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12 Trailblazing Women Who Changed the Way We Think About Sex and Sexuality

Sexuality has always been an important aspect of human existence. When agricultural societies evolved, there was an increase in communal supervision of sexual activity, most likely owing to population growth and the emergence of dense urban populations. 

This surveillance imposed stricter rules on sexuality and sexual activity

Gender roles around sexuality became much more stringent with the advent of patriarchal societies, and sexual norms began focusing on sexual possessiveness and the control of female sexuality

The ways in which men and women were permitted and expected to express their sexuality differed dramatically, with men wielding far greater sexual power and freedom. Different civilizations, on the other hand, have developed diverse approaches to gender.

While the United States still prides itself on being The Land of the Free, it is relatively conservative compared to other industrialized nations regarding its individuals’ overall attitudes on sex. 

According to an international poll, 29% of Americans believe that premarital sex is always bad, whereas the average across the 24 nations polled was 17%. 

Similar disparities were discovered in questions concerning the condemnation of sex before the age of 16, extramarital sex, and homosexuality, with overall American disapproval of these actions being 12%, 13%, and 11% higher, respectively, than the study’s average.

When it comes to women and sexuality, American culture is extremely rigid in its attitudes around sex. Males are widely thought to be more sexual than women, and the assumption that men have — or have the right to — larger sexual appetites than women creates a double standard. 

Why can’t we just loosen up? 

Well, we’re trying! Things have changed with society slowly beginning to alter its views and rethink its sexual standards, thanks in part to the efforts of a handful of courageous women.

So, with that being said and in the spirit of celebrating women and the beauty of sex, here are 12 women who have changed the way we think about sex, gender, and pleasure.

The women who changed our views about sex and sexuality

Mary Steichen Calderone

Calderone was an American physician and sexual education public health advocate. Her most remarkable accomplishment was overturning the American Medical Association’s regulation prohibiting patients from receiving birth control information. 

Mary_Steichen_Calderone

From 1954 until 1982, Calderone was president and co-founder of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). She authored several articles that advocated for open conversation and equal access to knowledge for people of all ages. She was also Planned Parenthood’s medical director.

Virginia Johnson 

Johnson was a trailblazing sex researcher who, with William Masters, defined the four phases of the sexual response and made significant advances in understanding sexual dysfunction at a period when few people were openly discussing sex. 

Virginia Johnson

Initially working as Master’s research assistant in 1957, she eventually became his equal collaborator in disseminating decades of data that dispelled many misconceptions about arousal and sex.

Sylvia Rivera

Rivera was a gay liberation and transgender rights activist decades before transgender persons became recognized on the public stage. 

Sylvia_Rae_Rivera (1)

Rivera, who identified as a drag queen, joined the Gay Activists Alliance at the age of 18, co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and battled for the legacy of gay activism until her death.

Audre Lorde 

Lorde was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who “dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.” She is well renowned as a poet for her technical mastery and emotional expression. 

Her poems reflect her indignation and outrage at the civil and social injustices she witnessed during her life. The Poetry Foundation described her performance as “strong, melodious, and dramatic” as a spoken word performer. 

Audre-Lorde-1

Her poems and prose primarily address civil rights, feminism, lesbianism, sickness and disability, and the discovery of the black female identity. Lorde claimed that women could become more empowered by embracing rather than suppressing their sexuality.  

In 1978 she wrote Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, where she stated, “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

Betty Dodson 

Dodson was a sex educator and a pioneering pro-sex feminist. She began organizing Bodysex classes in the 1970s to help women connect with their bodies and erogenous zones, heal shame, improve pleasure perception, and promote self-love

Women were guided in the courses to explore their bodies and masturbate together to understand how to experience an orgasm as a woman alone and with a sexual partner. Her two-hour sessions included 15 naked ladies who used a wand vibrator to help in masturbation.

Betty Dodson

She advised women to place a little towel over their vulva to lessen the sensation of the vibrator and extend the enjoyable experience. Her method’s objective was to deliver both vaginal and clitoral stimulation simultaneously. 

Dodson used this technique to teach hundreds of women how to have an orgasm. Her technique became known as the Betty Dodson Method.

Minori Kitahara 

Kitahara is a non-fiction writer who has published more than ten single and co-authored books. She established the Love Piece Club, Japan’s first inclusive female-owned sex toy shop, in 1996. 

Minori Kitahara

Since then, she’s been a vocal advocate for sexual health and women’s right to pleasure, even though the issue is still somewhat taboo in her country.

Nancy Friday 

Friday was a writer who pushed for openness regarding sexual desire and dreams by conducting hundreds of interviews with women (and men). 

My Secret Garden, her 1973 bestseller, debunked many myths and misconceptions about female sexuality (including the fact that it was safe and passive). 

Nancy-Friday

She also published books based on interviews about issues such as envy, feminism, BDSM, and even men’s fantasies.

Mona Eltahawy

Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American author and journalist who advocated for a Middle Eastern sexual revolution in her 2015 book, Headscarves and Hymens. Her commentaries have featured in various publications, and she is a frequent guest analyst on many television and radio shows. 

She appeared on most major media channels during Egypt’s 18-day revolution that deposed President Hosni Mubarak, prompting the feminist website Jezebel to dub her “The Woman Explaining Egypt to the West.”

Mona Eltahawy

In November 2011, Egyptian riot police beat her, breaking her left arm and right hand and sexually assaulting her. She was imprisoned for 12 hours by the Interior Ministry and Military Intelligence. 

Ms Eltahawy was named one of Newsweek’s “150 Fearless Women of 2012,” Time magazine named her one of its “People of the Year, and Arabian Business magazine named her one of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women

Religions, she says, are “obsessed with my vagina.” “Stay outside my vagina until I want you in there,” I tell them.

Beverly Whipple 

Whipple is a sexologist, author, and professor emerita at Rutgers University. She co-wrote the book The G Spot and Other Recent Discoveries About Human Sexuality

Following a nursing career, most of her scholarly work has focused on enhancing female sexual function. She was a co-author of Female ejaculation: a case study in 1981. The research was published in The Journal of Sex Research and contains the first usage of the term “G-Spot.”

Beverly Whipple

Her methods include using fMRI scans to acquire data about what is going on in the brain. Her animal experiments helped isolate the vasoactive intestinal peptide and found that orgasms can be rerouted via the vagus nerve to the brain without requiring the spinal cord, allowing females with spinal cord injuries to reach orgasm through psychological stimulation alone.

Shere Hite 

Hite was an American-born German feminist and sex educator. Her sexological work was particularly concerned with female sexuality. 

Shere Hite

Hite drew on the biological studies of sex conducted by Masters and Johnson and Alfred Kinsey. She also cited theoretical, political, and psychological texts linked with the 1970s feminist movement, such as The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm by Anne Koedt.

Elisabeth Anne Lloyd  

Lloyd is a biologist philosopher from the United States. She is currently the Arnold and Maxine Tanis Chair of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University and is also an associated faculty scholar at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.

Her book, The Case of the Female Orgasm, received widespread attention in both professional and popular publications, including Nature and The New York Times, and was parodied in an episode of Saturday Night Live. 

Elisabeth Anne Lloyd - The Case of the Female Orgasm

The book challenges what it sees as anti-scientific biases in the several purported adaptive theories for female orgasm

Lloyd suggests that the existing data, such as sexology research, are significantly more supportive of a neutral “byproduct” theory in which female orgasm evolved as a species attribute due to orgasm’s critical role in male conception.

Ruth Westheimer

Dr Ruth Westheimer was born in Germany to a Jewish family and sent to an orphanage in Switzerland when the Nazis came to power. After WWII, she joined the Haganah as a scout and sniper at 17. 

On her 20th birthday, Westheimer was severely injured by an exploding shell during a mortar attack on Jerusalem in 1947–1949, nearly losing both feet. 

She relocated to Paris to study psychology at the Sorbonne two years later. Westheimer worked as a maid to pay for her graduate education, getting an M.A. in sociology and a PhD at 42. 

Ruth Westheimer - Sexually Speaking

She lectured widely during the next decade and had a private sex therapy practice.

Westheimer started her media career in 1980 with the radio call-in show Sexually Speaking. Later, she created The Dr Ruth Show. Aside from her advice, she was known for being warm, cheerful, humorous, and gracious, and for her motto, “Get some.” 

In 1984, the New York Times said she went “from obscurity to near-immediate fame.” She became a household name and a cultural icon. She’s published 45 sex and sexuality novels.

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