A short history of sex

Alex Bruce-Smith

It was a night of innuendo, a question about the history of the blowjob, and a close look at the changing mores of sex and sexuality through the ages.

Speaking to ABC broadcaster Natasha Mitchell were Benjamin Law, journalist and author of Gaysia, Faramerz Dabhoiwala, author of The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, Frank Bongiorno, author of The Sex Lives of Australians, and US author popular Dear Sugar advice columnist Cheryl Strayed, whose books include Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There and the memoir Wild.

To look at a history of sex is to look at a history of control and domination by one part of humanity over another. How we think about sex, how we go about having sex, and how we identify our own sexuality has changed drastically over time.

“Everyone agrees that consenting adults should have the rights to do what they want with their own bodies,” said Faramerz. “When you start to investigate what that means in practice it is very, very slippery.”

Advice columnist Cheryl Strayed

Advice columnist Cheryl Strayed

A recurring theme throughout the night was sexual identity. According to Frank, the idea of Australian mateship was born out of the early colonial days when, due to a lack of women, there was a lot more homosexual sex occurring than history books let on.

Benjamin travelled around Asia researching Gaysia. He said he had struggled with inflicting his own Australian values of sexual freedom. He came across religious organisations that “cured” men of homosexual urges, many of whom had struggled internally for years. “If they feel more at peace, who am I to say that is wrong?” he said.

Journalist and author Benjamin Law

Journalist and author Benjamin Law

Some fascinating insights came from Faramerz, the expert on the sexual life and times of the 18th century. Prior to that time it was believed that women were the dominant sexual beings and that men “fell prey” to their seductions. It was widely believed that good, respectable women did not orgasm, a view that took until the 1960s to be properly challenged.

Cheryl spoke further about the concept of female sexual desire, and how so often a woman’s sexual needs were viewed in a negative light: “We don’t even have a word for a male slut. By definition, the word slut means ‘female’.”

Funnily enough, not one of the panellists knew the history of the blowjob. Subject matter for another book, perhaps?

Author Frank Bongiorno

Author Frank Bongiorno


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