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Sex in History

3.86 of 5 stars 3.86  ·  rating details  ·  630 ratings  ·  53 reviews
SEX IN HISTORY chronicles the pleasures- and perils- of the flesh from the time of mankind's distant ancestors to the modern day; from a sexual act which was bried, crude and purposeful, to the myriad varieties of contemporary sexual mores. Reay Tannahill's scholarly, yet accessible study ranges from the earliest form of contraception (one Egyptian concoction included croc ...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published December 24th 1991 by Scarborough House (first published January 1st 1955)
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Sex in History by Reay TannahillThe Second Sex by Simone de BeauvoirEmergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures) by Kenneth CainWhy Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Jared DiamondThe Red Queen by Matt Ridley
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,553)
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Sarah Magdalene
A surprisingly depressing tome which illustrates the fact that it is not our allegedly over sized brains that has caused all our millenia of misery, but the bits between our legs. Which is a fitting paradox. Pleasure is always a precursor to pain, though many people (especially women) seem to have missed out on the pleasure part and gone directly to pain (and death) via disgust and boredom. The only people who seem to have developed any kind of system of knowledge designed to make sex pleasurabl ...more
In reviewing Sex in History, I must admit to a certain sentimentality, as one tends to retain a fondness for half-contraband books read furtively in the parental basement. (But what twelve-year-old girl couldn’t benefit from a theoretical knowledge of ancient Greek contraception? Or of second-century castration methods, for that matter?) However, upon re-examining this history of everything from pederasty to Cora Pearl, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Reay Tannahill’s writing retains ...more
Tim Pendry
'Sex in History' is more than two decades old. It still provides an informed, often wry, and certainly intelligent review of the history of sexuality. It is a first point of call for anyone new to the subject, looking to understand how we became what we are both as a culture and as individuals (at least in the West).

Her judgement is excellent, given the facts at her disposal. I strongly approve her refusal to take at face value any late imposition of theory on how minds worked in the past. We c
Kyla Li
I am sorry I didn’t like this book. Tannahill’s prose is very engaging, and it would have been a pleasure to read except for a few things.

-The book was published in 1980, which means that her entire first section is completely worthless, thanks to the anthropological discoveries that have taken place since then.

-Because I knew I couldn’t trust the anthropological information, I didn’t feel that I could trust the archaeological information, an area where I am substantially less knowledgeable.

Erik Graff
Mar 30, 2012 Erik Graff rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
This global survey of sexual beliefs and practices is written for the general public. Tannahill, a popular writer, seems to cover her bases well although there is a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the West. Throughout, the place of women in society runs as a leit motif, coming to dominate the text by its conclusion.

What particularly struck me was the treatment of the history of sexual mores in China. Although I've read some classics of sexology, I'd never come upon so thorough a tre
Far and away the most comprehensive resource on this history of sex that I have ever read, and I took a full course on the subject. Trannahill covers everything from prehistoric man, to the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, India etc. to Christian Europe from the earliest centuries after Christ to the middle ages all the way through the modern era. The Islamic world and its influence over other places during the crusades is also covered as is America from colonial times to now ...more
Really fascinating and detailed book on the views of sex throughout history. From open sexuality, homosexuality, to the restricted Church-version of sex for procreation ONLY, to devices to protect boys and men from nocturnal emissions because it was related to the Devil. A lot of info packed into this book.

Also wanted to add the book comes across as funnily sarcastic. Granted it might be my own thoughts coming through it, but I was literally laughing out loud with this book.
This book looks at both sex and popular attitudes towards sex around the world, right through from pre-historic times to the 1980s. Well-researched and very readable. Usually I use "digressive" as a bit of a slam, but this book is actually entertainingly digressive -- of course, if you're not as much of a geek for women's studies/sociology as I am, you may disagree.
"Sex in History" will teach you lots about the attitudes of different cultures towards sex and love, but keep an eye on the author. At one point, she cites some bigoted and faulty studies from who knows when claiming that certain indigenous people are dead ignorant about the purpose and mechanics of human reproduction. Then, to seal her argument, she references some young british lass who wrote in to a "Dear Abby" columnist asking whether, having had a mulatto child with a black lover, she would ...more
Ann Evans
This book was written some time ago, and more modern books have recently discovered information not available to Tannahill, but it is fascinating in that it debunks commonly held beliefs, and goes some way toward organizing a more rational view of sex. I HAVE noticed that our view of sex is important, yet we don't talk about it much. Understandably so, but that doesn't stop us from reading privately about it and forming our own opinions. Tannahill shows a lot of courage writing this book.

The res
The title of the book is quite accurate, however, this book reads more like a college level cultural anthropology text than anything else. While sex of all sorts and variations is covered from the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians forward, so are social customs, ownership of property, voting rights, etc. I believe this book has been used as a text for college courses; it is not a light read, particularly the entire chapter on castration. It is well worth it if you are interested in the historica ...more
Kenneth Wilkinson
This book is interesting and informative.It discusses sexual practices from the earliest days of history and through different cultures. The only criticism I have for it is the bias it has against Roman Catholicism. It isn't always blatant and I understand why she would cover it for the purposes of the romantic idealization of women during the Middle Ages which she says partly came from worship of the Madonna, but she seems to give that more criticism than she does Muslims locking women away int ...more
Richard Hodkinson
Excellent and well-researched book, giving unusual and not-obvious reasons for the things we assume to be true about our sexual norms. And shows how they are both socially contingent and not historically normal or necessary at all.
Bringing the contingency of social construction of sexual and marriage meanings to a wider audience is an essential and excellent work. Also the biological constraints are considered, but better than many commentators in Britain she doesn't bow to the hegemony of biolo
Mike Walker
I bought this eons ago and had it on my shelf as a "future read" and only read it now as a backup to another book. I was pleasantly surprised that it is a very enjoyable and easy read. It corroborates what I know from other sources, so I'm inclined to accept what it says with the usual caveats (unnamed sources, etc). I'm particularly interested in the middle ages/renaissance, and it's inspired me to do some more reading about statuary from the 12th through 16th century. Leading you to a new idea ...more
An impressive history of sexual attitudes and practices in several cultures, including ancient Greece, Rome, the Christian Church, China, India, Islam, and of course the modern West. The style is amusing on occasion, readable but sometimes dense. The author is hostile to practically all moral belief beyond "live and let live," with particular scorn for Christianity. Overall, slightly disappointing for her bias, but can you blame her after being familiar with such varied superstitions through the ...more
Generally an interesting and well-written book, although the breadth of the subject matter does seem to defeat the author's efforts at times.

One comment: Speaking as someone well-read in human evolution and prehistory, skip that section. As near as I can tell, the author hasn't a clue what she's talking about on anything that happens before the historical period. If you want real information on the subject of sex in human prehistory, take a look at Frans de Waal's books.
Jul 30, 2007 Namimia rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: want to learn something new?
Shelves: readthese
this book covers the roles of the sexes since the beginning of mankind in a multi- cultural and historical perspective.

it is fascinating to see how long and why women had been subservient to men. learning about ancient greece, taoism, yin and yang, ancient asia-- times when sex was not only accepted openly but encouraged and considered a neccesity.

i have never been so interested in learning about history and religion, i guess the context is what matters!

A-MAZING. If you're interested in history--read. If you're intersted in sex--read. I took a course about sex in history, and although this wasn't one of our required texts, our professor lectured on the contents of this book. It is so readable and conveniently separated by time period and geographical location, making for easy reference if you want to skip to an area of particular interst. Totally comprehensive guide to a facinating subject.
an amazing resource when trying to understand sex throughout the ages. wonderfully written and entertaining to read. actually, a great book to curl up to and just marvel at history with.

not for the prudish.

will surprise you with how views of sex has changed throughout history and how backwards we've come and how much farther we've gone at the same time.

plus the explanations of some things are thoroughly enjoyable to the point of comedy.
Despite the title, it's a rather dry book. More an overview on how sex & sexual issues were treated in societies throughout history. Despite the fact that most of the history in Western Civ treats sex as, at best, a necessary evil, it was surprising to learn of the few exceptions, historically, or socially. Even church notions of sex seem to have evolved to suit their needs. Despite its dry tone, it is suprisingly brisk and readable.
This really is an excellent book, and I recommend it to anyone if you are interested in the historical and cultural pertaining to sex. I do dispute several points, but the book really is a wonderful addition to any library. Unfortunately, it is out of print, but it is available on the second-hand market.
I read it when it first came out and again when it was revised to incorporate HIV.
Much of the book is more about the role of women through history, rather than the sex act per se. And all eras of history are not treated equally - prehistory and some ancient societies get extensive coverage, and others get clipped a bit.

Still it is a consistently interesting and well paced read.

I'm wondering if the alleged contraceptive properties of olive oil are still in effect.
Mickey Schulz
Gods, I can't remember when I first read this, but I've reread it several times. It's an excellent overview of sexual mores over the years, and how attitudes towards sex, homosexuality, kink, and birth control (including abortion) have changed through years and cultures. I highly recommend it if you're at all into reading long treatises on why we view sex as we do these days.
I've owned this book for a while (picked it up as a companion to "Food in History", by the same author) but hadn't gotten around to it until just recently. Plenty of food for thought, and the author's dry style makes very entertaining reading. Must remember not to read it on the bus though, as the pictures cause alarm/invite untoward attention from fellow passengers.
I just recently finished this book. It covers sex, gender, gender roles from neolithic man to modern day. The author has a sense of humor and is not afraid to cover the unusual in this book (such as Egyptian contraceptives....crocodile dung and tree sap). Very well written, and I plan on getting her other book Food in History as soon as I can locate it.
An entertaining and informative survey of sexual practices and their impact on (and pressure from) cultures throughout history. Occasionally the author gets carried away by her own biases, and the text becomes more of an editorial than an explication, but overall it was an enjoyable read.
Valerie Baber
I'm currently reading Reay Tannahill's book that documents the history of sexuality through a worldwide archaeological perspective. I'm finding it absolutely fascinating and have given it 4 stars of 5 on Goodreads. An extended review is sure to come, and possibly another star.
Fascinating book -- I work in the sexuality education field, and still think that anyone interested in the changing mores around sexuality throughout history would find this of interest. Very clearly written, it was a real page turner for me!
J. Yandell
Fascinating book! Sex permeates so much of history and the human experience, so it's wonderful to find a book that delves so deeply into the subject. It is delightful and entertaining, and Reay Tannahill's scholarship is impressive.
Excellent illustration of how it's done in other countries. The shame, the horror, the joy, the reality, what people really think about sex throughout the world and throughout time. No, it was not always taboo.
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Reay Tannahill was born on December 9, 1929 in Glasgow, Scotland, where she brought up. Her forename was the maiden name of her mother, Olive Reay. She was educated at Shawlands Academy, and obtained an MA in History and a postgraduate certificate in Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow. In 1958, she married Michael Edwardes but the marriage ended in divorce in 1983, he died in 1990. Until ...more
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