Battita Dossi, Nymph of Spring (16th century).
Women’s solo sex can be taboo even today. But in 17th century England it featured in many texts from poetry to medical books, suggesting knowledge or even acceptance of female self-pleasure.
Portrait of Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), whose name and writings gave us the term ‘sadism’
In early 20th-century Australia, a series of highly publicised murders of women saw newspapers widely discuss sadism.
Statue of Eros of the type of Centocelle. Roman artwork of the 2nd century AD, probably a copy after a Greek original.
Erotic spells were a popular form of magic in ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient spells were often violent, brutal and without any sense of caution or remorse.
The “Burney Relief,” which is believed to represent either Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, or her older sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the underworld (c. 19th or 18th century BC)
Sex was central to life in ancient Mesopotamia. And the authors of Sumerian love poetry, depicting the exploits of divine couples, showed a wealth of practical knowledge about the stages of female sexual arousal.
A fragment of a wall painting showing two lovers in bed from the House of L Caecilius Jucundus in Pompeii, now at Naples National Archaeological Museum.
From phallus-shaped wind chimes to explicit erotica on lamps and cups, sex is everywhere in ancient Greek and Roman art. But our interpretations of these images say much about our own culture.
Little Lonsdale Street in the 1870s: a number of brothels were located in the area known as ‘Little Lon’.
State Library of New South Wales.
Rubbish excavated from brothels sheds light on sex workers’ lives in the 19th century. Despite the dangers, prostitution offered an independent living free of male control.
Queer women were allowed to serve openly in Australia’s defence force from 1992.
While lesbian women were technically banned from serving in the Australia Defence Force until 1992, many before then found that military life was a place to express their love and desire for the first time.
A painting depicting a debate between Socrates and Aspasia, by Nicolas André Monsiaux, circa 1800.
In Athenian society, it appears some elite courtesans were better educated than traditional wives. Other sex workers were sold into the role as children.
French engraving of a cuckolded husband.
University of Victoria
‘Cuck’, short for cuckold, is the favoured insult of men’s rights activists today. But the term has a long history: from the 16th to 18th centuries it reflected a deep anxiety about women’s sexual appetites.
War was not always about fighting, and in times of relaxation soldiers were able to indulge many other activities.
State Library of Queensland
Our histories tell us armies make men, but in World War II, conflicted provided a rare and surprisingly open space for men to experiment with their femininity and sexuality.
Titian’s 1583 painting Venus of Urbino: historically, pleasure was not the only, or even the main, expectation from sex for women.
Australian women were once largely seen as reproducers, rather than lovers: sexual pleasure was suspect. Attitudes have changed, yet our culture is still troubled by female desire.
The Fall of the Titans, Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, circa 1590.
The dream of a “gay utopia” is a constant in gay and lesbian historical imaginings over the last 200 years. But the Greek attitude to same-sex attraction was not nearly as permissive as many have assumed.
French postcard of Lili (before 1904), ‘playing around’.
Eroticised postcards featuring young girls in playful poses were collectables at the turn of the 20th century. These images challenge the notion that childhood was once more innocent than it is today.
Brothels in Pompeii were decorated with murals depicting erotic and exotic scenes: but the reality was far more brutal and mundane.
Thomas Shahan/Wikimedia Commons
Though their activities were depicted alluringly in murals, the sex workers of Pompeii were slaves who lived hard lives.
A chain gang of convicts in Hobart.
State Library of NSW
Governor Arthur Phillip regarded sodomy as one of the worst offences that convicts under his charge could commit. But sex between men and between women flourished in convict Australia.
People in Melbourne protest funding cuts to the Safe Schools program in 2016.
AAP Image/Mal Fairclough
From William Chidley to Germaine Greer Australia has spawned more than its fair share of radical thinkers about sex, and Australians have often embraced their ideas, despite persecution by officialdom.