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What the history of sex tells us about our desires today

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If you go back far enough in history, there’s a time before sex. Reproduction was asexual and a simple and efficient affair. Fortunately, things improved and got a lot more fun, although there have been some bumps in the road, which is how our sexual journey as humans led us to where we are now.

What’s clear to see from the history of sex is that reproduction and evolution are just two of many factors. Attitudes and sexual practices are just as likely to be influenced by culture, religion, urbanisation, technology and the size of the population. Let’s take a look at human sexuality throughout history and how it connects to our desires today.

The History of Swinging

The concepts of monogamy and polygamy have long been part of the discussion around love and sex. In many cultures, sex or relationships outside of a marriage weren’t frowned upon. They were the earliest forms of swinging. Whether it was orgies, having multiple husbands and wives or multiple sexual partners, the practice was fairly common.

However, as the Western world became more conservative, straightforward monogamy became the norm. Sharing or swapping partners was no longer talked about or socially acceptable. Fortunately, you can still join swinger clubs as the practice made a comeback and has remained popular to this day. 

Modern swinging’s resurgence came about in the 50s and, you guessed it, the swinging 60s! While there’s anecdotal evidence tracing it back to military communities in North America in the 50s, it had moved on from wife-swapping in the following decade. Sex was safer, thanks to advances in contraception, and free love was challenging all kinds of taboos. 

Today, swinging is more accessible, thanks to open minds, technology and dedicated spaces. Married couples of different ages take part to spice things up or find new ways to express themselves. Marriage doesn’t mean that people stop exploring. The desires behind swinging remain the same, as it’s all about individual choices, pleasure and having fun.

The History of Sex Toys

Sex toys seem like they might be a relatively new invention that came about as we learned to embrace and satisfy our desires in different ways. However, that’s something that we’d already discovered long ago! In fact, evidence of sex toys has been found by archaeologists. There are records from 500 BC and one particular phallus that is approximately 28,000 years old.

Materials have changed over the years. Earlier sex toys were made from chalk, wood, resin and leather. As for men, there are reports of the use of warm bread and rings made from animal skin. In the 1800s, rubber dildos arrived on the scene. It was also around this time that the first effective vibrators were created. As necessity is the mother of invention, it’s clear that sexual satisfaction was undoubtedly a priority.

At the turn of the century, articles in mainstream publications listed the tried and tested vibrators on the market. It was a fairly respectable subject to discuss, and the objects themselves were left on display. Rubber and inflatable dolls also hit the market in the 1900s.

In the years that followed, we became less open about our use of sex toys and where we kept them. Tucking them at the back of a drawer became much more popular than leaving them out in the room. Today, ideas around sex toys remain pretty conservative. In 2022, more than 70% of survey respondents in the US agreed that sex toys are still taboo in society. Plus, more than half (66%) agree it’s taboo to speak about them with friends.

Changing Attitudes Towards Sex

The history of attitudes to sex in the UK is an interesting tale. While we can’t always know a lot about what went on behind closed doors, the laws of the country provide a general picture. For example, in Tudor England, church and secular courts were enforcing laws on premarital and extramarital activities. 

Punishments that involved shaming people through the town or requiring public acts of penance were commonplace. They were no doubt quite damaging. It didn’t get much better in Victorian England. The period is now famously linked with sexual repression. While accounts from the upper and lower classes suggest that premarital sex did happen, the idea drummed into the middle classes particularly was that sex was meant for married couples and only for procreation.  

This long period of making sex taboo meant that people took a long time to learn how their bodies worked, let alone think about their pleasure. Sex education slowly increased in the 20th Century. At first, it only addressed biological matters but went on to take into account relationships, too.  

How free do we feel to express our desires now? A YouGov study of over 22,000 adults looked at whether society’s attitudes to sex have gotten better or worse compared to 50 years ago. 33% felt that attitudes were somewhat better, and 17% felt they had gotten much better.

A Journey of Twists and Turns

Just from looking at the history of sex toys and attitudes to sex and swinging, two takeaways immediately become clear. One is that we’re not that different from our ancient ancestors or the generations who came before us. 

Our desires have remained mostly unchanged. We want to have sex, and that can include multiple partners and toys. Whether society accepts our desires or not, we’re driven by them, which means they’ll be fulfilled openly or in secret but not ignored for long.

The second takeaway is that society has shaped our attitudes to sex. We’ve made great strides in recent years to promote sex education, improve access to safe sex discussion spaces and be less prescriptive about what love and sex should be.

Based on the research data presented here, there’s still a way to go. While acceptance of same-sex relationships and premarital sex has gone up, openness and our relaxed attitudes to sex could improve. When it comes to talking comfortably with partners, friends and our doctors, we’re still in the middle of that cultural shift.

 

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Femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism, say campaigners

Campaigners have warned that health tools could overlook women from marginalised communities

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Femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism, campaigners have warned, amid concern that the sector could perpetuate long-standing racial inequities.

Femtech is already showing promise to help clinicians make better diagnoses and support women with managing their health.

But as excitement grows, campaigners have warned that these powerful tools could overlook women from marginalised communities and perpetuate long-standing racial inequities in how care is delivered.

“Any technology meant to help people track and improve women’s health outcomes must be inclusive and anti-racist,” Dr Regina Davis Moss, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice, told Femtech World.

“Black women have historically been disregarded, overlooked and undermined by the medical technology industry. It is past time for our interests and needs to be prioritised in clinical trials and other forms of scientific research.

“Femtech companies must ensure that their research and clinical trials equitably involve communities of all backgrounds.”

Around 2,000 femtech companies and apps have sprung up in the last decade to address women’s needs, including tracking apps, fertility solutions and menopause platforms.

These new tools are often built using machine learning, a subset of AI where algorithms are trained to find patterns in large data sets like billing information and test results.

The data these algorithms are built on, however, often reflect inequities and bias that have long plagued the healthcare system. Research shows clinicians often provide different care to white patients and patients of colour. Those differences in how patients are treated get immortalised in data, which are then used to train algorithms.

“When our research omits subsets of the population, the accuracy and potential benefits of that research do not extend to those who disproportionately bear the burden of disease,” said Dr Monique Gary, breast surgical oncologist at Grand View Health.

“We are seeing already how AI can harm marginalised communities, where biased algorithms require racial or ethnic minorities to be considerably ‘more ill’ than their white counterparts to receive the same diagnosis, treatment, or resource. This is perilous and avoidable.”

To create responsible and equitable technologies that include BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) women, Gary said companies could start identifying and recruiting experts of colour, via pipeline programmes and incubators.

“We need to start listening to, believing and supporting the voices of Black women,” she said.

“In 2024, women of all ages and races, ethnicities and orientations are telling us out loud what they need to actualise a better version of healthcare which incorporates significant tech utilisation. It’s now up to us to listen.”

Ashley Jones, creative director of Tones of Melanin, said femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism and prioritise inclusivity.

“Companies in femtech should actively seek out diverse perspectives and experiences, particularly from BIPOC women, in both their datasets and research.

“This includes collaborating with BIPOC brands, stakeholders and organisations to ensure that their products address the specific needs and concerns of BIPOC women.”

Tech developers, Jones said, could address racism by implementing robust diversity and inclusion initiatives within their teams, actively seeking out BIPOC voices in decision-making processes and educating themselves on the unique experiences of BIPOC women in healthcare.

Sylvia Kang, co-founder and CEO at Mira, pointed out that femtech companies should also focus on affordability, as cost can be preventing women from marginalised communities from accessing healthcare.

“Most of the people that can access femtech tools for their health are white mid-to-high income women,” Kang explained.

“Unfortunately, there are some communities, including BIPOC that do not have enough resources to purchase these tools.

“I believe it’s our responsibility to take action and democratise our data and tools in specific ways.”

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US start-up raises US$4.3m to address maternal mental health

The funding is hoped to help FamilyWell scale throughout New England and expand nationally

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The US mental health start-up FamilyWell Health has raised US$4.3m in seed financing to support women facing maternal mental health challenges.

FamilyWell Health is a behavioural health company that integrates specialised mental health services, such as coaching, therapy and psychiatry, into OB/GYN practices.

The platform aims to provide pregnant and postpartum patients with specialised support for depression, anxiety and other perinatal mental health concerns.

New mothers face dire maternal mental health challenges in the US, with a staggering one in seven women suffering from postpartum depression.

Individuals who seek treatment typically wait for months to be seen by a mental health provider and instead turn to their obstetricians, who are often hesitant to screen for mental health conditions knowing there is a shortage of therapists and psychiatrists.

“I had difficulty finding support when I experienced postpartum depression and have cared for countless new moms struggling to access mental health care during one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives,” said Dr Jessica Gaulton, founder and CEO of FamilyWell.

“My experience, both as a survivor and as a practicing neonatologist, inspired me to start FamilyWell to provide equitable, affordable, and accessible mental healthcare for new mothers.”

By partnering with OB providers, Gaulton said FamilyWell would increase access to mental health support for pregnant and postpartum individuals where and when they need it.

The funding, led by .406 Ventures with participation from GreyMatter Capital and Mother Ventures, is hoped to help the start-up scale throughout New England and expand nationally.

Payal Divakaran, partner at .406 Ventures, said: “Given our team’s deep experience backing innovative behavioural health and women’s health companies, we had been looking at this intersection for quite some time.

“FamilyWell offers an elegant solution that is a win-win for all stakeholders, including obstetric practices. Dr Gaulton and her team have built an incredible, mission-driven company poised to address a critical need in women’s mental health.”

Dr Melissa Sherman, medical director and obstetrician at Essex OB/GYN Associates, a FamilyWell customer, added: “When you’re pregnant or caring for a newborn, you can’t afford to wait months for help.

“With FamilyWell, patients get help within days and have ongoing support through one of the biggest transitions of their lives.”

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‘Women crave the quick fix of a silver bullet’: menopause experts have their say on talking therapies

Talking therapies could reduce symptoms that may not be otherwise relieved through HRT, specialists have argued

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The recent research showing talking therapies could help women through menopause is a “fantastic step forward” in the advocation of choice, experts have said, warning that HRT alone will not reduce all symptoms.

Talking therapies, such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy, have been found to effectively treat menopause symptoms, such as low mood and anxiety.

Researchers from University College London have shown that the practices, which focus on developing behavioural patterns, coping strategies and relaxation techniques, could have benefits beyond those of HRT, including improved sleep, memory and concentration.

The techniques, experts told Femtech World, could help dampen down women’s physiological system, reducing symptoms that may not be otherwise relieved through HRT.

“Our ability to regulate the stress hormone is hampered during menopause, meaning we sit further up the stress scale than we did before,” said Dr Bev Taylor, psychologist and menopause educator.

“Stress also makes many menopausal symptoms worse, either in frequency or severity. These techniques reduce symptoms by dampening down our physiological system and bringing us back down the stress scale.”

The beauty of them, Taylor said, is that they can be used by anyone.

“Whether you can or want to take HRT or whether you want to use them alongside treatments like HRT, you can. This research is a fantastic step forward in the advocation of choice.”

Catherine Harland, menopause educator, coach and founder member of MenoClarity, said talking therapies had received a lot of backlash since the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended them in their updated guidelines.

“Whilst I understand how life-changing talking therapies can be, I fully appreciate why so many women crave the ‘quick fix of a silver bullet’ in the form of HRT as we have been taught this from a young age,” she said. “We have been taught to turn to pharmaceuticals for any symptoms we experience.”

Modern women, Harland said, live stressful, fast-paced lives, juggling a multitude of things and often feel too busy to fit talking therapies into the mix.

“Menopause is a highly sensitive time and it’s vital women begin to understand the importance of self-care which includes talking therapies and mindfulness.

“HRT alone will not reduce symptoms of stress, trauma and metabolic disease caused by living in a high cortisol state for long periods of time.”

Around 15 per cent of women aged 45 to 64 in England are currently prescribed HRT, which has increased rapidly in the last two years from around 11 per cent and continues to increase.

The main benefit of HRT, according to the NHS website, is that it can help relieve most menopause and perimenopause symptoms, including hot flushes, brain fog, joint pains, mood swings and vaginal dryness.

Draft NHS guidelines recommend offering cognitive behavioural therapy, alongside or instead of HRT.

Dr Shahzadi Harper, menopause specialist and founder of The Harper Clinic, said talking therapies could benefit women experiencing menopause symptoms and help them feel more in control. However, she said they should not be it at the forefront of the menopause conversation.

Dr Shahzadi Harper, menopause specialist and founder of The Harper Clinic

“Talking therapies do not address the inherent hormone deficiency that arises due to perimenopause and menopause and the long-term consequences of declining hormone levels,” Harper explained.

“I don’t think they should be at the forefront and definitely not instead of HRT. However, I do think they could be a useful tool, especially as the symptoms of menopause can be quite debilitating and affect mental health and mood.”

Dr Clare Spencer, menopause specialist, GP and co-founder of My Menopause Centre, said while HRT could help many women manage symptoms of the menopause, there would be some women who may continue to experience symptoms, such as poor sleep, low mood and anxiety, despite being on it.

“Women may face other difficulties at the time of the menopause that may be additional causes of stress which can also impact on experience of symptoms of the menopause.

Dr Clare Spencer, GP, menopause specialist and co-founder of My Menopause Centre

“In these cases, there is a place for talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness, to help break some of the vicious cycles that can then exist.

“There is also a role for talking therapies in helping women who have been advised not to take HRT or do not wish to.”

She said, however, that long NHS waiting lists could prevent women from getting the support they need.

“There is an issue with access to cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness-based therapies through the NHS which does need resolving to allow more women access timely support,” she added.

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