A Sex Historian Shares Bizarre Facts About the History of Doin’ It

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For a society obsessed with sex, we know alarmingly little about it. Sure, you may know what parts do what and the general mechanics of the deed (albeit vaguely—let’s be real, sex ed and porn aren’t exactly medically in-depth). And, yes, you may even be as good as you think you are at doing it. But while this basis may be there, do you really know about the long and dense (wink, wink) history of sex? How about the origin of strange social norms surrounding the horizontal mambo? Probably not.

Enter sex historian and journalist Rachel Feltman, author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex. Consider Feltman the sex educator you’ve always deserved. She’s far from your clueless high school gym teacher touting abstinence-minded scare tactics in sex ed. Through her book, Feltman goes in depth, educating the masses on the centuries-old history of birth control, switch gears to highlight the evolutionary nightmare-fuel that is a duck’s penis, then rounding it all out with an ode to kinky historical figures. Basically, she covers it all.

Feltman is funny, frank and fabulously knowledgeable about human sexuality. She recently talked with Men’s Health about her new book, the weird history of fornication, and how we can all have better sex. Take notes.

In your book, you say that our current societal definition of sex is deeply flawed and can cause us harm. Can you talk about that a bit?

Even among people who are really accepting of queer or non-gender-conforming identities, I think there’s this pervasive belief that sex is, in its most natural and basic form, something that two people of the opposite sex do together with the goal of making a baby. I personally grew up thinking it was obvious that the sole purpose of sex was reproduction, so anything else we did with it was just modern human weirdness. But when you look back at the evolutionary history of sex, it becomes clear that this act serves loads of different purposes in both humans and non-human animals.

When we treat any sex that doesn’t have the potential to be procreative as somehow lesser-than, we reduce what’s actually an extremely complicated evolutionary strategy down to something really, really boring. And we also make people feel ashamed about their bodies and their desires. The good news is that sex can pretty much anything you want it to be, and that’s been true since before humans existed!

So what are some of the purposes of sex in humans and non-humans?

Sex is a social bonding tool, a source of pleasure, and even a way of pacifying peers that might otherwise become enemies. When you think about sex in that framework, you might start to realize that being non-monogamous, queer, asexual, promiscuous—it all fits into the really complex and cool mosaic of “natural” sex.

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With all this in mind, what even is so-called “normal sex,” in your opinion?

I think all sex is weird—which also means that no sex is weird, as long as everyone having it is having a good time. Unfortunately, we get a lot of societal feedback to the contrary.

Let’s talk about that a bit…

Most of us spend a lot of time worrying that our bodies or kinks are too outside the norm or ideal to make us deserving of love and pleasure. After researching the whole history of sex, I feel confident saying this is total bullshit. As far as I see it, the only thing we should worry about is not causing harm to other living things in pursuit of our own sexual satisfaction. That means communicating with your partners and making sure you’ve got consent—actual, enthusiastic, non-coerced consent—from someone who has the power and maturity to say no to you. If you’ve got that, don’t waste time worrying about whether or not you’re normal.

Your book came out just before the repeal of Roe v. Wade. You cover abortion rights, “heartbeat bills,” and the danger of banning pregnancy termination in your book. Would you still approach these topics the same now?

When I submitted the manuscript for my book, I never could have guessed that Roe v. Wade was about to be repealed. But I think the information I included is still the stuff that people need to know. State restrictions on abortion cite shoddy “science” to support the idea of fetal personhood, and all the evidence we have suggests that abortion bans fail to cause drops in abortion rates.

So what is the actual non-shoddy science when it comes to abortion?

The actual science is clear: Comprehensive sex education, easily accessible healthcare, and enrichment programs to support marginalized youth can all help reduce the rate of unwanted pregnancies. Paid family leave, higher minimum wage, and support for working parents can all help people who want to have children actually have them. Banning abortion will simply make it more difficult for women, trans, and non-binary people to get healthcare when they need it.

What’s important to keep in mind when it comes to current conversations around abortion access?

As I explain in my book, abortion is probably nearly as old as our species. People have always tried to control reproduction, and it’s completely natural and healthy to do so. The history of the abortion debate as we now know it, on the other hand, is extremely short: Until just over a century ago, abortion was a private and personal matter, or perhaps one between you and your religion. The idea of forced gestation is anything but natural, and the notion of imposing that control on otherwise free citizens would have been shocking to most cultures throughout history.

You taught me that Kellogg’s created cornflakes to address masturbation, hoping to help men pass prostate-stimulating poo. Essential question: Have you eaten cornflakes since making that discovery?

I’m more of an oatmeal girl myself. But I did make a cocktail with a Teddy Graham sugar blend around the rim in honor of our other favorite anti-masturbation fiber salesman.

That counts.

I’m pretty sure the mere sight of it would have killed him.

You end your book by sharing some of your favorite non-harmful historical pervs. Can you share your ultimate favorite historical perv just for fun?

I’d have to go with James Joyce. The letters he wrote to his wife Nora are so shockingly filthy, but they’re even more fun to read because it’s so clear that they adored each other. Who knew a fart kink could be so romantic? I sure didn’t.

Why is James Joyce the chosen one?

I think James and Nora Joyce provide a great example of just how freaky you can be in bed without doing anything that makes your partner or partners feel bad, which is something that a lot of popular media gets wrong about kinky sex.

You open the book talking about how weird duck penises are for what some would consider an alarmingly long time. Another essential question: Should I Google what a duck penis looks like?

Only if you want to have nightmares!

Editor’s Note: I Googled it. You will, too.

But seriously, why is it important to understand the origins and history of sex?

The title of my book says it all: We’ve been there and done that a million times over, so don’t worry too much about what sex should or shouldn’t be. Just don’t be a dick and you’ll be OK.

Anything else we should know?

There are probably STIs out there that are actually good for you. Also, you probably have herpes. Just, like, statistically speaking. Get tested! It’s OK, I promise.

Curious to know more? Well, you have to read the book.

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