How Sex Talk in Literature Has Changed Over 200 Years

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Sex in literature hasn’t evolved in a straight line from the simple prudery of yore to today’s embarrassingly explicit Jonathan Franzen sex scenes and Nell Zink rejoinders.

No, literary sex talk changes like fashion, from the bawdy double entendres of the Elizabethan theater to the 18th-century seduction plot to Victorian allusion to “obscene” modern literature and back again.

A British health website, DrEd.com, delved into the entire corpus of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, to explore the way certain words having to do with “venereal” matters have appeared, faded, or been associated with new companion words over the last two centuries. Take “prostitution,” for instance, which used to frequently appear near the word “house” but now is more likely to show up alongside “pornography” or “narcotics.”

Read the full study here, and click through our slideshow for a few more examples of how sex words have evolved over time:

“Orgasm” is a word that wasn’t used at all until the last half of the 20th century. Thanks, Erica Jong. I noticed a spike around “fake” in the 1970s through ’90s — thanks, perhaps, to the rise of feminist critique of sexual practices.

“Virginity” showed up plenty in the 19th century, but has exploded in the last 50 years, particularly alongside “lost” and its variations.

“Latent” has gone out of style as a companion word to homosexuality, but “abortion” has spiked — presumably in the discussion of culture war issues. Note that “Forster” (as in the novelist E.M. Forster) is one of the words that shows up around “homosexuality” quite a bit in the ’60s and ’70s. Fascinating!

Lesbian is the most recently popular of all the words studied, not making much of an appearance until the last few decades.

“Social intercourse” is out of style, while “sexual intercourse” is in, as of the early 20th century. “Anal intercourse” pops up after 1970.