the feedback when young people are asked about it, sadly it seems in many ways there is not much difference from the situation in the nineties when I was at school.
Fresco from the Pompei Suburban baths of a 2 male and 1 female threesome. Fresco from the Pompei Suburban baths of a 2 male and 1 female threesome.

Q: Based on what you’ve learned about the history of sex, do you see this development in education, more liberal thinking and gender roles as a linear development path, or is it more of an ebb and flow?

It’s definitely more of an ebb and flow than a linear path: we all like to think that we are “better” than the past generations, but all societies have had many different ways of reacting to the question of sex. For instance, Ancient Rome and Greece might appear to have been more liberal in terms of some of their sexual behaviour or its representation in art compared to today, however society itself was restrictive in other aspects – for example power relations were a very important drive in who was allowed to have sex with whom and women had very little autonomy over their lives.

The Victorians are famously described as restricted and prudish however my research has shown that collections such as that of the medical history collector Sir Henry Wellcome’s show a deliberate attempt to understand sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through objects from the past. For me this was the biggest discovery that sprang from my PhD research.

The sheer amount of material relating to sex that he and others at the time collected is incredible, as well as the effort that went into building the network and sending out people to as far as Japan or to Naples to study the famous Gabinetto Segreto – which has actually never been that ‘secret’and the ancient site of Pompeii.

Today, the store rooms of Wellcome’s collection has two big rooms filled with his erotic collection - along with his more strictly medically related objects, and other strange material like items from a torture chamber. But other gentlemen collectors from the eighteenth century onwards also went to great pains to collect phallic objects in an effort to prove a universal connection between sex and religion for example.

'Pan copulating with goat' - one of the most famous objects in the Naples Museum collection CC BY-SA 3.0

'Pan copulating with goat' - one of the most famous objects in the Naples Museum collection

We can look at the aspect of censoring and hiding these materials behind closed doors, but we should also take into account the curiosity over them and the effort to collect them. We can write it off as prudery, or we can see that actually there was a systematic collection of knowledge about sex for all sorts of purposes. So yes, nuancing the idea of repressed Victorians and challenging labelling any era in simplistic terms is a big part of my work. It’s important to realise that you can have a lot of different approaches to sexuality and objects related to it, you can be intrigued, interested, curious - it’s not only about arousal.

Q: Do we know if there was proper sex toy manufacturing in the past?

This is a difficult question to answer, since many objects from the past could have been used as sex toys, dildos for example, but we don’t know for sure. We do have for example illustrations and descriptions from ancient Greece of women using leather dildos and ancient descriptions of dildo-makers. that suggest that.But we have to remember that almost all historical literature and visual representations around sexuality until the last few hundred years has been produced by men, so we have no first hand record of the usage of dildos by ancient women.

We have surviving objects from the eighteenth century at least which we are pretty certain were made as sex toys, such as ivory phallic-shaped objects, but these are likely to have been one off high class toys that were available only for those with money to commission and purchase them.

We know that by the 1920s and 1930s Japan had a manufacturing trade in sex toys and their sex shops were a destination for travellers and soldiers – there were whole catalogs produced in English.

Late 19th-century painting by Édouard-Henri Avril showing the use of strap-on dildo

Late 19th-century painting by Édouard-Henri Avril showing the use of strap-on dildo

Q: Based on your research and knowledge about both history and the state of mind around sexuality and gender today, is there any other historical place and time you’d rather live?

This question was asked in the recent Wellcome exhibition on sexology, within a visitor questionnaire project by artist Neil Bartlett. All the questions in it were changed regularly throughout the project but this one was included throughout. I can’t wait to see the final results, however Wellcome staff suggested a lot of people said they wanted to travel back to Ancient Greece and Rome to take part in an orgy, which is just fascinating for someone who studies how the ancient world still has so much impact on our ideas about sex today. 

But as we’ve already talked about it - in terms of being a women in an historical society - while I might have enjoyed tremendously walking around Greece and Rome with all their erotic art displayed, I’m also sure other aspects of my life would have been very restricted.

Q: We discussed the ebb and flow of societies and in which historical time you’d prefer to live -do you think it is possible that there will be another time in our future when mainstream society becomes very restricted and repressed again?

I don’t think so. However it is an interesting possibility to think about. All in all with information and opinions increasingly freely available and communicational channels opening more widely all the time, meaning people are learning more and more about each others’ life and ideas, it seems very unlikely that this would happen.

Q: So you are optimist in that sense? The only way is forward?

[laughs] Yes, I think so. Of course because of the nature of our work and the people we surround ourselves with, it is sometimes easy to see only positive attitudes towards increasing the conversation around sex and sexuality - , but yes, I am optimistic.

Thanks Dr Jen Grove so much for taking the time and best of luck with all your future research and projects!

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