The Not So Sexy History of Female Sexuality.

How has it been controlled throughout the years, and is it accepted now?



The history of female sexuality isn’t necessarily a long one – it simply wasn’t a mainstream concept for most until arguably the 21st century. Regardless, it has still been a way of controlling and shaming women for hundreds of years – even to present day.


Women’s sexuality has been restricted, yet weaponised against them. It has been shamed and policed, yet used without hesitation as a marketing tool for years.


If a woman accepts, let alone indulges in her sexuality it is too much – she is demeaning herself. Should women not be in control of their own sexuality?



Victorian England


The dictation of both male and female sexuality has been around for centuries (what is and isn’t acceptable in society) yet for women it has arguably remained unwaveringly rigid for years.


Take Victorian England for example. The female role was to be a caregiver, whether for her children or her husband, and to maintain the household. There was the concept of ‘separate spheres’ categorised by men and women’s ‘natural’ characteristics. For women, they were concluded to be physically weaker yet morally pure, caring and innocent.


He can't help it...


This led into their marriages (which they were to want but not too outwardly or they might appear eager, mind you), where they were expected to again remain ‘pure’ till marriage. It was also believed by gynaecological doctor, William Acton, that "the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind".


In contrast, men wouldn’t have to marry till later in life so in the meantime would often resort to prostitutes, both before and during marriage. Men were expected to be lustful and sinful however, so this was more or less acceptable.


However, this completely switches later in the century when it was decided that men weren’t actually in control of those sinful desires and "women had to be held accountable while the men, slaves to their katabolic purposes and sexual appetites, could not really be blamed".


Double standards


What’s more, if women were to be seen as sexual it would be absolutely scandalous whereas for men, simply something to shake your head at. This is exemplified in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857: "women could be divorced on the grounds of their adultery alone, while it had to be proved that men had exacerbated adultery with other offences".


There is even more conflicting information in the 19th century ideals of modesty. Modesty meant no excessive skin on show (even to the point of medical difficulty!) yet still using corsets and hoop skirts to accentuate the female figure.


The swinging 60's


Fast forward to the 60’s, a decade infamous for liberation, women’s freedom and general reckless abandon. The contraceptive pill was introduced on the NHS in 1961, and demand was noticeable. But as progressive as it may sound, there was still heavy stigma around women’s sexualities.


Because of this the pill was actually only for married women until 1967 – because unmarried women couldn’t and shouldn’t have any notions of sex. What happened instead however, was the transformation of women’s lives.


The pill


Contraception allowed women to explore their sexuality in ways that men always have, and if they want to, not have it end up in unwanted pregnancy – a common reason to abstain in the past. This kind of ownership of your own body is powerful, and this is shown by how many women continued to take the pill despite numerous campaigns of how dangerous it is.


Even in the 70’s when evidence surfaced of the increased risk of death when smoking and taking the pill this was still not enough to forsake the benefits. Even today, ask most women taking the pill and they can list a slew of side effects that they know of or that have potentially happened to them personally.


It could even be argued that the pill was a catalyst towards embracing female sexuality, as women were finally able to engage with their sexuality simply because they could.


Sex sells


Yet the journey to female sexual liberation has never been straightforward and likely won’t be for a long time. For example, even in the 90’s and 00’s advertising was heavily dependent on the notion that ‘sex sells’ yet at the exact same time scorned women for being too ‘loose’.


From Cadbury’s 1992 Flake advert where an attractive woman locks eyes with the viewer before suggestively taking a bite out of the flake to Protein Worlds' 2015 banned advert showing a bikini clad model and asking the question ‘are you beach body ready?’.


Objectification and sexualisation has always been an easy marketing tactic to fall back on.


Too much everything


And yet women were lauded in the 90’s perhaps more than ever before for being ‘too sexual’. Potentially because women were gaining more and more independence and empowerment each year, society felt the need to ‘put them back in their place’.


Britney Spears’ recent release from her conservatorship and the documentary that surrounded it (Framing Britney Spears) shows how often in this decade she was hounded in the media and told she was too provocative, too innocent or too sexual. It seems that women could not win.


What about now?


So, it could be asked whether we have made significant progression from this and whether female sexuality is normalised and accepted. In a time where things like OnlyFans are widely known and even used to reclaim female empowerment (while making money too), and female rappers are rapping about what men have been for years (think WAP).


Some would argue we’ve gone the other way, and now female sexuality is too outrageous and in your face. Yet it begs the question, are we just uncomfortable with seeing women owning their sexuality after centuries of forced repression?


And if so, how do we change our mindsets on something that has, and always will, simply be a part of human life.