Five facts you didn’t know about the history of sex

In light of the History Society’s lecture series on the History of Sex, this article will highlight the most interesting sex facts of the past- proving once and for all that history is not boring.

1- Orgasms were a treatment for anxiety.

Historian Rachel Maines has outlined the surprising history of the “pelvic finger massage”. From the time of Hippocrates until the 1920s, massaging female patients to orgasm was a staple of medical practice among Western physicians in the treatment of “hysteria.”

Likely a consequence of patriarchal societies, “hysteria” was considered both common and chronic in women. This ailment included anxiety, irritability and nervousness.

According to Maines, doctors loathed this time-consuming procedure and for centuries relied on midwives to induce the “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasm).

2- Consequently, in 1917, there were more vibrators in american households than toasters.

While the industrial revolution did not bring many improvements for women, it did lead to the creation of the vibrator. The medical “pelvic finger massage” was considered ineffecient by male doctors. The ‘treatment’ was hence substituted with mechanical devices, including the electric vibrator, invented in the 1880s.

This unusual form of ‘self-help’ for female anxiety became very popular in America. According to the Erotica Museum in Barcelona, there were more vibrators in american households than toasters in 1917.

Unfortunately, men soon realised that women were having far too much fun with this ‘treatment’. Subsequently, vibrators and the “pelvic finger massage” became associated with the stigma and shame familiar today.

For more information, buy Rachel Maines’ book here or read this blog.

3- King Alfonso XIII had his own private pornographic cinema.

It is a common misconception that porn was popularised by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine. Yet almost as soon as cameras were invented, people started taking nude photos and selling them as postcards. Many showed penetrative intercourse and “non-standard” sexual practices like lesbianism.

Pornographic films are also nothing new. King Alfonso XIII (1886-1931) certainly capitalised on the delights of modern technology. The spaniard commissioned ‘private videos’ such as “The Confessor”, “The Minister” and “The Ladies’ Medical Centre”, which displayed scenes of lesbianism, fellatio and three-way sex acts. These short films, which are currently on display at Barcelona’s Erotica Museum, are the only examples of pornographic Spanish cinema left in good condition. Most of the movies were destroyed by Franco’s regime.

You can buy tickets for Barcelona’s Erotica Museum here.

4- George IV attended 18th century sex clubs. 

David Stevenson’s book “The Beggar’s Benison” outlines the history of two, late 18th century sex clubs that thrived in St Andrews, Scotland. As reported by Buzzfeed, members would read banned books like Fanny Hill, and have sex with willing girls. Initiation ceremonies involved masturbating into a shared bowl, and drinking out of a penis-shaped glass. According to Stevenson, The Prince of Wales (later George IV) was a member. The Wig Club of 1775 also gave Scottish Tory elites the chance to dine, gamble and venerate a wig supposedly made of the pubic hairs of the mistresses of Charles II.

5- Catherine the Great of Russia apparently died having sex with a horse.

There are numerous reports of bestiality throughout history (pop along to Barcelona’s erotica museum for more details).  Yet this rumour about Catherine the Great represents a far greater phenomena of history- “slut shaming”.

Catherine should be remembered for saving the lives of Russian men, women, and children with her progressive leanings in healthcare. She increased the number of schools and hospitals, founded Russia’s first College of Medicine in 1763 and embraced the new technology of vaccination that prevented many deaths from smallpox.

Yet instead, Catherine’s legacy is shrouded in sexual myth. Her enemies spread the rumour that her body was so sexually rapacious she needed a horse to satisfy her. This fetish, according to rumour, eventually killed her.

Kyra Cornelius Kramer’s book ‘The Jezebel Effect: Why Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters’ outlines the history of slut shaming and demonstrates how it continues today.

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