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Sex in History

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  1,044 ratings  ·  83 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 ...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published December 24th 1991 by Scarborough House (first published January 1st 1980)
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Average rating 3.89  · 
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 ·  1,044 ratings  ·  83 reviews

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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
Sarah Magdalene
Jul 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Kyla Li
Feb 14, 2014 rated it did not like it
I am sorry I didnt like this book. Tannahills 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 couldnt trust the anthropological information, I didnt feel that I could trust the archaeological information, an area where I am substantially less knowledgeable.

Jan 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 couldnt 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 Tannahills writing retains ...more
Erik Graff
Mar 09, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  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
Half of this book is really gender in history, which is fine. I'm not sure how much of the earlier chapters would be changed due to recent discoveries, but there are some interesting theories in this book.
"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
May 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: world-history
Anyone picking up this book hoping for a pornographic romp through the millennia may be disappointed, but that's no criticism. This isn't a titillating or salacious read, nor is it intended to be. This is as much a book about how societies have influenced, reacted to and controlled sexual relations, and how men and women have related to each other over the centuries, as it is about the sex act itself. You'll find as much discussion on feminism and Victorian morals in these pages as you will ...more
Jul 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jul 26, 2007 rated it liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
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!

Sep 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sex-sexuality
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.
Jan 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
I liked this book. Obviously, a single tome encompassing the whole of human history and many diverse cultures and sexual orientations is not going to be exhaustive, but nevertheless it holds plenty of interesting facts and the writing is often witty.
Aug 22, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Interesting in places but in others badly dated....I can't remember where I read it but it was a warning about reading history books that were over 30 years old because the theories and ideas are often well out of date and sadly so it is with this.
I read the first hundred pages, which is about the first quarter of the book, before I had to part with it. If I'd had more time with the book, I likely would have made the effort to finish it, but some of the early parts were already bothersome. Specifically, right at the outset on page 17, there was a reference to the "classic case" of the allegedly unusual shapes of female and male sexual parts of the Kalahari Bushmen, a rumor whose details I don't see a need to repeat, but I will point out ...more
Jun 18, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The later parts of this ambitious work do a nice job of covering both sex and sexism across cultures and time periods. It starts out awkwardly, though, in prehistory, centered around a series of assertions that are not at all backed up. I realize that because of the breadth of the book she isn't going to cite every bit of evidence in the text itself. There are extensive references in the back. But when one declares what sex was like in say, the Edo period, it's obvious that we have a bunch of ...more
Ann Evans
Apr 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.

Subin Sahu
Jun 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is interesting, not just because of the topic of sex but because it also gives an overview of world history, political as well as socioeconomic, from prehistoric stone age to the 20th century. It was fascinating to learn about how sex was perceived in different cultures around the world and how they evolved over time. The position of women in society at different times was also an interesting topic frequently talked about in this book. Several historical practices mentioned in this ...more
Aug 10, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
My primary objection is that both the title and the description are extremely misleading. It should be "Gender Politics in History" and it should be described as "A view of history from a somewhat dated lens." Not that I disagree with a single thought expressed, but it seems that all of global history can't be uniformly judged by the standards of one specific moment in time. Tannahill is factually correct in every detail but the book loses some steam when you point out the same injustices in ...more
Richard Hodkinson
Apr 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Kenneth Wilkinson
Jun 19, 2009 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Jul 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, history
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 ...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
Mike Walker
Aug 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 23, 2015 rated it liked it
It took me forever to read this book, but I'm glad I pushed through. Oddly, I found the first and last sections to be by far the most interesting, while the middle was kind of a blur of descriptions of prostitution in various cultures. The book is relatively outdated, but I found it useful in narrowing down which portions of the history of sex I find the most interesting (in my case, prehistory and the Victorian era.) Also, while it does spend some time on the Incan, Mayan and Aztec societies, ...more
Sep 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sexuality, history
Sex in History was a very interesting read. The book is split into time periods, countries, or religions, and how those subjects affected how sex is viewed. This book is also a history of how man and women treated each other. Tannahill makes it clear that humans are despicable especially when they deny their instincts. This book was written in the 80s' so I wish an updated version existed. I would also have liked a section on the Celts and Vikings. Instead of chapters on Greeks, Romans, and all ...more
Jul 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
If my high school history classes included this book, I probably would of paid closer attention. The author clearly and easily defines how sex played a part in our human history. It's a meaty (no pun intended) book with 400+ pages, so definitely bring it a long if you're expecting a long trip or have nill to do for an afternoon.

*Quick tidbit: Ancient Egyptians used to determine sex of an unborn child by having the pregnant mother urinate on barley and wheat pods wrapped in cloth. Whichever
Feb 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Oct 30, 2007 rated it liked it
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.
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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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