The evolution of sexual health through the ages

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Graphic by Kash Patel

People have been having sex since there have been people. In general, the act has remained unchanged — though I’m sure new techniques have emerged since Fred and Wilma Flintstone went at it. What has changed quite a bit is the way people perceive sexual activity and sexuality. These changes in perception have had a direct impact on the health of the population. 

Take birth control and planned parenthood, for instance. While methods of preventing pregnancy have been around for thousands of years —the first recorded mention of female contraception dates to around 1800 BCE in Egypt — actual education on planned parenthood didn’t exist for a long time. The U.S. Congress passed a law that deemed birth control information as obscene and banned its dissemination in 1873. At the time, it was the only Western nation that had criminalized contraception. 

Things started to change around the end of the nineteenth century, though. In 1877, just four years after the U.S. Congress banned the dissemination of birth control information, the Malthusian League was established. Its purpose was to educate people about the importance of family planning.

In 1914, the term “birth control” was popularized in the U.S. by Margaret Sanger and Otto Bobsein, and in 1921, in Britain, Mary Stopes worked with the Malthusian League and opened the first-ever permanent birth control clinic.

One of the biggest changes in public perception of, and exposure to, birth control was made in 1930 when the Birth Control Conference assembled, and successfully brought birth control and abortion into the political sphere. 

Since then, there have been numerous innovations in female contraception, including IUDs, contraceptive patches, the NuvaRing, Depo shot, levonorgestrel (the hormonal medication in the morning after pill), diaphragms, spermicides and more. Many countries have also legalized abortion.  

Changes in the perception of sexually transmitted infections have also improved public health. Sexually transmitted diseases have had a stigma associated with them since forever.

In Mesopotamian times, for instance, having an STD was thought to be a punishment by the gods. HIV/AIDS was initially erroneously associated with homosexuality, which, given the negative views on anything non-heterosexual for most of history, led to few people seeking help for it. 

Now, as our knowledge of HIV/AIDS has increased and we have become more accepting of homosexuality and the LGBTQ+ community in general, a lot of the stigma attached to HIV and other STIs has decreased. 

Society isn’t perfect now by any means. There are many other issues related to sex and sexuality we could explore the evolutions (and, in some cases, regressions) of, like sexual violence and emotional attachment, but that alone would take up several issues of your favourite weekly newspaper.

But the gradual increase of the acceptance of various sexual topics has certainly lead to a society more open about sex and sexuality, and that, arguably, makes for a society that’s sexually healthier than the one a few hundred years ago. 

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