How Has The Perception Of Sex Changed In The Last 40 Years?

Sex and Passion | | Expert Author , Consultant in Sexual Medicine & Counsellor
Updated On: July 15, 2022
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The 21st century has seen a more accepting outlook toward sex and everything that surrounds it. Almost every few months, it seems as though there’s something new we can learn. Although the world is now more accepting of and accustomed to the changing dynamics of sex, things were wildly different not too long ago.

Think back to the 1990s, when Seinfeld was the biggest thing around, and Ellen DeGeneres coming out in 1997 was breaking news. The taboo around sex made conversations difficult, and all sex-ed featured was a banana and a condom. 

In this article, sexologist Dr. Rajan Bhonsle, M.D., Hon Professor & HOD, Department of Sexual Medicine, KEM Hospital & G.S.Medical College, talks about the difference he has seen in 36 years of experience as a working professional. 

The Changing Scenario Of Sex

In the 36 years I’ve been practicing, the scenario has changed distinctly. When I first started out, people were absolutely not okay with approaching a doctor for sexual problems. Most weren’t aware that a specialization like sexology even exists. 

Since I always wanted sex education to be brought to the forefront given how important it is that young adults have the right information, I approached a couple of schools to enquire about sex education classes. As was the norm back then, I was given weird looks, insulting remarks, and discouraged from going further. 

The way the media concurred on the subject of sex was highly negative as well. I attempted to approach newspapers and journals with a simple article titled “The need for sex education” but the perception of the topic was such that I was instantly met with scrutiny and humiliation. 

Senior editors of respectable organizations wouldn’t want anything to do with it. If it talked about sex, it was a “dirty’ topic, is what the media assumed. The editors took the old-fashioned typewriter-printed papers I wrote and threw them at my face. They claimed such an article would tarnish the reputation of the brand.

The same newspaper, eons later, invited me to write one of the longest printed columns on sexual issues ever. In a nutshell, the contrast in the perception of sex is shown in what I went through with the media. I was insulted for just offering an article on sex education, and now I write a popular daily Q&A column called “Ask the sexpert” for the Mumbai Mirror. 

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Females And Sex: The Changes That Came With Time

No female journalist was comfortable enough to ask questions about sex or do a story on it. I remember an incident from the time we launched premarital counseling services and were approached by a female journalist who was going to cover the entire thing. 

During the interview, when we started talking about how couples require information on how to go about their sexual relationship in the marriage, the journalist got upset and said, “I’m not here to discuss sex with you, this is about premarital counseling.”

Needless to say, something like that happening in today’s world is unfathomable. In the days of old, women just didn’t approach a sexologist for their individual problems. During the early stages of my career, female patients would only ever come to me because their husbands dragged them there.

Their husbands would speak for them, they’d never make eye contact, and they would never open up about their problems. Thankfully, that’s definitely not the case anymore. Patients now have no qualms talking about their sexual lives and issues. 

The lack of platforms and opportunities for conversation 

The taboo nature of the subject often discouraged conversations about sex, even in safe and controlled environments. As I found out during my time in Nagpur, a platform for conversation was all most women required to be able to talk about sex. 

I was invited to Nagpur for a talk by the most popular Marathi newspaper on sexual health issues for women. Initially, we worried about women not showing up. So as to avoid controversy, it was decided that the title of the seminar shouldn’t be a dead giveaway. We landed on “Stories within Four Walls” to try and not dissuade interested visitors from the get-go.

To our surprise, the entire auditorium was jam-packed. I was supposed to give a talk for an hour, give or take. With a large crowd 3 feet away from me in all directions, sitting wherever they could find space, we ended up there for about three to four hours. 

We assumed participants might be hesitant to ask questions publicly, so we arranged for anonymous chits to be available. The chits were never used, and women were not hesitant to stand up and ask their questions proudly. 

This incident took place around 20 years ago and spoke volumes about the credible information that womenfolk were yearning for. Of course, with the advent of the internet, there’s information readily available now. In the years since that incident in Nagpur, the same organization invited me for similar talks all across Maharashtra, and every venue was always jam-packed with women. 

perception of sex
The changing dynamics can boil down to more equality between the sexes

The Changing Perception Of Men 

In the days of old, men would never come to a sexologist for anything but their own problems. Their wife’s satisfaction, her needs, what she wants or even the fact that sex is a two-way street were unbeknownst to them. The marginally lower amount of respect that women were given in society played a role in such a dynamic.

Women weren’t allowed to speak up or demand anything. They often weren’t as educated, as liberated, or outgoing as they are today. As a result, men could get away with only fulfilling their own requirements and needs, and not satisfying the woman in bed. With time, that has drastically changed. Women are now more liberated and educated when it comes to sex and their needs. 

Now, men are more aware and caring toward their partners’ needs too. They read up about the female orgasm and the importance of both parties being satisfied. Now, it doesn’t remain the one-sided transaction that it used to be. Often, men come to see me concerned about female satisfaction. Most of the time, they don’t even come for their own problems, they come concerned about the dynamics of sex and things they may both be facing. 

Related Reading: The Dynamics And Importance Of Sex In A Relationship

From “me” to “we”: how men changed in bed

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that men are now a lot more concerned with performance than they ever were. They’re now fully aware that the woman has needs, expectations, and demands.

The changing household dynamics have played a role as well. Since now women are contributing equally in terms of income, the equality in the household has benefitted. As a result, men are more sensitive toward women’s sexual needs and don’t dismiss them.

The dynamics around consent have changed for the better as well. It is now well understood that if he asks for sex and she responds with a no, he has to keep quiet. It all ties down to how women have been empowered, hence earning them a more equal standpoint in society. 

In the early years of my practice, I came across multiple incidents where men didn’t respect consent. While it still happens, the percentage has definitely reduced. The instances where men used to pester their partners for sex, play the “poor me” card, and continually ask for it have reduced as well. 

The myths that men carried

“My partner didn’t bleed during our first intercourse, does that mean she is not a virgin?” or “She wants to have sex with me in the woman on top position, does that mean she is experienced?” Such queries weren’t uncommon in the first decade of my practice.

These myths had led men to seek help from a sexologist not because of any problems they were having but because of their suspicions about their partners. Not only did these preconceived notions hamper their relationships but also their attitude toward women.

Of course, the situation is different now. People now know that having a “woman on top” is a common position, and they don’t insist on having a “virgin wife”, which used to be a big deal. There’s a more liberal and accepting attitude now. People have become accepting of a woman’s sexuality and her needs, even though there’s much to be done. 

Misinformation, terminology, & communication changes

Early on in my career, the majority of patients came with problems of infertility. In some cases when they had issues with sexual performance or erectile dysfunction, they’d be too hesitant to communicate. “Something’s not right,” they’d say, hoping I’d magically understand what they were talking about. “It’s difficult, there’s a problem” when they’re trying to tell me about difficulties with orgasms doesn’t really put the point across. 

Today, people usually arrive fully prepared with information obtained from the internet and are well-versed in the terminologies. They know the effects of a sexless marriage and try to look for solutions. The absence of sex education and the absence of the internet made it almost impossible for the common man to be aware of such terms back in the 90s. 

great sex

That being said, misconceptions are not subject to the time a person is in and are still prevalent in the 21st century. Since sex-ed is still not widely available, people rely heavily on the internet. And the internet is a great source for good information, but also for wrong information. 

An abundance of information leading to false beliefs is also a huge change I’ve witnessed in my years of practice. A lot of people think that a condom can always save them from getting HIV, which is not true. This misconception may well have been rapidly spread through the internet and newer means of communication.

Given how easy it is now to spread false information, people may get swayed by some self-proclaimed intellectuals and believe things like masturbation is evil and bad. They may believe that the “loss” of semen is doing damage to your body, which couldn’t be further from the truth. 

In fact, there are scientific studies that suggest that there is nothing wrong with frequent masturbation, in fact, it is even encouraged. 

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The homosexuality spectrum: from fearing normalcy to acceptance

A conversation about the changing dynamics of sex without mentioning homosexuality would be criminal. Though people today still don’t “come out of the closet” as openly as they’d wish to in some parts of the world, there has definitely been a positive change in this space. 

In older generations, homosexuals would often live their whole lives without ever coming out. They’d remain single, wouldn’t get married and when they did, they’d never be able to consummate their marriages. 

Nowadays, people are, thankfully, able to come out quite openly. When homosexuals come to visit me, they don’t ask things like “Am I normal?” They’re aware that being a homosexual does not mean you are not normal, unlike what the homosexuals of previous generations were told. 

The 21st century view of sex 

Back in the 90s, sex was closely tied with the idea of love, as though it was something sacred, to be revered and only spoken of in closed quarters. Sure there are people who still think of it that way, the percentage of people who view sex as something only married couples should engage in has decreased. 

When it comes to conversations around sex, no longer are people mouthing the letters “S-E-X” while talking about it. People definitely used to approach the topic of sex with apprehension, and the conversations around now definitely seem a lot more relaxed. People are more willing to talk about it, owing to the information and the communication forums that are available to us.  

It’s no surprise that the perception of sex has changed worldwide, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. Though people are now more aware of the terminologies and the education they need, it’s always a good idea to be wary of the sources of the information you’re getting.

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