As we human beings have changed and evolved over our thousands of years of recorded history, so have our attitudes and expressions of all things sexual. The only thing that hasn’t changed much is society’s desire to exercise a certain amount of control over an individual’s sexual behaviour. Whether it be through church or state, educational institutions or popular media of the time, there have been rules and regulations, views and taboos about what we should do sexually, how we should do it, who we should do it with and even how we should think about doing it.
A particular area of interest, naturally, has been the body and specifically those parts that are obviously connected with sex. We’ve alternately hidden and displayed, worshipped and derided male and female genitalia.
In most non-Christian cultures there were gods and goddesses of power and fertility with exaggerated genitals. Some cultures liked penis gods so much they had several; for instance, the ancient Greeks honoured Priapus, Dionysus and Hermes. The Egyptians exalted Osiris, Bacchus was the Roman version, and Shiva reigned in India.
Penis and, less commonly, vulva worship, were practised and this was reflected in objects connected with daily living. Vases in classical Greece were decorated with phalluses. In the ruins of Pompeii penis symbols were found just about everywhere, on bowls, lamps and figurines. Pitchers with enormous penis spouts were a unique speciality of the Mochica culture of Peru. The exteriors of medieval Irish churches were adorned with sculptures of Shelah-na-Gig, a vulva icon. In Egypt enormous symbols of penis power – the obelisk – were erected all over the landscape. Smaller penis symbols in the form of amulets and bracelets were worn as magical protection against evil in ancient Rome. In fact, the English word “fascinate” is derived from fascinum, the Latin word for these magic penis images.
Words describing body parts vary from culture to culture and often reflect the attitudes we have about them. In India and China the penis and vagina were approached with respect and awe. Terms like Jade Flute, Arrow of Love, Ambassador, Warrior for the penis and Valley of Joy, Ripe Peach, Lotus Blossom, Enchanted Garden for vagina were used. In the English language however, words are much more likely to be discourteous: dick, tool, meat, dong and pussy, crack, slit.
Cock and prick are two of the longest-standing terms for penis in English. Prick was actually a pet name up until the seventeenth century when times became much more prudish and prick gradually became ostracised. Now it’s used not as a term of endearment but of scorn. Cock, another penis word, comes from the name for the male barnyard fowl but in the late seventeenth century uptight early Americans were so offended by this that they began calling the bird a rooster. Other common objects also had their names changed to make them more seemly: haycock turned into haystack, weathercock into weathervane, and apricock into apricot. Yiddish slang words for penis include schlong, putz and schmuck. Believe it or not, in 1962 comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested because he used the terms schmuck and putz in his act!
When it comes to penises, many cultures have considered bigger to be better. But in classical Greece delicate and small penises were the best. Big sex organs were thought to be “coarse and ugly”. During this time young athletes worked out in the nude. As protection for his private parts a man pulled his foreskin over the head of his penis, tied it with a ribbon and then fastened the ribbon ends to the base of the shaft. This precursor to the modern jock strap was known as a dog knot.
Other means of protecting and, in most cases, emphasising the penis include codpieces, sheaths and even paper sculptures. Codpieces, which are brightly coloured and gaily ornamented pouches for penis and testicles, were worn by Europeans over tight breeches and under short jackets during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Protective and decorative penis sheaths were common among primitive societies. Made out of everything from leather and vegetable fibres to bamboo, gourds and shells, these sheaths were the mainstay of a man’s wardrobe. From the ninth to the twelfth centuries Japanese men packaged their penises inside an animal shaped paper sculpture. This practice was designed to increase sexual pleasure: the penis would take on the qualities of the animal it was packed inside and the lovers would then act out fantasies stirred up by the animal package.
Look but don’t touch
Although we’ve been fascinated by and have focused on our genitals since time began, in many cultures there has paradoxically been a policy of “look but don’t touch”, at least not your own. Self-pleasuring, or masturbation, has been vilified for a number of reasons. For instance, the Taoists in China condemned male masturbation to the point of ejaculation as wasteful because too much “yang” or masculine energy would be lost with the expelled semen. The Christian church raised masturbation to a level of damnable sin. Penitential books published by the church during the eighth century, which outlined proscribed sexual practices and their accompanying penalties, emphasised masturbation over any other sexual offence.
From the 18th century onward doctors and scientists joined in the battle against self-pleasuring. Leader of the pack was Swiss physician Simon Andre Tissot, who in 1758 preached that masturbation would stimulate an increase in blood pressure in the head, thereby damaging the nervous system and causing insanity. Other doctors quickly joined the battle, blaming masturbation for such ills as acne, backache, blindness, constipation, epilepsy, gout, infertility, nymphomania and vomiting. These were not the opinions of a few quacks but commonly-held beliefs throughout Western society.
From the 1850s until the 1930s thirty-three patents were issued in the US to inventors of anti-masturbation devices. These painful and humiliating gadgets included such items as: spermatorrhea bandages, which bound the penis so tightly to the body that erection was not possible; a spike-lined ring which drove sharp metal points into a penis that was becoming erect; sexual armour, clothing with metal crotches which had holes through which urine could escape but which had to be unlocked at the back for defecation; the “Stephenson Spermatic Truss”, a pouch which tied the penis back and down between the legs; and a harness which would ring an alarm and give an electric shock when a penis attempted to enlarge! It wasn’t until Alfred Kinsey, in his ground-breaking research about sex that began in the 1930s, proclaimed that over 90 per cent of men admitted to masturbating at least once that attitudes began to relax.
Most likely because from the Neolithic period (10,000-4000 BC) up until the late 17th century it was believed that men alone were responsible for producing children through the magic of their semen, women ranked second in just about everything, including sex. Women were viewed as childbearers and as objects for male sexual satisfaction. Often it was not the same woman who filled both roles.
In almost all cultures from ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Indian, Asian and so on, women belonged to their fathers when they were young and then to their husbands when they reached marriageable age. Their behaviour, particularly sexual, was most often highly restricted. The ancient Hebrews stoned women to death for adultery. Early Romans could kill their wandering women as well. Later they were simply obliged to divorce them, as were husbands in classical Greece. Europeans kept their women from straying through the use of chastity belts which first appeared there during the 12th century and became quite popular during the 1400s and 1500s. Many chastity belts were secured by padlocks; some had rigid metal bands which could be tightened or loosened depending on the mood of the husband.
Ironically, it was female members of the so-called “oldest profession”, prostitution, who in many societies had a certain amount of freedom and even influence. In Sumerian times (2000 BC) prostitutes were respectable members of the temple. Through sex with a sacred prostitute Sumerian worshippers paid homage to their gods. Part of the prostitutes’ value was that their earnings contributed substantially to the temples’ income. Temple prostitutes were common in Greece and Rome, India, and even early Christian Europe. In Avignon there was a church brothel where the women divided their time between servicing clients and carrying out religious duties.
Top-level courtesans enjoyed a more liberated status than other women during many eras – ancient Greece, Confucian China, 15th-century Rome, Louis XIV’s France – and a few were able to become very successful women in a man’s world. They often received better education, had more social freedom and wielded influence in politics.
For as long as people have been engaging in sex they’ve been inventing unique means of preventing its frequent result: pregnancy. The most commonly used form of birth control over thousands of years has been good old-fashioned “coitus interruptus” or pulling out before the explosion, but there have been many other most interesting approaches. The precursors of modern birth control emerged in Egypt about 300 BC. There they used mechanical and chemical methods that foreshadow modern diaphragms, cervical caps and spermicides. Their versions included lint pads soaked in honey and acacia tips, and crocodile dung compacted with auyt-gum, both to be inserted into the vagina as a barrier to semen.
Some Romans of the 4th century decided that the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancy was to diminish a wife’s desire for sexual intercourse. Specific methods included: mouse dung liniment; swallowing pigeon droppings mixed with oil and wine; or rubbing her loins with the blood of ticks off a wild black bull.
Condoms began to come into their own during the 18th century. They were usually made of sheep gut, or sometimes fish skin, and were originally introduced not for prevention of pregnancy but as a protection against syphilis.
Finally, here are a few interesting titbits of sexual history.
- In the 1600s Christians who lived in Turkey had to pay a tax. Tax collectors often required people to show their circumcision in order to determine who was taxable.
- John Harvey Kellogg invented corn flakes in 1898 as part of his diet for decreasing sexual desire and masturbation.
- The first electric dildo was sold in 1911.
- The term homosexuality is derived not from the Latin homo, “man”, but from the Greek homos, meaning “the same”.
- During the 1920s many homosexuals were given electric shock therapy to heal what was then considered a disease. It wasn’t until 1973 that homosexuality was officially removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders.
- Alfred Wolfram set the world kissing record in 1990 by kissing 8,001 women in 8 hours. That’s one kiss every six seconds!
- Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain is credited with the most famous and well-used penis in sports history. He boasted of having sex with over 20,000 women.
- Some male members of Australian tribes still shake each other’s penis as a ritual greeting.
- More than 8,000 adult videos are produced every year. That’s almost 22 per day!
- In 1999 over $4 billion was spent on phone sex, but more than 50 percent of callers didn’t pay their 900 number bill.