sexualhistorians

Dildo or Pestle? How Sexual Historians Piece Together the Sex Lives of Our Ancestors

Fuck the past

If Greek historian and researcher Herodotus is to be believed, ancient Babylonia — a civilization founded on the banks of the Euphrates River about two millennia before Christ — was a debauched, 2,000-year-long orgy. Writing in his infamous series of books The Histories — which are considered to be the founding works of history in Western literature — he details the sex lives of Babylonians, describing everything from mandated sex rituals, to organized prostitution rings, to lavish, steamy Babylonian dinner parties that end in free-for-all orgies. In ancient Babylonia, he writes, it was sinful not to have sex.

Problem is, while Herodotus’ accounts have been contemporarily accepted as fact, there doesn’t appear to be much Babylonian evidence to support his more salacious claims. According to Dutch historical journalism site Livius, “That modern scholars have accepted Herodotus’ words as a description of cultic prostitution … and have believed that it contained a kernel of truth, tells quite a lot about the fantasies of modern classicists and historians. In fact, it is likely that Herodotus is simply wrong, never visited Babylon at all, and is only to be trusted as a reliable source for common Greek prejudices about the oriental world.” The “father of history,” it appears, is also the father of good, old fashioned erotic fiction.

This brings up an important question: If we’re going to base our present understanding of sexuality on information gathered from the past — one needs to look no further than Western marital practices or biblically based attitudes about homosexuality for evidence of that — how do we know our understanding is accurate?

Ensuring historical accuracy is the onus of sexual historians, anthropologists and archaeologists, a select group of people whose job it is to piece together clues from history in order to paint an unbiased, truthful picture of our sexual past. How they’re able to do that, however, is a whole different story.

Dildo or Pestle?

According to Kate Lister of History Extra, sex history is a “relatively new field of study that has only been regarded as a legitimate subject for the last 40 years.” Historically, academia’s refusal to accept it as a valid topic had to do with shyness around sexuality, but it’s also because sex is a difficult topic to research. Unlike other human practices like hunting or religion — which leave behind ample clues like specialized tools or temples — the only real evidence we have that sex occurred is, well, other humans. That doesn’t tell us much about what kind of sex people were having, what they thought about it or whether it looked (or felt) anything like it does today, which makes the task of reconstructing humankind’s sexual past difficult… but not impossible.

For Birkbeck College professor and sexual historian Matt Cook, tracing humanity’s sexual history is a lot like piecing together a complicated, three-dimensional puzzle in which half the pieces aren’t even visible. “There’s a lot of retracing steps, collecting evidence and listening to silences,” he says. “You have to look at what it means when a piece of evidence is not there.”

Recently, Cook used these techniques during his research on queer spaces in 19th century Birmingham, England, where he was able to uncover a series of queer underground cultures and networks that surrounded the cramped, back-to-back houses of the largely straight, working-class neighborhood. To figure this out, he focused heavily on physical spaces, diving deep into the architectural and decorative layouts of people’s homes and bedrooms. When combined with population data, autobiographies, memoirs, oral histories and courtroom records from the time period, these physical spaces told the story of a very crowded area with little privacy, something he says was likely responsible for creating a “vibrant public sex culture” that took place in parks and alleyways (a hypothesis he confirmed using judicial records from the time period).

Of course, it’s only possible to reach that level of specificity when your studies concern more recent people or events (and it helps if your subjects were avid record collectors who built structures that still remain today). The further back you go, however, the blurrier the picture becomes. Thankfully, as sexual historian, sociologist, author and gay activist Jeffrey Weeks explains, there’s no shortage of tools sexual historians can use to bring it into focus.

Which of these techniques they employ depends on the time period and people they’re studying. For example, if their research targets the sex lives of million-year-old Homo erectus migration out of North Africa, they’re not going to have much to go on other than the DNA collected from skeletal remains. However, both of these things are useful when it comes to reconstructing the history of sex — bone fragments help compare ancient bodies to our own, and DNA can tell us who was having offspring-producing sex with who — and when. This gives us an idea of the physical interactions proto-people may have had with each other, as well as the broad geographical areas in which they banged.

For example, gene fragments collected from ancient bones recently helped researchers discover that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in Europe and parts of Asia had way more sex with each other than previously imagined, an important finding that further refines the saga of how modern humans evolved. DNA and bone fragments can only give us so much gossip, though. They don’t tell us how Neanderthals and Homo sapiens got down, or what they thought about it. Did they kiss? Were they kinky? Was butt stuff a thing?

Those are questions that can be answered by a more recent human residue — art. Once people started doodling on cave walls and subsequently creating primitive sculptures, paintings and porn, they began to leave behind clues about the kind of sex they were having (or at least thinking about having). One 37,000-year-old cave painting from France portrays a pretty assertive vulva; researchers recently found a stone dildo that’s about that old; and the Moche people of ancient Peru specialized in pottery depicting anal sex (which researcher Rafael Larco Hoyle theorizes made great birth control).

Meanwhile, in Japan, shunga — a much-beloved style of erotic woodblock prints that surfaced in the 13th century and flourished during the Edo period — served as both a libido-enhancer and a demographic equalizer. Everybody had it no matter what strata of society they lived in, and everyone was shown fucking everything (octopi included). There’s even a third gender portrayed in shunga called “wakashu.”

That shunga is as diverse as any Pornhub category today says a lot about the value of sexual exploration and diversity in Japanese culture. As museum curator Timothy Clark told the BBC, “The division between art and obscene pornography is a Western conception. There was no sense in Japan that sex or sexual pleasure was sinful.” Likewise, the fact that women collected it as much as men suggests they were seen as having valid sexual desires irrespective of their relationship with men, which is very different from how they were understood to be during the same time period in Europe.

However, it’s difficult to know whether these works of art were representative of what was actually happening, or just sexy materializations of people’s fantasies. Cook doesn’t think that distinction matters too much, though. “If someone is imagining something, that probably implies it was happening, or at least could happen,” he says. For example, the extremely kinky, queer and non-monogamous group sex depicted on the sculptures and relics of some ancient Indian temples probably wasn’t as commonplace as standard, PIV boning, but as this verified historian on Reddit’s Ask Historians thread explains, the fact that someone made art out of it not only indicates that that kind of sex happened at least sometimes, but that it may have been thought of as spiritual and holy.

Written documents like ancient religious texts, graffiti, legal records, books, poems, letters and journals do art one better by taking us inside the minds of premodern people and revealing what they actually thought about sex and its role in society. For example, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a curiously specific 18th-century almanac of London’s prostitutes, was published annually and reported the address, physical appearance and skill sets of more than 120 working ladies. An enormous amount of information on sexual practices is contained in this sage piece of literature, including the fact that Mrs. Griffin of Wapping could “give more pleasure than a dozen raw girls.”

That revelation might seem useless today, but it actually says quite a bit about what may have been desirable at the time (at least to Mrs. Griffin’s clients). Also, because it was published during a time when moralizers and police were attempting to regulate prostitution to smithereens, and because it contains no first-person testimony from sex workers themselves, Harris’s List also suggests this time period may have contributed to the modern, eerily similar tendency to disenfranchise sex workers that we have today.

Records of court cases and trials are also fantastic wellsprings of information about sexuality. In fact, Cook tells me he’s particularly fond of using them as tools to get inside the heads of his subjects. “Multiple witnesses having to present arguments about a singular issue gives researchers insight into a sexual culture and imaginary,” he says. “This kind of written evidence tells us much about how sex and its related activities took place.”

The same goes for marriage and birth certificates (or the closest thing to them). “In a world where marriage was the only legitimate entry into adult sexual relations, it’s important to explore patterns of marriage, including age of marriages, length of marriages and rates of marriage breakup, percentage of children born outside wedlock and size of families,” Cook says. “All these things change dramatically across time and cultures, which gives us insight into how people lived their sexualities.”

Erstwhile, physical spaces and built environments such as temples, houses and land give us an idea of how much privacy certain people may have had. Privacy, as Cook explains, is a somewhat recent invention that played an important role in sexuality’s gradual transition from a largely sacred, affirming act to one that seemed shameful and taboo.

Take Elizabethan architecture, for example. This style of building, which was popular under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I from 1558 to 1603, featured exactly zero hallways. That meant that, if you wanted to get to any particular room inside a larger house, you had to walk through everyone else’s rooms first. Because of that, Cook explains, people probably saw and heard live sex more frequently and directly than we do today. And because it was more common to see it, it’s likely that it seemed a bit more incidental and mundane than it does to our modern sensibilities.

Many scholars attribute shame and taboo around sexuality to humanity’s recent transition to more private spaces and property — it’s hard to understand and embrace something you can’t see, and it’s easier to bill something as dirty or shameful if it has to take place secretly, behind closed doors, in a space that’s supposed to be uniquely “yours.” This gives modern sex a certain weight it probably didn’t have a couple hundred years ago and helps us understand where all the touchiness around it might come from.

Additional tools of the sexual historian include population data, and obviously, literature, theater and music. Most often, though, it’s all of the above. “It’s rare that you paint a picture of a civilization during a specific time period based on DNA or a piece of ancient pornography alone,” Cook explains. “A more accurate understanding of the past requires us to use as many methods as the evidence will allow.” Just like a crime scene or an insurance fraud investigation, sexual historians need every bit of proof they can get if they even want to think about presenting their findings as accurate approximations of the past.

That said, while there’s really no shortage of tools and techniques to reveal the past secrets of human sexuality, the accuracy of any pieced-together history is really only as strong as the bias of the person putting it together.

Past-Colored Glasses

“There are two elements to telling the stories of history accurately,” says Cook. “The first is to reconstruct as much as you can using all the hints you can find. But before you even get there, you have to think about the perspective you bring.”

In other words, when a sexual historian tells a story, they have to do their best to take themselves out of it. They have to be conscious of the perspectives and realities they carry with them and see as normal, when in fact, that wouldn’t have been the case however many years ago. Otherwise, they risk succumbing to confirmation bias, or the tendency to see results or patterns that confirm their worldview, whether or not they’re accurate. The consequences of not being able to look at the past objectively can range from mild to cataclysmic.

A particularly salient example of the latter is Darwin’s theory of evolution, of which only part of was published in The Origin of Species. His subsequent writings in The Descent of Man gave a much more detailed account of something he called “female sexual selection,” which was the idea that female mate choice — i.e., sexual desire — was the driving force behind evolution, not solely the glum, Hobbesian “survival of the fittest.” However, being the infamously prude Victorian that he was, Darwin kept that part of this theory on the down-low, afraid that it would upset the delicate sensibilities of his wife. As a result of his era-appropriate concept of female piety, women’s sexual agency and its role in evolution — or, sex at all — was never seriously considered.

Another example is a British 1881 porn novel called Sins of the Cities of the Plain. The story takes place in London, and features a protagonist who goes around having sex with men and women of many races and classes. In 1989, the book was re-issued by an American publisher, but by that time, attitudes about homo- and bisexuality had changed and all references to sex with women were removed. “By the late 20th century, the ability to have sex with more than one gender had become more of a taboo, and the prevailing feeling was that you need to be gay or straight, not something in between,” Cook explains. “That the novel was edited to match this updated worldview is a salient example of how easily history can be amended to meet the needs of contemporary culture and vice versa.

For that reason, Weeks says it’s impossible to know exactly what happened in humanity’s rich sexual history. “There’s no such thing as a final truth about the past,” he says. “We inevitably look through the lens of the present to see what happened before us, and our optics and preoccupations change. And of course, if we can scarcely agree about anything in the present, how likely is it that we can agree about the past? My guiding principle isn’t to generalize about any particular slice of the past based on limited evidence. All societies are complex, and all have the same challenge: how to deal with the potential range of sexual needs, desires, genders, domestic patterns, etc. It’s vital to stick to the evidence, but we always need to remember that that evidence is fragmentary, subject to the hazards of survival over many years.”

Though a truly accurate picture of the past is unlikely, Cook still says it’s extremely important to examine sexual history because of what it tells us about ourselves. “The past and histories of sexuality are important because they show that sexuality and gender are cultural phenomenon,” he says. “These things are historically fluid and constantly changing across time and place, and show that there is no universal way of relating to sex. That says a lot about how much weight we should give the past when deciding how to feel about our sexuality today.”