Throughout recorded history, humans have struggled against their own sexuality. Mostly stupid reasons, be it the threat of moral bankruptcy, the admonishment of others (who are most definitely not getting any), or fear of divine punishment from a supreme being peeping on earthly minutiae. But sexual desires are primal, natural, and irrepressible, and the following practices highlight some of the creative, possibly zany ways that old-timey folks satisfied their libidinous urges.

The World's Oldest X-Rated Image Is A Rock Carving In China

Porn is so accessible we forget that people once exchanged paper magazines and waited 15 minutes for grainy videos to load in 56K on the SEGA Dreamcast internet browser. But even those latter individuals were exponentially better off than our ancestors, who had to traverse many miles to a red-basalt outcropping in China’s Xinjiang Province if they hoped for carnal release.

Inside a grotto at the bottom of an outcropping, carved into the ancient volcanic rock, is the world’s oldest (discovered) pornographic image. And it’s a good one. The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs were etched in the second millennium BCE and discovered more than 30 years ago. The glyphs commemorate an insane fertility ritual and feature about 100 figures that range in size (as much as they do in sexual appetite) from just a few inches to more than nine feet.

Almost all the figures point up with one hand and down with the other, possibly revering the heavens and earth. The larger, triangular-torsoed figures represent females, with their sexy, shapely hips and legs and pointy headgear. The men are smaller, bare-headed, and appear to have skipped leg day. 

Oh, you may also have noticed all the boners. Men and women are equally ithyphallic (sporting an erection), but some boner-wielding women also wear masks, perhaps displaying their status as shamans. The scene also shows a conveyor belt of infants emerging from a woman that’s being serviced by a male and a female while three onlookers politely wait their turn. 

In another glyph, a similar line of baby figures emanates from a masturbating man’s penis while his buddies dance around. The most explicit scene shows two long-donged women, one in a monkey mask, penetrating two non-donged women with prominent vulvas and a few people with backward-facing boners, possibly history’s first Dick Butt. The disembodied, floating heads throughout may indicate spectators because sex this kinky deserves to be witnessed. The animals could represent sacrifices because it’s improper to throw frenzied orgies on an empty stomach. 

The glyph’s creators aren’t exactly known. But a nearby mummy discovery (marked with similar glyphs) suggests the ancestral inhabitants of this region were neither Chinese nor Uyghur. Additionally, the figures’ Caucasian-looking faces resemble others found in Ukraine, 1,600 miles away. Was this the work of history’s first traveling porno salesman? We may never know. 

Holy People Consulted Penitential Sex Guides

Beginning in the 6th century, priests and priestly fellows alike carried and consulted penitential books, or religious manuals, which detailed the various sins that could be committed (spoiler: everything) and the accompanying punishments (spoiler: hell). Penitentials also suggested a new path to absolution: penance through private confessions, instead of the outdated public confessions of centuries past. Plus, the old methods still applied: pray a lot, deprive yourself of joy, give the church your money, and maybe self-flagellate a little to ensure you’re in good standing with the G-man above. 

And because medieval life wasn’t miserable enough, penitentials severely restricted sexual activities. In fact, they did so more than other sins, including murder. The penitentials introduced a laundry list of sexual limitations, considerations, and more prerequisites than an AP Statistics class. To provide perspective, Crusades scholar James A. Brundage handily compiled these restrictions in flowchart form, highlighting the many criteria that a randy couple had to satisfy before satisfying themselves:

University of Chicago Press

Right off the bat, that’s more than half the week you can’t do it. And even when you can, you’re only allowed unimaginative, dispassionate, boring sex governed by the same rules that govern a truck stop pee-break: no touching anything, except to whip out your wiener. And there’s to be no lewd kissing, no fondling, no oral sex, and no unconventional positions – these rules do differ from truck stop etiquette, where such acts are not only permitted but encouraged.

Oh, and to be truly godly, you’re not even allowed to enjoy getting it on. Because God sure doesn’t want us to fulfill all the desires he gave us while creating us in his image and likeness. 

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20th-Century Americans Loved Getting Frisky In Canoes

With few places to go for clandestine make-out sessions, young 20th-century Americans escaped their iron-fisted chaperones and finger-waving parents by taking to the waterways in “courtship canoes.” Romantic canoeing, or “canoedling” if you will, surged in the early 20th century when canoes became widely available. And soon, top-hatted gentlemen and their big-bonneted gals were spending most of their free time nuzzling each other in boats. In Minneapolis, America’s lake capital and soon-to-be boating hotspot, 200 canoe permits were given out in 1910. By 1912, that number exploded to 2,000

And over the next decade the pastime became so ingrained in the American psyche that it inspired an art theme. It also inspired some tongue-in-cheek advertising. Old Town Canoe knew precisely what you were going to do in their boats, and they wanted you to do it, dammit. 

Old Town Canoes ad

Old Town Canoes

Caption: As long as you bought an Old Town canoe to do it in.

Even chocolate-makers jumped on the boating bandwagon. Because ladies deserve a bonbon after 45 seconds of frantic, fumbling disappointment from their man: 

Samoset

Some manufacturers, like the Peterborough Canoe Company, launched a “Comfort Line,” with a phonograph (and record compartment) to set the mood and a reclining seat to allow proper, uh, cuddling. Society’s prude and pious were expectedly aghast. One Minneapolis Tribune headline proclaimed: “Girl Canoeists’ Tight Skirts Menace Society,” adding that the garments posed a drowning risk. Another Tribune article stated that the “grave and flagrant” “misconduct in canoes” threatened to “bring shame upon the city."

So authorities instituted a 12 a.m. curfew, hoping to curtail the brazen, canoe-based assault on traditional societal values. To enforce the draconian ruling, park police patrolled the waterways in state-of-the-art motorized boats equipped with spotlights. And, after a canoeist was fined $20 (a stiff fine) for smooching his sweetie, a Boston Herald writer joked that millions of dollars of illicit kisses are stolen every weekend at canoeing events. 

The canoedling trend died out in the 1920s, when people realized, hey, this kind of sucks. (Plus, they could now get busy in that newfangled Model T.)

Victorian-Era Americans Exchanged “Escort Cards”

The dating scene in Victorian-era America was stifling, to say the least. With ever-present chaperones and nosy deacons, gentlepeople found little chance for flirting, other than some coquettish handkerchief waving and eyelash fluttering. So men (and sometimes women) sneakily slipped “escort cards” to their prospective sweeties.

Somewhere between a Valentine’s Day card and a typo-riddled Tinder inquiry, most of the cards were actually innocent enough. Many are variations of “may I see you home,” which is kind of endearing. The theme is often repeated, with varying levels of creepiness, from the downright adorable to not creepy at all to threatening to stalk a woman if she refuses your gentlemanly offer to walk her home:

Escort cards explore the same sentiments we’re so familiar with in today’s pick-up environment. Including the affected prose dispensed by Gilded Age predecessors to modern fedora-wearing (“it’s not a fedora, it’s a trilby”) types, some of these have a real strong “m’lady” vibe. Other cards employed Seussian rhymes to (attempt to) unlock a lady’s heart and other regions. They look like something an amorous Cat in the Hat would slide into your pocket before the bartender cuts him off.

At about a penny each, these cards weren’t cheap, and some politely asked for their return if the whole scheme collapsed.

Like other romantic endeavors of the past, the cards were vilified by starchy parents who feared the moral consequences of these potentially salacious communications. And indeed, some cards were lewder than others. Tame by today’s standards, in the late 1800s they were like asking for under-the-blanket action while watching Trolls with your S.O.’s extended family after board game night. 

Inhabitants Of A Small Irish Island Had Fully Clothed Sex

Inisheer is home to nearly 300 permanent residents and is the smallest of the Aran Islands: three rocky, ruin-dotted islets off the west Irish coast. And it’s the land that sex forgot. Or, more accurately, the land that forgot how to have sex. When cultural anthropologists (and married couple) John and Betty Messenger arrived on Inisheer to conduct ethnographic research in 1958, they found one of the most sexually repressed locales in both time and space

O'Brien fort near the summit of Inisheer. Northern and western elevations

Laurel Lodged

Look at this photo. Not one person boning here. 

Inisheer’s devoutly Catholic residents arrived in the 1600s after fleeing Cromwellian rule. And over the following 300 years, their sexual attitudes regressed. The Messengers interviewed all 350 inhabitants and reported that there was no sex ed of any type, not even a brief and awkward pop culture-style birds and bees discourse. 

So while the rest of the western world was free-loving to Hendrix and Ravi Shankar, Inisheer’s inhabitants found nudity shameful and embarrassing, even for purposes of bathing. So they, according to the Messengers, only washed their extremities. And fishermen, deathly unwilling to strip, couldn’t swim—at least it made them more careful, they said. 

The PMV Plassey shipwreck

G.Mannaerts

Fungus ate their unwashed genitals, but they didn't know because they never looked.

Couples didn’t even see each other naked during sex, which was rare, short, and occurred under the cover of blankets while fully clothed in night-garments, which is how we imagine the Bananas in Pajamas have sex. And with no foreplay or kissing or any other bells and whistles, it’s no surprise that the female orgasm was unheard of (as it still is for millions), and women considered sex something to be endured rather than enjoyed. 

The women were, sadly, equally uninformed about menstruation, which seemed an unexplainable biological abnormality. It traumatized some younger women and forced others, fearing menstruation-induced mental illness, to retire from public life and take to their beds. The net result, unsurprisingly, was rampant masturbation, heavy drinking, and drunken fist-fighting. So the researchers gave the island a pseudonym, Inis Beag, to protect the inhabitants from unwanted attention. Especially from the type of people that dabble in internet comedy lists.

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