Updated 13 May 2013

Highlights in the history of sex

For many thousands of years, people knew little about sex. Here are some milestones on the long road to sexual enlightenment.


Today most people have ready access to information about sex and sexual choices. For many thousands of years, however, this was not the case and progress and the dissemination of knowledge were slow. Here are some milestones on the long road to sexual enlightenment.

  • In the year 130 the word gonorrhea was coined by the noted Greek physician Galen. It describes what he thought was one of the symptoms of this disease. It literally means ‘ a flowing of seed.’
  • In 1191 at the start of his first crusade against the infidels, King Richard the Lionheart arrived at Marseilles and was horrified to discover that his advance party of trusted knights had spent all his campaign funds on prostitutes.

  • Angela de Labarthe of Toulouse was the first woman to be burned at the stake for allegedly having intercourse with the devil. Her crime was ‘discovered’ after she reportedly gave birth to a child with a wolf’s head and a snake’s tail in 1275.

  • The word ‘sex’ made its first appearance on English in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible: “Of alle thingis havynge sowle of ony flesh, two thow shalt brynge into the ark, that maal sex and femaal lyven with thee.”

  • In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII was elected. He was nicknamed ‘The Honest’ because he was the first pope to acknowledge his illegitimate children publicly.

  • In 1492 syphilis made its virulent appearance in Europe. Two events are blamed for this sudden scourge – the French assault on Naples and the return of Columbus from the New World.

  • In 1560 Gabriel Fallopius invented the first condom, a linen sheath, that was not very effective for obvious reasons.

  • In 1611, two unmarried women who were discovered to be pregnant on arrival in Virginia were immediately returned to England. The idea behind this was to stamp out the risk of promiscuity in the colony.

  • Mary Mandame of Plymouth was the first woman to be forced to wear a distinctive mark on her clothing for a sex offence. This was in 1639.

  • In 1640 the Duke of Orleans was born. He was raised as a girl so as not to be a threat to his brother. He later led his troops into battle wearing a perfumed wig and high heels.

  • In 1653 an 89-year-old woman was executed in England for adultery.

  • Anton van Leewenhoek looked at a specimen of his own semen through a microscope and discovered sperm in 1677.

  • In 1714 the Roman Catholic Church banned the confessional requirement that men name their partners in fornication when it was discovered that priests were making carnal use of the information.

  • After being banned for several years, prostitution flourished anew in London in 1750. The price of a virgin’s services was down from £50 to£5.

  • In 1782 artificial insemination resulted in the birth of a baby to a London draper and his wife. The doctor was John Hunter.

  • The first lesbian novel, titled Mary, a Fiction was published by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1788.

  • Condoms made of tortoiseshell and leather were used in the Orient by 1827.

  • In 1834 Sylvester Graham (1794 – 1851) warned that every ejaculation lowered a male’s life expectancy.

  • A court for divorce was established in England in 1857. Adultery alone was enough to get a divorce granted for men, while women had to prove additional things such as sodomy, rape or incest in order to get a divorce.

  • In 1882 Aletta Jacobs opened the world’s first birth control clinic in Holland. She popularised the diaphragm, which is also known as the Dutch cap.

  • In 1895 Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for two years of hard labour for his homosexuality.

  • In 1912 Dr Paul Ehrlich discovered a cure for syphilis.

  • The world’s first nude calendar was published in 1913.

  • Andre Gide, a French writer became the first modern public figure to publicly declare that he was homosexual. This happened in 1924.

  • In 1948 Dr Alfred Kinsey published ‘Sexual Behavior in the Human Male’ and five years later ‘Sexual behavior in the Human Female.

  • In 1952 the first sex-change operation was performed by Danish doctors on George Jorgensen.

  • In 1953 Playboy magazine appeared for the first time.

  • The contraceptive pill became available on the open market. This gave women much more sexual freedom and gave rise to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

  • In 1966 Masters and Johnson published ‘Human Sexual Response’.

  •  In 1971 the world’s first commercial sperm bank was opened in New York.

  •  In 1972 Cosmopolitan published the first nude male pinup centrefold.

  •  By 1976 nearly 70 percent of American couples of child-bearing age were using some sort of contraception.

  •  In 1978, Louise Brown was born in Britain. She was the first test-tube baby. Her birth gave new hope to many childless couples.

  •  By the early 1980s the first people were beginning to die of HIV/Aids. Undoubtedly, many had died before, but it was probably misdiagnosed as pneumonia or cancer. The virus has spread across the world, with Sub-Saharan Africa being worst affected.

  •  (Information from The People's Almanac, edited by David Wallechinsky)

(Health24, updated March 2011)

Read more:
Take this opportunity to catch up on some Body basics




Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Exercise benefits for seniors »

Working out in the concrete jungle Even a little exercise may help prevent dementia Here’s an unexpected way to boost your memory: running

Seniors who exercise recover more quickly from injury or illness

When sedentary older adults got into an exercise routine, it curbed their risk of suffering a disabling injury or illness and helped them recover if anything did happen to them.