How Sexual Behavior Has Changed Over the Last Century

How Sexual Behavior Has Changed Over the Last Century

By Dr. Justin

Sex Tips


Every year, I take a group of students to Amsterdam for a course on sex and culture. As part of this class, we visit the Sex Museum, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. It provides an opportunity to explore how sexuality has evolved and changed throughout the ages. Each time I go, I’m always struck by how little sex has changed. For example, BDSM and fetishes, threesomes and orgies, oral and anal sex—heck, even tentacle porn—have captured the erotic imagination for centuries. We have dildos that date back to the Stone Age and condoms that date back to the 1600s. We even have guidebooks like the Kama Sutra that date back thousands of years and detail hundreds of different sexual positions. For as long as humans have been having sex, they’ve been highly creative—and often pretty kinky. That said, while there are a lot of common threads when looking at human sexual practices over time, there are obviously a lot of differences as well. So, let’s look at some of the major ways sexual behavior has evolved over the last century or so. We’ll focus on the last 100 years here because this marks an era of revolutionary change in our sex lives, owing to various technological and medical advances, along with loosening cultural constraints.


Sexual acceptance


Sex is Safer Than Ever in Many Ways

One of the most significant changes that have occurred in our sex lives recently is the growing development and accessibility of highly effective safer-sex tools. This started in the 1940s with the widespread use of penicillin to treat syphilis and the introduction of hormonal birth control in the 1950s. We often hear about the pill as the driver of the subsequent “sexual revolution” in the 1960s and 70s, but the advent of effective antibiotic treatments for bacterial STIs was a noted contributor to this as well. Today, we have even more tools than ever to prevent unintended pregnancy and STIs. There are dozens of contraceptives currently available, with hormonal variants (including pills, implants, and shots) offering more than 99% protection with perfect use. On the STI front, bacterial STIs can still be effectively treated with antibiotics (although, admittedly, there is growing concern about antibiotic resistance); we have vaccines to prevent HPV and hepatitis and PrEP to provide high levels of protection against HIV. While there is regional and cross-cultural variability in the availability of these tools (owing to things like local laws and insurance coverage), we have more tools available than ever to protect our sexual health, which has had the net effect of making many people more comfortable and confident in exploring their sexuality.


Sex over time.


Porn Has Never Been More Accessible

Porn has changed with the advent of each new technology, from the printing press to the development of photography to the invention of film. In the last century, the format of pornography has shifted from being more photo-based to more film-based. Seeing a pornographic film actually used to be a rarity—and in the early days, it was often a social experience. For example, in the first half of the 1900s, if you saw a porn video, it was probably at a clandestine screening of a “stag film” in a room full of men. These were films made by men, for men, and shown in secret gatherings. Following this, the “porn chic” era of the 1970s brought people to cinemas to watch pornographic films with a plot (think Deep Throat). However, it wasn’t until VCRs became widely available and affordable that porn started to retreat into a more private and solitary experience that occurred at home. And then computers, the internet, and smartphones came along, forever changing how we access porn. As a result, it’s easier to find porn than ever before, and there’s now an endless supply of it. In the span of less than 100 years, pornographic videos went from being a rare and shared social experience for men to a situation where anyone can now have access to the world’s largest collection of porn in the palm of their hand that they can view on demand.


Sexual Behavior


Sexual Attitudes are the Most Liberal on Record

One of the major changes in sexual behavior we’ve seen over the last century is that a growing proportion of the sex people are having is occurring outside the context of committed romantic relationships. Data show a rise in the number of people having casual sex, hookups, and friends with benefits compared to decades past. There is one caveat to this, which is that the youngest generation today (Gen Z) seems to be having less casual sex—and less sex in general. But that’s a story for another article. That said, a big part of the reason why casual sex grew is because sexual attitudes, in general, have become more liberal. For example, within the last 20 years alone, the percentage of American adults who think that sex outside of marriage is morally acceptable has climbed from 53% to 76%. And that’s just one of many changes in sexual attitudes. For instance, public opinion polls in the United States indicate that record majority numbers now think that same-sex relationships, divorce, having kids outside of marriage, and birth control are morally acceptable. These shifts in public opinion have paved the way for people to be more open about their sexual identities and to pursue the types of sexual and romantic relationships that are right for them.


Acceptance of our sexuality.


Technology is Giving Us New Ways to Explore Our Sexuality

Finally, one other key way sex has changed in the last 100 years has to do with various technologies that have been introduced. For example, prior to the internet and the advent of dating apps, most people met their sexual and romantic partners in person. They were people you met out in public, or friends or family introduced them. Nowadays, the single most common way people are meeting their partners is online—and this seems to be changing the types of relationships we’re developing. For instance, as online dating has increased in popularity, more people have entered into interracial relationships and long-distance relationships. Online dating simply creates a more diverse dating pool. Technology is also changing how we experience sexual pleasure. Sex toys have gone high-tech, offering new sensations. This includes toys that can be controlled remotely, toys that provide customizable vibration (and even temperature), as well as toys that synch to virtual reality porn and let you feel what you see. Long gone are the days of basic dildos and one-speed vibrators. We now have toys for every hole—and every goal.


In some ways, sex hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Our fantasies and desires, our sexual positions, and even our kinks are things that have a very long and rich history. Novelty and creativity have been the hallmarks of human sexuality for centuries. At the same time, however, human sexual expression has changed considerably, perhaps no more so than during the last 100 years. From the 20th century into the 21st, there has been remarkable change in societal attitudes toward sex, as well as technological and medical innovations of great import to our sexual health and pleasure. When it comes to sex, we are always innovating, and attitudes are constantly changing. We can’t say for sure what the future will hold, but we know that sexual expression will continue to evolve.



Francis, A. M. (2013). The wages of sin: how the discovery of penicillin reshaped modern sexuality. Archives of sexual behavior, 42, 5-13.

Lehmiller, J. J. (2017). The psychology of human sexuality (2nd edition). John Wiley & Sons.

Lieberman, H. (2017). Buzz: A stimulating history of the sex toy. Pegasus

Monto, M. A., & Carey, A. G. (2014). A new standard of sexual behavior? Are claims associated with the “hookup culture” supported by General Social Survey data? The Journal of Sex Research, 51, 605-615.

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