Sex is something that many of us take for granted. We live in a society where healthy sexual expression is a valuable part of our lives. It’s in the news, media, and popular culture. But it hasn’t always been this way. Cultural attitudes towards sex before marriage have fluctuated greatly throughout human history, from the liberal to the puritanical. We take a brief look at how these attitudes have developed, where they’re at now, and why safe sex will always be important.
Perhaps two of the most notable cultural attitudes towards sex before marriage come from the Ancient Greeks and Romans. A lot of Greek mythology revolves around sex, and cultural attitudes often reflected this. Heracles (also known as Hercules) was said to have had sex with 50 virgins in one night, for example. What’s more, stories claim he also took his nephew, Iolaus, as a lover.
During the time of the Ancient Greeks, society often viewed women as the property of men. However, prostitution was common, and successful courtesans could rise in power and status. This was a similar trend in Rome around 200 BC. Although a woman caught straying outside of marriage could be killed by her husband, infamous Bacchanalian festivals also took place. These debauched events were often sexual free-for-alls, with heterosexual and homosexual couplings being common. Of course, as we explored in our brief history of condoms, people started using contraception during these times. However, these crude devices were a far cry from the sensitive condoms found today.
In the west, this relative sexual freedom would eventually come to an end, and attitudes towards sex before marriage soon changed. Christian teachings promoted sex and lust as sinful acts and feelings. The fear of eternal damnation waited for those who dared to seek carnal pleasures outside of marriage. Even those who were wed were encouraged to only have sex to reproduce, with contraception widely banned.
Despite the power of the Church, prostitution remained a thriving business. Once again, this shows that people craved sexual contact, and despite law and religion, practised it often. Of course, venereal disease was a real threat, especially in the 16th century, where syphilis epidemics were common.
Although attitudes towards sex had relaxed somewhat during between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Victorians would soon tighten them again. The idea of ‘virgins’ being clean and desirable meant that brothels would charge a premium to those seeking them. Meanwhile, society expected wives to be ‘pure’ and chaste.
These Victorian attitudes lasted until after the Second World War. It was the 1960s sexual revolution that changed the outlook of many. As well as bestselling condoms, easy access to other methods of contraception meant that sex for pleasure (and with different partners) was easily accessible.
Nowadays, attitudes towards sex before marriage still vary across the world. In the UK, it no longer seems to be frowned upon. A 2014 survey showed that only 13% of the population found premarital sex unacceptable. According to the data, Germany (6%) had the lowest number of people who found it unacceptable, while Indonesia had the highest (97%).
One point worth noting through all of this is the idea of virginity. Although different from the idea of sex before marriage (there’s nothing wrong with waiting!), the concept that virginity is a physical ‘gift’ that can be given or possessed is wrong and often harmful.
As this excellent video on virginity explores, it’s a dangerous concept that can exclude many and unnecessarily pressure others. Sex is a term that encompasses a diverse and wonderful range of activities, and we should treat it as such.
Whether you’re waiting until you’re married to have sex or not, when the moment does come, it’s important to practice safer sex. Our range of condoms and lubricant can go a long way to helping you have enjoyable and safe sex, whether it’s your first time or not.