Since the sexual revolution of the '60s, we tend to think that sexuality from the Baby Boomers back to the beginning of time was a long history of repressed urges, prudish fundamentalist restrictions and brutal rape politics.
But it turns out that a lot of what BBC dramas tell you about sex in history is just a fanciful cover for sex lives that didn't differ that much from our own. Myths that persist to this day include ...
#5. Victorians Were Repressed and Sexless
When you think about the Victorian era, you probably remember a whole bunch of jokes about how women couldn't show their ankles without it being considered indecent exposure. If they ever did have sex, they would first have to peel off so many layers of clothing that it almost wasn't worth it.
Queen Victoria is rumored to have told her daughter to "just lie back and think of England" when the princess was concerned about having to fulfill her wifely duties on her wedding night. There's even a myth that Victorians covered the legs of their tables because they resembled female flesh.
We can barely conceal our boners right now.
Frankly, we're surprised that the population of England didn't collapse after men got sick of sobbing their way through sex long enough to impregnate their wives.
It's true that Victorians weren't exactly into halter tops and assless pants. In public, that is. In private, they made up for it by producing extraordinary amounts of porn. And not just any porn, but the type of porn that would make the most seasoned Internet deviant blush and cover their table legs. We're talking incest, rape, pedophilia, orgies, BDSM ... and that's the normal stuff.
She has a dozen live eels stuffed under that corset. You know why.
Here's a taste from a piece published in 1907:
"Seeing her dressed you'd have taken her for thin, but she wasn't in the least. In fact if anything she was on the fleshy side. Her dark pubic hair, I noticed, climbed all the way up to her navel ... her nipples were set in a small field of light brown hair. Lifting her breasts, I saw that she also had some short, fine black hairs underneath. Her armpits were likewise covered with hair as thick as a man's. The sight of all this healthy fleece caused John Thomas to harden even more. I ripped off my nightshirt and straddled the lovely creature, whose rhythmic movements set my pickle slapping back and forth against her belly."
-From Memoirs of a Young Rakehell
Classy. As. Balls.
Alas, Victorians also left their table legs as bare as their marvelously hairy women: furniture-leg covers are a myth originally peddled, ironically, by an English travel writer demonstrating American prudishness to his British audience. As for the famous prudishness of Queen Victoria, not only is the "think of England" exchange untrue, but the Queen's diaries reveal she was extremely fond of sex, and often presented her husband with male and female nude artworks. Oh, and this is after those diaries were heavily censored posthumously by her children.
Are you picturing it? Are you picturing them boning?
So the Victorians weren't exactly Puritans. Then again, neither were the Puritans ...
#4. Puritans Were Puritanical
Every American schoolkid who has sat through a lesson on the history of Thanksgiving was told that the pilgrims who founded America were Puritans, a group of sexually repressed religious fanatics. In reality, the Puritans and the Pilgrims arrived separately but since that's the only context in which most of us have even heard of Puritans, we just mentally combined the pilgrims and the Puritans into a single group of people who loved turkey but loathed sex.
Sex with turkeys presented the ultimate conflict of interest.
But those early settlers in America were part of a much larger group in the Church of England who were working to purify the world of anything relating to genitalia.
Although sex between unmarried couples was theoretically a crime in Puritan society, that hardly slowed them down. It just meant that their society was rife with shotgun weddings. According to some studies, up to 1 in 3 Puritan women were pregnant when they were married. The odds of becoming pregnant from one act of intercourse are a lot lower than that, so that's a lot of deviant behavior for a group that cheerfully crushed people to death for looking "witchy."
Look close. Ain't no rings on those fingers.
Given that they lived in such a repressive and extremist society, these dangerous criminals must have carried out their illicit affairs with discretion, right? Not even close. The Puritans had sex everywhere. They had sex in churchyards. They had sex in ditches and in hedges. They had sex in bars and in bean patches and on porches. One of the most common places for Puritan servants to have sex was in the kitchen, often while the other servants watched.
It's not even like the clergy were uptight about a little action in the bedroom or bean patch. The Puritan church not only condoned sex for pleasure between married spouses, it actually required it. Sex was mandatory not only because it produced offspring, but because the Puritans believed that sexually pleasing one's spouse was a religious duty. At least one man was excommunicated from the Puritan church for refusing to have sex with his wife. Impotency or poor sexual performance was considered grounds for divorce, and a man was not to withdraw from his wife in case he ruined her orgasm.
"The frilly neck thing is to tickle her -- well, we don't talk about it."
So, how could the Puritans justify awesome sex for married couples but no sex for the unmarried? The Puritan church believed that because marriage was between a man, a woman and Jesus, sex should also be between a man, a woman and Jesus. This wasn't even a metaphor: The Puritan church sought converts by describing the "voluptuous delights" that awaited them in heaven with their "heavenly husband." Yeah, they're talking about sex with Jesus.
#3. Jews Had Sex Through a Sheet
This one turns up in supposedly accurate films all the time, and Christopher Hitchens rants about it as an example of religious crazy: Jews conduct the marital act by way of a hole cut in a bed sheet, so as to avoid the lustful distractions of nudity.
The story is so pervasive that whenever someone has occasion to discuss Jewish sex, you can be sure there's going to be some snide reference to it. They joke about it on Curb Your Enthusiasm. When it came time to write a book about the subject, they called it, "The Hole in the Sheet."
Even for that title, it has a surprisingly unsexy cover.
If the media is to be believed, Orthodox Jewish men must go their whole lives without ever seeing boobs in a sex-related context.
These kinds of references tend to be as much a learning experience for Orthodox Jews as they are to other people, since the Jewish community have always made love like normal, non-furry people: naked. In fact, Jewish law actually prohibits clothed or covered sex. This means that not only are movie portrayals of deliberate Jewish sheet-covering inaccurate, but that those love scenes in which the actress mysteriously leaves her bra on are actually a serious sin in the eyes of God. Well, that's how we choose to interpret it anyway.
Praise His glorious name!
But how on earth did such a specifically wacky myth start? The theory is that it arose from the tallit katan, a Jewish religious undergarment that does look a bit like a bed sheet with hole in it:
That thing actually goes over your head. But back in the day, non-Jewish people saw their Jewish neighbors washing or drying something with a hole in it and thought, "Wow, a penis must go there." Combine general anti-Semitism with the depthless perversion of the human imagination and you have the most oddly enduring penis-related myth since "It'll be OK just this once if we pull out."
We're trying to push "Sikhs do it with scepters."