sexual revolutions

Revolutionary Sex Throughout History

Every generation attempts to reinvent sexuality, some by infusing it with more liberties, others  by making it more modest.

But the truth is, there’s very little space for innovation, all sorts of sex acts and arrangements have been explored numerous times throughout human history, and that includes even things that you might think have a distinctively modern ring to them – like transgenderism, for which there’s lots of archaeological evidence documenting it as an ancient practice, some suggesting it might be dated as far back as neolithic

However, the real revolutions, including sexual ones, don’t just spring out of nothing, but usually arise when the societies are ripe for change.

They are occasionally triggered by massive events like pandemics, not unlike the one we recently went through, which has likely fueled a current sharp rise in sexually transmitted diseases, including those that have been rare for a while now, such as syphilis, clearly indicating that something about the patterns of our sexual behavior has changed.

Something equivalent happened in the renaissance, also believed to be caused in part by significant shifts in social structure caused by the plague.

Renaissance – The Birth of a Different Imagination

To understand what went down in the renaissance, we should think about the way sex was regulated in the middle ages. It was supposed to be strictly marital, reproductive, devoid of all pleasure and performed with clothes on. But, in some ways, sex was treated in a more natural way in the medieval period than in the renaissance, especially when it comes to everyday folks.

For one thing, most medieval people lived in the countryside and had the opportunity to regularly observe mating animals, so it was not a very mysterious act for them. Also, since most of them resided in large single-space households, they likely often got further ideas about the act from an early age.


In the late Renaissance, urban populations started growing and the housing arrangements in Europe changed considerably, with more divided spaces and doors that could be closed. With those shifts, sex became a more mysterious act for a large number of people. It is probable that it was not the openness of mind, but the closedness of doors, that triggered one of the significant aspects of the sexual revolution of the renaissance – the artistic obsession with naked body and sex.

Together with the new found appreciation of life, caused by the massive mortality of the black death epidemics, it fueled the vision of sex as a joyful expression of romantic love and the celebration of life, instead of a sinful but necessary reproductive act.

A Male Dominated Revolution

No discussion about the French revolution is ever simple – the extremely bloody period of social turbulence that ended up “devouring its own children” is also credited with setting the essential standards of human rights that define modern democratic societies. Sexual aspect of the revolution is no different.

The typical narrative is that the liberation from clerical norms laid the foundation for modern secular approach to life, including more liberal sex life. But once again, if you dig deeper, the story is much less black and white.

Historical records from pre-revolutionary France show that young people already enjoyed a high-degree of freedom in their expression of romantic affection, and that practices like public kissing, hugging and even some sex acts were rather common and accepted part of the courtship process.

The main exception being penetrative sex that brought along the risk of pregnancy. It was perceived as an act connected to serious social implications should the girl remain pregnant and unmarried and was therefore strictly legally regulated. But the revolution, with its focus on individual rights of the citizen, for the first time put consent in the center of the discussion.

Now comes the part that is wildly paradoxical from our own point of view – the legal, moral and social implications of this shift were largely negative for women. All of a sudden, unwanted pregnancies ceased to be a male concern, and instead all the burden fell on females. Who, instead of legal protection, got all the blame.

From the early 19th century it has become widespread for young men to walk away in the case of unwanted pregnancies. On the other hand, risk became a central part of female sex lives, not only in terms of risk of poverty and social stigma, but often in the form of exposure to life-threatening practice of illegal abortions.

20th Century Sex – The Emergence of Choice

This gives us the context we need to understand what happened in the 20th century with the sexual revolution. There were these modern, rapidly changing, increasingly secular societies in politically volatile times characterized also by the emergence of social and cultural movements, paired with scientific discoveries that allowed women to take more control over their reproduction.

No amount of social and political change could redefine and rebalance the power dynamics of sex, if it was not for the technological and medical breakthroughs that allowed for the reasonably safe, affordable and accessible methods of contraception and pregnancy termination.

Also, the importance of the birth control pill can never be overestimated. Sure, condoms are great, and if you practice casual sex in any form, you should use them consistently, because STIs are on the rise and they are getting ever more resistant to treatment. But the person who has to put the rubber over his penis will ultimately always have an upper hand. T

he pill turned the whole thing upside-down, enabling women to control their own reproduction for the first time, both in relationships or casual arrangements. Only this fragile but real balance of power between genders allowed for our sexuality to become the unrestrained pursuit of romance and pleasure that we know in this part of the world