The Many Times Sex Altered the Course of History

For the average person, sex is a private event that takes place behind closed doors. But sex in history has had a dramatic effect on the world. Over the course of time, when these private events go public, they unleash consequences that can be as explosive as the act itself. Ask Cleopatra, the Marquis de Sade, or Heidi Fleiss, and they’ll tell you: sex has been getting humans in and out of trouble since the dawn of time. And there are a lot of ways sex changed the course of history.

Despite its very basic use as a means of reproduction, history proves that sex can be used in any number of ways to achieve a desired goal. Throughout history, sex has brought power to some, taken power from others, built up empires, and torn them right back down.

So, in the words of Salt-N-Pepa: “Let’s talk about sex, baby… let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.” This list chronicles the times sex changed history and shook things up for better or for worse and the world was changed forever.

Vibrators Originated As A Cure for Female ‘Hysteria’

In a strange twist of fate, a man’s tool of control ultimately becomes a woman’s tool of pleasure. Before the 20th century, doctors believed that women were incapable of experiencing sexual arousal. When women came in complaining of erotic fantasies, anxiety, nervousness, and wetness between their legs, doctors diagnosed this as “hysteria.” The treatment for hysteria? A massaging of the genitals until a woman suffered a “paroxysm,” and then her symptoms of hysteria went away. The only downside for the doctors was the chronic hand pain from treating so many hysterical women. The doctors were immensely happy when an alternative came along in the form of the electromechanical vibrator, at least until women started buying the cure for themselves. 

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek Discovered Sperm Cells Using His Own Semen

Microscopes fascinated 17th-century scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. He examined anything he could get his hands on – and that included his own bodily fluids. When he exhausted blood, saliva, tears, and spit, he sought out the last liquid on his checklist: semen. After collecting samples from his wife, he discovered under the microscope that his semen contained living cells, which he called “animalcules.” 

Van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery changed the way scientists understood reproduction; before, they only knew the process that included an egg, but after, they had a more complete picture of the union of egg and sperm. He was way ahead of his time in the fields of microbiology and reproductive biology, but the credit for the seed of the idea goes in part to Leeuwenhoek’s own, personal seed.

Interracial Marriage Was Legalized Because Of Premarital Sex And A Brave Couple

When two young adults fall in love and do what young adults do, sometimes things get complicated with an unexpected pregnancy. When the year is 1967, the place is Virginia, and the couple is interracial, the needle flies off the complication meter and up into the stratosphere. Such was the case for Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, when Mildred became pregnant, and the couple decided to make things official.

Interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia, so the couple married in nearby Washington, DC. When they returned, an anonymous tip drove police into the couple’s bedroom, where they arrested the pair. Their case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which finally struck down the law against interracial marriage. Almost 50 years later, the Loving case, among others, was used in 2015 as a precedent to help strike down the laws against same-sex marriage.

Christopher Columbus Possibly Brought Syphilis Back from the New World

According to a study published in 2008, scientists theorize it’s possible that the introduction of syphilis into Europe came at the hands of Columbus’s expedition. When Columbus and his men returned home, they might have brought the gift of syphilis with them. 

However, later analysis of bones at Pompeii that appear to show evidence of congenital syphilis call into question the theory that Columbus and his crew brought the ailment to the European continent.

Kitty Fisher Used Sex To Become History’s First Celebrity

Kitty Fisher was a courtesan in 18th-century England who used her sex appeal to get ahead, counting the Earl of Coventry among her conquests. More importantly, she was the world’s first modern celebrity, someone only famous for being famous. Unlike Paris and Kim’s medium of choice, Kitty’s sexual antics could only be gossiped about around town. As Kitty’s notoriety grew, newspapers desperate for stories latched on to her antics and began to report about her life, her daily happenings, and her style. She inspired songs and artwork, sold stories to the press, sat for portraits with famous artists of the day and exploited the media to maximize her fame. Sound familiar?

Henry VIII Started His Own Religion so He Could Marry His Mistress and Have an Heir

After the death of his father, Henry VIII took two things originally belonging to his dead brother: his brother’s crown and his brother’s wife. Years later, with only a daughter to show for his effort and a much younger and secretly pregnant mistress waiting in the wings, the Catholic Henry sought out an annulment from the Pope. When the Pop said no, Henry did what only a king would have the balls to do: he created his own religion that allowed divorce. This way, he could pull a wife switcheroo and legitimize his forthcoming child in the hopes that it was a male heir. Thus, with the most auspicious of beginnings, the Church of England was born. Unfortunately for Henry, his child with Anne Boleyn turned out to be a girl.

Sex (Or Lack Thereof) Spawned Christianity

We all know the story of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. The most important detail of the story all comes down to sex. If you do believe Mary’s story, the implication of a sexless pregnancy is what spawned the Christ in Christianity. If you don’t believe her, then the lie she told about her sex life created the religion all the same. Either way, whether God or man impregnated Mary, whether sex was deceptively present or miraculously absent, this one moment birthed the most popular religion in the world.

A Prostitute Named Aspasia Inspired Socrates and Pericles

Aspasia was one of the most famous women in ancient Athens. As a courtesan, she caught the eye of famous Greek general Pericles. Pericles took to her intellect, outspokenness, and beauty, seeking out her guidance in his professional endeavors, despite the fact that most of the rest of Athens felt threatened by her. She was even accused of inciting the Peloponnesian War. Despite her many enemies, she did have one other famous fan: Socrates. Socrates and Aspasia encouraged and influenced each other, with Socrates even claiming that he learned “the art of eloquence” from Aspasia. 

Genghis Khan Controlled His Horde by Making Lots and Lots of Babies

In the early 13th century, Genghis Khan united nomadic tribes of Mongolia together into one militaristic force, and conquered massive portions of the globe all the way to places like Poland, Vietnam, and Syria, earning him a spot as one of the most feared conquerors of all time.

As it turns out, when he wasn’t making enemies, he was making babies. New studies show that Genghis Khan currently has 16 million descendants across Asia. Whether he wanted to recruit his kin for the war effort, exert control over his captured concubines, or whether he wasn’t thinking too much about it at all, he solidified his force by unifying them not just under one flag but under one family.

Inbreeding Extinguished a Powerful European Dynasty

What do you get when a royal family is so obsessed with purity that they refuse to marry anyone outside their own bloodline? If you look at Charles II of the Habsburg Dynasty, referred to by contemporaries as “The Hexed”, you get intellectual, physical, and emotional disabilities so pervasive that people believe them to be the result of witchcraft. Most importantly to that line your family fought so hard to preserve, you also get a bad case of impotency. Despite two marriages, Charles couldn’t seal the deal (or maybe neither wife could stand to lie next to his inbred-looking face) and the dynasty ended at his bed, to be replaced by the French Bourbons in 1700 after almost 200 years of Habsburg rule. 

Two Famous Authors Scandalously Eloped and Formed a Creative Union

Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin were a match made in literary heaven. He’s famous for Ozymandias. She’s famous for Frankenstein. But before they found success, they found each other in a scandalous saga fit for a Gothic melodrama. Percy fell in love with Mary while he was already married to another woman, a tavern owner’s daughter. Giving in to his emotions, he ran away with Mary to Europe. The two sealed their union after Percy’s wife committed suicide in 1816. From their marriage until his death, they encouraged each other’s artistic geniuses. Look on their works, ye mighty, and despair. 

Marilyn Monroe’s Affair with John F. Kennedy Might Have Contributed to Her Suicide

There are two ways to look at John F. Kennedy’s effect on the death of Marilyn Monroe. For those who believe the conspiracy, John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert played a substantial part in her death, even to the point of having her killed. For those who believe the official story, John F. Kennedy started an affair with Marilyn less than a year before her death, at a time where her inner demons raged particularly violently in her head. Either way, this volatile combination of sex, power, and emotion exploded in the loss of one of the most important icons of the 20th century. 

A British King Abdicated the Throne to Marry His American Lover

When King George V died in 1936, his son Edward had a very big choice to make. He had to choose between his country and his love affair with a married American socialite, Wallis Simpson. He chose the latter and became the only sovereign in British history to voluntarily abdicate the throne. His crown passed to his brother George VI, Queen Elizabeth II’s father. It’s easy to imagine an alternate history where Edward VIII stayed on the throne, married a proper English aristocrat, and kept Wallis a secret on the side. In this version of events, Wallis, a known Nazi sympathizer, would have the ear and the heart of the King of England. Instead, all England got was the stutterer from The King’s Speech – crisis averted.

The Advent of Cars Jump-Started the Sexual Revolution

Teenagers popped up like acne in the post-World War II landscape of America. The baby boom produced more teenagers than ever and the prosperity of the 1950s meant that those teenagers had more money than ever. What did those teens do with that money? They bought cars. Cars revolutionized transport in the beginning of the century, but they also revolutionized sex and dating. Never before had so many young, horny teenagers been the owners of mobile motel rooms. Throughout the ’50s and into the ’60s, attitudes toward sex started to loosen, one backseat at a time, until the sexual revolution started with a bang. 

J. Edgar Hoover Maintained His Power Using a Secret Sex File

J. Edgar Hoover lorded over the FBI for almost fifty years, from 1935 to 1972. How did he stay there? Well, when you have the entire FBI at your disposal, the secrets you discover are invaluable. If Hoover didn’t have a massive pile of dirt on JFK about affairs with Marilyn Monroe and Ellen Rometsch, an East German woman with ties to communism, JFK might have replaced him with an FBI director who was more encouraging of his Civil Rights agenda. Instead, J. Edgar spent his time attempting to blackmail Martin Luther King into suicide over his extramarital affairs, among other things

Birth Control Helped Usher Women into the Workplace

Women have been fighting for their freedoms for a very long time. One freedom that completely changed the game for modern women came in the form of a tiny pill. First prescribed as a contraceptive in 1960, the birth control pill gave women control over their fertility, a game-changer in both their personal and professional lives. By day, women could choose whether or not to postpone having children to focus on getting and advancing their careers. By night, women felt freer to experiment with sex, learn about their bodies, and enjoy themselves without the dark cloud of an unwanted pregnancy looming over them. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with something else that could be so small and have such a massive effect on history.

What Effect Did President Bill Clinton’s Affair with Monica Lewinsky Really Have?

When Bill Clinton “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” and then lied about it, he became only the second American president to be impeached. The subsequent trial marred his presidency in ways historians are still trying to figure out to this day. Did it prevent Clinton from accomplishing major reforms in his second term? Did it push portions of the electorate in the 2000 election toward George Bush? Is it having a lasting effect on the career of his wife? Perhaps it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘it’ is.