Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 2, August 10, 1999


The History & Future of Sex

Marty Klein, Ph.D


Adapted from the opening plenary at the SSSS Western Region conference, April 22, 1999.

Researching this paper, I realized how much I don't know about many things important to sexology. I realized how little I know about Prohibition, the Civil War, the Depression, segregation, and the history of technology, to name just a few. And I realized anew how important topics like those are for our field.

I also realized that the field of sexology knows a lot more about the phenomenology of sex than it does about social science. We know more about what individual people say they do and how they feel than about the role sexuality plays in the pageant of world events. While this is legitimate knowledge, it means that sexology has a limited perspective. History, economics, law, technology, religion, and other large-scale social forces dramatically shape people's sexual consciousness and behavior--which is what we sexologists purport to study. And so examining the past and looking toward the future are essential for sexological sophistication. Doing so demonstrates, as we are always saying, just how critical an interdisciplinary perspective is for our work. As we seek to understand sexuality, there is very little that is irrelevant.

Let's start with some examples of how technology in general drives history in unexpected ways.

1. In the 13th century, the flying buttress and the gothic vault were invented. These architectural structures took much of the weight off the external walls of churches. Within five years, a whole new kind of cathedral was being built, such as Westminster Abbey. The reduced weight on the walls made large windows possible, which allowed a brand new art form to develop: stained glass.

2. During the mid-19th century, train speeds increased every few years. Eventually, travellers who started in place A with their watches set correctly would arrive in place B with watches that were now incorrect, because they had traveled so far so quickly. To eliminate this problem, time zones were invented in 1883.

3. At the beginning of the 20th century, zippers were considered a novelty. Then World War I required American soldiers to go abroad for the first time. Because they were going to exotic foreign countries, they wanted to hide their money when they travelled. The holder of the zipper's patent sold money belts with zippers to the American government for its soldiers--and zippers became popular overnight.

4. Until the early 1960s, college administrations were expected to act "in loco parentis"--as substitute parents, making lifestyle decisions for students. For hundreds of years, students had to conform to college rules about dress, religion, sexual activity, and recreation. This arrangement ended in American colleges in the mid- and late-1960s because of the Vietnam War draft. Millions of young people reasoned that if they were old enough to get drafted and killed, they were old enough to run their own lives.

Throughout history, technological advances and social changes have had very different outcomes than were originally planned or predicted. This is the rule, not the exception. And it's true regarding sexuality.

Societal developments affect sexuality in two ways: directly and indirectly. Examples of direct influences include the invention of the birth control pill, the discovery of ovulation, and the invention of vasectomy.

But events can also affect sex indirectly. For example, during World War II, the few young men who were left in America's cities were suddenly a scarce commodity, and women started to compete for them. One way they did this was with sex--and quickly, initiating dates and being sexually aggressive became more culturally acceptable.

Interestingly, the indirect effects on sexuality are far more numerous and much more powerful than the direct sexual effects. Now, nobody is going to argue that the invention of the birth control pill or the discovery of ovulation are trivial. Nevertheless, as we look back over history, the indirect forces shaping sexual expression have been enormously important. Here is a small sample of historical events that shaped the course of human sexuality--indirectly:

The story of Adam and Eve
The story of 12 male apostles
The invention of paper
The destruction of the Roman Empire
The development and spread of Islam
The invention of the clock
The founding of the Protestant church
The Salem witchcraft trials
Allowing women to act on stage
The vulcanization of rubber
The invention of photography
The relocation of Mormans to Utah
The transcontinental railroad
The belief that conception required female orgasm
The installation of gas lights for theaters
No-fault divorce

Let's examine just one of these: the installation of gaslights in theaters. Up until then, theater productions did not take place at night, only in the daytime. Once theaters could install gas lighting, however, they could present shows at night. People could now go there on dates at night; they could go to the dark places in the theater, hold hands and cuddle--which totally changed courting forever.

In every era, new technologies are always adapted to sexual uses. Here are some examples:

pottery > pornography
car > drive-in
VCR > porn films
telephone > phone sex
printing > penny dreadfuls
photography > pornography
vulcanization > condoms
hormone research > contraception
Internet > cybersex

Let's look at a few examples.

Originally developed as a form of transportation, the car was quickly adapted for social uses, such as privacy. The "backseat of a car" even became a synonym for not-quite-legitimate privacy. Once the car became popular, motels outside of town were invented. Before then, there were hotels in town, for people who were travelling. Remember, travelling long distances in those days was a huge hassle. But once people had mobility and could use a car to get out of town for, say, half a day or just overnight, there was a reason for motels--outside of town.

The VCR was not invented for sexual purposes, but the VCR only took off as a consumer item when low-cost porn videotapes became available. The resulting demand for machines then lowered their price, making them affordable for everyone. In fact, the commercial battle over which tape format would become standard ended when Sony decided not to participate in pornography--which doomed Betamax to extinction. Over 500 million X-rated videotapes are now rented every year.

Soon after the telephone became a standard item in the American home, teenagers started using it. Domestic battling about phone use was one of the common themes of stand-up comedy in the mid-1950s and '60s. What the telephone actually made possible was that people could lay in their beds and talk to their sweetheart privately, could talk about sex, romance, and intimacy. Until that time, such conversations had been highly regulated by the physical separation of lovers required by the rules of courtship. Before the invention of the telephone, only married people had the opportunity to regularly lay in bed and cuddle with or whisper to their sweetheart.

Now let's look at some developments in the 20th century that had important--and unintended--sexual impacts.

* Municipal electricity
At the start of the century, the widespread installation of municipal electricity allowed people to go out at night, and lighted places attracted people who wanted to see other people. Downtowns were transformed from places to go shopping during the day, to places where people congregated at night, places of evening entertainment--and suddenly there was nightlife all over the United States. Remember that when electricity became common in American cities, more than half of the country still lived in towns of less than 20,000 people. At that time, the idea of a downtown where people could congregate and go to a movie or have a soda together at night was quite risque.

* Bicycles
Before the bicycle was invented, the average American woman had to wear an average of 37 pounds of clothes just to go out of the house. Once women started to ride bicycles, this wasn't practical anymore, and within two years, women were wearing less than half that amount to go out. Imagine the change that must have been in people's lives. The bicycle also led to the development of female athletics because it proved that women could exercise without physical harm.

* High-density housing
Around the turn of the century, immigration and industrialization led people in cities to live in apartments. This meant that there was no more front porch, and courting could no longer take place within the bounds of the family's home. This led to unchaperoned dating for the first time.

* Psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis was the first intellectual movement in this country to suggest that sexual repression actually had an effect on people. It became quite a parlor game for people to sit around and speculate about criminals or others who were socially inappropriate--what sort of sexual repression was this or that person acting out? Psychoanalysis gave people a vocabulary with which to talk about sexual norms and libido, something they hadn't had before.

* Prohibition
During Prohibition, drinking became sexy. It was an outlaw activity, something that sophisticated and wealthy people did. There were clubs where people gathered to drink--speakeasies--and a new genre of popular music. Like cigarette smoking in the 1960s, drinking became a symbol of eroticism during Prohibition. The glorification of alcohol, of course, heavily affected people's sexual decision-making and functioning.

* The Depression
During the Depression there weren't enough jobs, so instead of going to work, teenagers went to high school. Suddenly, high school kids were surrounded not by adults but by other high school kids. Hanging out with so many of their peers, high school kids developed their own jargon, their own culture, and courtship patterns. "Dating" became an adolescent institution.

* Gay Civil Rights
The last 25 years have seen a swell of rights for gay and bisexual people. This battle isn't finished yet, but one of the unexpected outcomes of the increased visibility of gay sexuality is that a certain amount of non-normative sexual activity has gone mainstream. I don't think it's a coincidence that the popular culture now talks so much more about S&M, anal sex, and non-monogamy.

During the 20th century there have been, of course, many developments specifically aimed at shaping sexuality. At the turn of the century there was a massive anti-masturbation campaign. The government, medical profession, Boy Scouts, army, and other institutions went out of their way to spread frightening lies about masturbation, whose legacy people are still dealing with.

Another thing that has shaped sexuality in this century is the invention and acceptance of sanitary pads and tampons, which are still not used in every country. In rural Russia, for example, a lot of women use pieces of cloth, and it's their mother-in-law's job to wash these out once a month. There is all this ritual and social meaning around it. You can imagine how the invention of menstrual supplies put individual women more in control of their periods, including the information about whether or not they were pregnant. Of course it also changed their relationship with the local grocer.

Other things in this century that have had a direct sexual impact include, the Kinsey Report, AIDS, pantyhose, birth control pills, Playboy magazine, the discovery of the clitoris and G-spot, penicillin, and the most important sex-related court case of the 20th century, Baird v. Eisenstadt. Named after the courageous Bill Baird, this decision gave people the right to use birth control even if they were single--less than fifty years ago. That established the constitutional right to privacy, cited several times a
few years later in Roe v. Wade.

So now we are in the present, which only a few years ago was the past. And that past, and its past, could have helped us predict the future--which is now. Here are a few ways in which our current sexual challenges were predictable, if only we'd had a better grasp of history and the other social sciences:

Present:        Medicalization of sexuality & depression
Past:           Medicalization of "hysteria" and "self-abuse"

Present:        Mixed gender workplaces
Past:           Impact of the Industrial Revolution & factories

Present:        AIDS
Past:           Impact of the plague, TB, other epidemics

Present:        Anti-gay & anti-porn campaigns
Past:           The purity movements of 1910, 1930, & 1950

Present:        Internet & cybersex
Past:           Impact of the cinema, radio, & telephone

For example, the last 25 years has seen the increasing medicalization of sexuality and depression. This is no surprise when we look at history, because a hundred years ago we saw the medicalization of hysteria--a  "woman's disease"--and of "self-abuse"--masturbation. A century ago, the medical profession became completely involved in these "problems'" diagnosis, treatment, and language. Most of what "modern" lay people knew about hysteria and self-abuse came from the medical profession. If sexology had studied that more we would be better able to understand the current medicalization of depression and sexuality.

The mixed-gender workplace is, according to the Institute for the Future's Wendy Everett, a turning point in human history. I think we could understand it better if we would examine the impact of the Industrial Revolution and factories on people's sexual and erotic relationships. What happened to families in England, France, and Germany in the 1700s or 1800s when, for the first time, women actually left the house early in the morning and went to a factory and were surrounded by other women and other men? That must have been an enormous change. In fact, some historians say that a key trigger of the French Revolution was all the masses of people now walking to work every morning, with all that time to discuss how unhappy they were. This couldn't happen when people worked isolated among their families, but with industrialization they were walking ten abreast to the factories--complaining.

AIDS continues to have an enormous impact on sexuality. One of the ways we could better understand it is to look at the impact of other plagues, from the Bubonic in the thirteenth century to influenza, less than a hundred years ago. Pandemics are not just medical phenomena, they are social and cultural phenomena. Bioethicist Ina Roy says that one of the reasons society is having so much trouble dealing with AIDS today is because it's been conceptualized as a sexually transmitted disease rather than a communicable disease. She says if we talked about it more like tuberculosis than syphilis, we'd have more medical and social options. Looking at the impact other pandemics had on their respective cultures could give us clues about how to handle AIDS.

The dreadful anti-gay and anti-porn campaigns that we've been suffering through in the last 20 years are not unique in America. Back around 1910, again around 1930, and again around 1950, both of these campaigns of fear and hate were in vogue. Their structure looked similar to what we see now.  It seems everyone is now talking about the Internet. This includes anti-pornography crusaders talking about how awful it is. Well, virtually every invention has been used for pornography when possible. People have always complained about other people-- including "the children"--getting sexual information the newest form of telecommunications instead of from their families (or not at all).

When the cinema first became popular around 1915, self-appointed public guardians went crazy because they were afraid that the moving images would seep into people's brains, control their thinking and undermine their values. The same was said about radio, comic books, television, and now the Internet.

Another predictable thing is how the Right and certain elements of feminism are in bed together around issues of pornography and non-normative sexuality. This is not new; we have seen this coalition before, with the Women's Christian Temperance Union and other groups. In the 1900s and 1910s a group of right-wing religiously-oriented people wanted to "reform" Americans' behavior around issues such as sex, alcohol, tobacco, and language. A group of feminist women aligned with them, even though those people were against women working outside the home and women's suffrage. These regressive feminists aligned with these men because they recognized a joint goal--supporting the "purity of the home." So today's coalition is
not new.

Now that we've looked at history, let's explore the future. I believe the future of sex will be determined along three dimensions--demographic, technologic, and cultural.

* Demographic Trends

The fact that kids have so much private time after school is a huge change.  When I came home from school as a kid, my mom was there with milk and cookies. This was true for most American kids for the first two-thirds of the century--a mother or grandmother providing after-school supervision. We now have an enormous number of young people coming home from school with no supervision. Some of them are watching soap operas, some of them are talking on the phone, some of them are smoking dope, some of them are having sex with each other, and, I suppose, some of them are doing their homework.

Another demographic trend is the enormous push for abstinence education and anti-abuse programs. Some 20 years ago sex education was mandated in schools throughout the United States, a wonderful, progressive accomplish of SIECUS. The problem is that a lot of schools have twisted this mandate and now provide abstinence education instead of sex education. This is harming these children, and it will undermine their sexuality as adults.

Schools are also getting government money to provide anti-abuse programs, teaching seven-year-olds how to protect themselves from so-called bad touch. While we all want kids to be safe, I think it's a big mistake for kids to learn about all the ways they can be sexually exploited without learning about all the wonderful ways they can be involved in sexuality.

Unfortunately, this fits in with what a lot of younger parents: they're anxious that their kids are going to be kidnapped, terrified that their kids are going to be molested, they're overwhelmed by this social narrative of sexual danger, as if we were living in an erotic war zone--which, in reality, we're not. But there's a whole cohort of parents right now being trained by the media about how vulnerable their kids are. Even worse, this generation of kids now getting anti-abuse training is going to be parents one day, perpetuating this ugly mythology.

Another demographic change is that the population is aging. Many adults alive right now will live to be 100. Even more amazing, one out of three babies born in the year 2000 will live to be a hundred, so those of you who are looking for a marketing niche should consider eroto-gerontology. Issues that involve aging are going to be sexual issues as well, whether it's
chronic pain, second, third, and fourth marriages, or how to be sexual when your medication steals your sexual desire. All of the lifestyle issues associated with aging are going to become sexual issues. Analgesics will soon be considered aphrodisiacs.

College cohorts are becoming much more heterogeneous. When I was in college all the students were the same age. Now in four-year colleges the ages of the students are much more mixed, even more so in two-year schools. So college students now spend several years in close proximity to people of widely varying ages. That means they're going to be exposed to various
sexual cultures. It also means that the issue of student dating across generations will eventually be a cultural issue. As it is, colleges are already restricting the rights of students to have sex with the faculty. Not just faculty's rights to be sexual with students, but students' rights. People will soon be debating whether or not younger and older students should be allowed to have sex together, because the same power issues could be alleged.

There's also an increase in American society's cultural diversity. The amount of cross-ethnic and cross-racial cohabiting and marriage is skyrocketing, which obviously involves a mixing of sexual cultures. My therapy practice has lots of couples consisting of, say, an Indian engineer married to an American woman, or a Chinese engineer married to a Jewish man. Or it's two people from Thailand in an arranged marriage.

Western psychotherapy depends on concepts of individuation, decision-making, and personal responsibility. But what do we do when a guy comes in with erection problems and says he's in an arranged marriage? He's a responsible professional, an adult; but he says 'this is who my mother told me to marry, so of course I did.' We can't argue with that. But we are going to see more and more cultural diversity issues affecting people's sexual expression--and I frankly don't think we're prepared for it.

* Technologic Trends

We've already discussed that technology is always adapted to sexual uses, frequently in unanticipated ways. Take cell phones-- invented for business situations in which telephones were unreliable, they are now in the hands of every junior high school kids. This completes the circle of privacy started by old-fashioned telephones, which established a person's private little world. Cell phones facilitate that private little world anyplace, anytime, and that's going to have an enormous sexual impact.

Everybody all over the country is getting access to the Web and getting hip to the Internet. For better or worse, the Net will be an increasing source of sexual information, as well as a means for people to meet. Virtual sex is an increasingly important part of many people's lives, and truly virtual sex is only a few years away. It will be interesting to see how this capability affects the use patterns of traditional pornography.

Pornography is everywhere now, more so than ever before. I don't think we have a clue as to what the impact of this is going to be.

All sexologists have their ideas about pornography, positive or negative. Regardless of our judgements, we're now looking at a whole new phenomenon. Porn started out restricted, and history has gradually democratized it via the printing press, nickelodeon, telephone, etc. With the Internet, everybody now can have as much of it as they want, whenever they want it, in as narrow a niche as they want. For example, there's actually a website called "Wet and Messy Shoes." You can see pictures of women who are fully clothed, wearing high heels--some of their shoes are caked with mud, some of them are dripping with milk, some of them are dangling in swimming pools. I don't think we have a clue about what the effect of all this pornography is going to be. We shouldn't be frightened, just very, very curious.

The medicalization of sexual dysfunction and its treatment is an increasing trend. Viagra is hot right now, but before Viagra there were Caverject, urethral suppositories, crude papaverine injections, and penile implants. So in the last 25 years we've watched the gradual medicalization of certain kinds of sexual difficulties-- and we're going to see more and more of this.

A sublingual pill and even a topical cream to facilitate erection are in the works. Viagra is now being studied for its effects on women. Other scientists are investigating drugs that will help women have orgasms more easily.

While there's an exciting side to all this, I'm concerned about the relationships in which these pharmaceuticals are used. How often will these treatments imbalance or damage relationships in which people are accustomed to the erectile problem or the anorgasmia? Some women will think, 'now that you can get it up, how do I know you won't be unfaithful?' And some men will think, 'well, now that you come so easily, you're a slut.'

We would like those people to get couples counseling along with their meds, but most are not interested in counseling. They just want to have decent sex. So we're going to see an increasing medicalization of sexual complaints. That means that insurance companies will be key players. You may remember that when Viagra first became available, people wondered how many pills their insurance company was going to cover--two a year? An unlimited supply?  For many insurance companies, it's now five pills a month. It would be interesting to look at their company decision-makers. You can imagine six people sitting around a conference table and the first guy says, "Oh, three or four pills a month," and the second guy says, "Oh, three or four pills a month," and the third guy says, "Oh, I don't know, 20 a month..."

So we're going to see the pharmaceutical and insurance industries increasingly involved with sexuality. How much of our input are they getting? And how much of their process do we understand? We shouldn't be turning our backs on the drug companies. We should be pestering them and saying, "Hey, what about me? I know something that maybe you people haven't considered." We need to educate them, not reject or pooh-pooh them.

The disappearing line between contraception and abortion is an exciting development.  I am really looking forward to the day when we're done with all of this fighting about abortion. I am against unwanted pregnancies. Sooner or later we're going to see the line between contraception and abortion completely wiped out. We already have the morning-after pill. There's a website where you can go and learn about the morning-after pill, even take the first steps toward ordering it. Sooner or later we're going to have RU486 (or its equivalent) legally and easily available in this country; it's a technologic and economic steamroller that just can't be stopped. The sense of desperation in the anti-choice people is not just that they want to stop abortion, it's that they realize that this is coming. Sooner or later a woman will be able to take a pill in the privacy of her own home that eliminates conception after the fact, and the fight over abortion will be over.

* Cultural Trends

The first thing is ideas. Ideas have an enormous impact on sexuality. For example, in 19th century England people were quite certain that a woman had to have an orgasm in order to conceive. This was a medical fact, all the smart people knew this, and doctors taught their patients that if you're having trouble conceiving, it's because she's not climaxing, so do something about that. Ideas about what's normal, of course, have a big impact on sexuality.

The question of what is infidelity is now very interesting. Not whether infidelity is a good thing or bad thing, but the definition of it. Because with all of the technological ways that people now experience sex, it isn't so clear. For example, if somebody is having phone sex with a third party, is that infidelity? If somebody is masturbating while they're typing an e-mail, is that infidelity? I get people coming into my office and one of them wants to end the marriage because of the other's infidelity, and the
partner says, "What are you so upset about? It was just a lap-dance, I don't even know the woman's name!" Or, "We typed some messages back and forth and I jacked off. What's wrong?" Conflicts like this will continue to escalate as technology creates more and more ways for people to be sexual together.

Most American religions are now facing internal power struggles. Who gets ordained--women? Gays? Divorced people? Will same-gender unions be blessed? Some clergy are saying they are obligated by their vows to God to perform same-gender marriages. And will traditional liturgies be rewritten--will it be God the Father or God the Incredible Cosmic Mother?

Since the 1970s, people have increasingly turned to the courts for guidance on their sexual rights. Do you have the right to be protected from unwanted sexual imagery at your job? Do you have the right to be protected from somebody making a pass at you? Do college students have the right to be sexual with professors? In Menlo Park, California, for example, one of the most liberal cities in the known world, a woman actually sued the city because there was a classic Greek nude statute in the lobby of the civic building where she worked. She said that this was sexual harassment and went to court.


One of the things we sexologists should be asking, is, which features of modern life are shaping the future of sexuality this very moment? What is it that we need to pay attention to in order to understand sexuality in the coming decade--or century? Examples might include:

Amazon.com & e-commerce
the mainstreaming of s/m
the disappearance of downtowns
life expectancy beyond age 100
artificial fertility technologies
female clergy
unsupervised free time for kids
virtual sex
low-fat diets
public jack-off clubs
talk radio
John Gray's Mars/Venus paradigm
Internet blocking software
the rise in cohabiting
female athletics
new pain medications
young adults moving back home
expanding definitions of date rape
the normalization of female masturbation
e-mail instead of written love letters
the end of the Cold War
the coming stock market crash
bisexual chic
people entering college in their 20s & 30s
increasing interracial dating & marriage
Internet penetration of daily life
the ubiquity of pornography
the decreasing stigma of extramarital sex
the increase in religiosity
the disappearing availability of abortion
female police & emergency personnel
repetitive stress injuries
increasing acceptance of psychotherapy
pharmaceuticals that facilitate desire, arousal, & orgasm
expanding definitions of "child molestation"
tattoos and piercings
whites becoming a minority
managed health care & HMOs
abstinence education
bans on student-faculty dating

How are these things shaping our sexual future? And what else is currently shaping our sexual future in ways we don't realize?

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