Sex has been, quite literally, a vital part of human existence since long before modern humans even entered the scene some 7 million years ago. For such a commonplace act, it’s pretty strange that we’ve fostered and held onto so many taboos and hang-ups around it. If the past few decades are anything to go by, however, it appears our attitudes and our openness about discussing sex, love and intimacy are changing fast. We take a look at just how much our love lives and social norms have changed over the past few decades.
Acceptance of same-sex relationships
Perhaps the largest and most obvious shift in society over recent years has been our attitude towards same-sex relationships. Millennials and younger generations who have grown up in an environment which is relatively accepting of same-sex relationships can all too easily forget just how enormous the battle was (and still is in many parts of the world) for LGBT people.
One of the most remarkable examples is the story of much-loved comedian Ellen DeGeneres. It’s easy to forget that when she came out as a lesbian in 1997, she faced a furious backlash from the entertainment industry and the public – resulting in the cancellation of her sitcom. Just six years later, however, her now massively popular chat show debuted to huge success. This marks a huge change in attitude in a remarkably short period of time.
Similarly, same-sex marriage, which was banned outright in the US in 1996, became legal in 2015. And while the battle is clearly not over, especially in the developing world, great strides are being made. Same-sex couples now have several options to start their own families, through adoption, surrogacy, or the services of a sperm bank.
A few decades ago, most people were limited to their immediate surrounds when it came to finding a partner. People from school, college, work, or sports and social clubs were the most likely candidates. If you wanted something a little more exotic, an overseas holiday might be your only option!
In the digital age, apps like Tinder and the proliferation of dating and social networking websites allows us to cast a much wider net. In fact, as many as one in three marriages may now start online.
It’s not just that we feel more comfortable talking about sex, the words we choose to do so paint an interesting picture too. Even in medical journals, the language used in sex studies has become ‘depathologised’ – with behaviours treated less like medical conditions and more like accepted ways of being. Between 1970 and now, words like ‘patient’ or ‘subject’ have been replaced with participant, ‘male’ and ‘female’ with man, woman or individual, and ‘husband/wife’ replaced with partner. This showcases a broader societal shift towards more humanising language around matters of love and sex.
Is all of this new though?
While it’s clear that our attitudes in modern times have shifted massively over the past few decades, there’s a pretty convincing argument to be made that we’re still way behind the ancient Greeks and Romans in some respects! While some of us still get a little squeamish around the mention of ‘naughty’ things like adult toys, the ancient Greeks, for example, made plenty of literary references to the use of dildos. They were made out of padded leather anointed with olive oil before use, if you must know.
And compared with the fight women in the 1950s and 1960s had to access contraception like the pill, the search for effective contraception methods was pretty openly researched and encouraged by ancient Roman society. It wasn’t until Christianity, particularly the Old Testament, with the concept of original sin and its threat of eternal damnation for those who had sex for any reason other than procreation, that sex became shrouded in fear and danger in the first place.
Are we just reverting back to our more natural attitudes towards sex then?
While we’ve become a lot more accepting in many areas, most notably having sex before marriage, having more sexual partners overall and there being less stigma around ‘casual’ relationships, it’s interesting that in one area we’ve actually become stricter: sex outside of an existing marriage. Since the 1970s, this attitude has bucked the trend, with cheating on a spouse now considered less acceptable than it was 50 years ago. Hopefully, society as a whole is taking the best bits of the ancient past and combining them with new norms that protect individuals while allowing them the freedom to explore.