June is Adult Sex Ed Month – in which we celebrate learning about sex as a lifelong process. Fuck.com asked resident writer Leo Larkin to research how sex advice for adults have changed over the centuries, and it seems we've come a long way!

 

Sex education through the ages: the good, the bad and the really weird

Snickering teenagers aren't the only people who need tips about reproductive health, safer sex and just plain good sex, after all. 

But the idea of adult sex education would have seemed strange in most other eras of history. To our ancestors, sex education was only for adults – stipulating, of course, that they sometimes had different ideas of who was an adult. 

So what did these cultures think adults should know about sex? Well … it varies.
 

The old evidence problem

As always, a word of caution: what we know about sex throughout history is limited by our sources. In many cultures, few people could read, so a lot of sex education probably happened in private, by word of mouth (I almost said “orally,” which would give the wrong impression). That means it's mostly lost to us. 
 

Sex ed in the ancient world

Sexually explicit art in public places was common in both ancient Greece and Rome, some of it absurd but a lot of it quite realistic. There were sex manuals – and apparently, they were very popular. The most famous of the genre is Ovid's Ars Amatoria, which mostly consists of relationship advice but does stray into sex. Ovid's sex advice is funny and occasionally pretty good. He emphasises the idea of mutual satisfaction and choosing the sexual techniques that are right for you. That's not bad for ancient Rome.

If the moral part of ancient sexual education seems reasonable, the medical part was, well, they were doing their best. Greek medical theory taught that a regular release of semen was thought to be healthy. Men and women both emitted “seed,” which mingled to produce a “clot” that would develop into a baby. Writers differed on how this worked: most thought the two substances blended equally, while Aristotle thought that women contributed only matter. The spark of life was, of course, all male. 

So while ancient writers and ancient society were pretty frank about sex, “education” might be the wrong word for some of it. Still, they were well ahead of the next writers on our list. 

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Ovid's Ars Amorata. Image: Fine Editions Ltd 
 

Medieval sex ed

The church, which provided most formal education in the middle ages, was not a fan of sex. Almost anything other than missionary sex in the dark between a married couple – on permitted days – was sinful. Ironically, these rules give us some hints as to what people might have been getting up to. For example, one text advises confessors to ask women whether they've been putting their menstrual blood in their husbands' food as an aphrodisiac. An interesting question, even if probably not good advice. 

Over on the medical side of things,  books in the middle ages abound with information on methods to restore lost virginity. None of them seems to have caught on. A handful of works did discuss subjects like birth control or abortion, but these were very rare. 
 

A market for sex ed?

Once the printing press got going, sex manuals became bestsellers. Some may have been sincerely meant to educate, but a lot were just porn. The 15th-century Speculum al foder (“a mirror to fuck”) is one of the earliest, but my favourite remains 1680's The School of Venus, which informs the reader that testicles are “not much unlike our Spanish Olives” but doesn't explain how. Although literacy was more common than in the middle ages, books like these were still meant for a wealthy, usually male, audience. 

Meanwhile, medical writers were very careful to make sure nothing they wrote about sex was too titillating. Particularly sensitive passages would be printed in Latin or Greek to make sure women, and the lower classes couldn't understand them. 
 

The beginnings of the modern era

So far we've seen sex manuals, medical treatises, relationship advice and plain old porn. But none of these was exactly sex education. In the 19th and 20th century, though, writers started to try to teach adults about sex. These texts weren't always the best advice but gradually a genre of actual advice began to emerge. 

These pioneering sex-ed activists faced prosecution, lawsuits and public opposition, but gradually it became apparent that there was a need for comprehensive sex education. After the Second World War, the idea that this could apply to children slowly became acceptable, leaving us with something like the sex-ed landscape we have today. 

 

Leo Larkin is a writer here at Fuck.com. He's also me. Or ... close enough, anyway. I write about history and the humorous side of sex. If you want serious things (usually), you want my colleague Abi. Despite the fact that Leo is a pen name, I am a real person.


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