From Newspapers to TikTok: A History of Sex Advice Columns
Nowadays, you can Google pretty much any question you have about sex and find numerous articles in diverse media outlets that attempt to answer it: “Can you get pregnant on your period?” “Why do I orgasm without ejaculating?” No question is too obscure.
We can partially thank the internet for this influx of information, but where did people go for sex advice before the invention of the world wide web? After all, it's not like everyone grew up able to consult their families and friends (or if they did, they didn't always receive helpful answers). And sex education in schools is failing us pretty much everywhere in the world.
Sex advice started way before online outlets
While the websites we read about sex today are an invention of the past few decades, people have actually been reading sex advice for centuries, if not millennia, in the form of books. The ancient Greek philosophers wrote about sex, with Plato and Aristotle advocating sex as a natural and spiritually beneficial act in the 300s and 400s B.C. The famous ancient Indian book Kama Sutra came out in the second century C.E., teaching people about everything from sex positions to marriage.
Throughout medieval times and the Renaissance, people learned about sexuality through sex manuals, which contained some medically inaccurate information as well as some surprisingly progressive advice: An English sex manual published in 1684 by an author under the pseudonym Aristotle stated that without the clitoris, "the fair sex [would] neither desire nuptial embraces, nor have pleasure in them, nor conceive by them.” (Again, both are somewhat progressive and somewhat inaccurate.) During the Victorian era, people favored marriage-focused books like Dutch gynecologist Theodoor Hendrik van de Velde’s 1926 "Ideal Marriage," which sold over half a million copies in the U.S.
Sex columns in periodicals are newer than sex books…
But not as current as we might think. At the beginning of the 20th century, Margaret Sanger (the birth control activist known for founding the organizations that gave rise to Planned Parenthood) published two columns in the socialist newspaper New York Call covering topics including sex, birth control and STIs: What Every Mother Should Know (1911-12) and What Every Girl Should Know (1912-13). This work led to Sanger’s arrest for "obscenity" in 1914, after which she compiled her advice into the book "What Every Girl Should Know" instead.
In the mid-20th century came the burgeoning field of sex research, leading to such classics as Alfred Kinsey’s "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," Masters and Johnson’s "Human Sexual Response" and Shere Hite's "The Hite Report," which all shared information about human sexuality based on studies and surveys the authors had conducted.
…And then Playboy was born.
The magazine's first issue, released in December 1953, featured a centerfold of Marilyn Monroe and a letter from the editor claiming that Playboy was "fulfilling a publishing need only slightly less important than the one just taken care of by the Kinsey Report." Still, sex was only one of the magazine's many foci, which included articles about sports, music and entertainment, as well as short works of fiction.
In 1960, Playboy's first Advisor column came out, where readers wrote in to receive answers to their sex questions—as well as more general questions about how to live their lives. Perhaps the most famous one, in fact, was not about sex at all: It was from Barry Manilow while he was working in the corporate world, asking if he should quit his job and pursue music (the advice was to go for it, which he evidently did). When it came to sex, the tips similarly tended to encourage people to indulge their adventurous sides and explore things like kink and nonmonogamy.
Due to larger societal taboos around women and sex, women's magazines took longer to begin covering R-rated topics. The first women's magazines focused on things like fashion, beauty and homemaking: Cosmopolitan, which has been around since 1886, only began covering sex after Helen Gurley Brown became editor-in-chief in 1965. She rebranded the magazine to be geared toward single career women, publishing an article about the birth control pill in the first issue under her name. The magazine now has a (frequently mocked) column called Sex Tips from Guys, where real men share what turns them on, in addition to its (also commonly mocked) lists of sex tips from Cosmo writers.
The approach of enlisting the opposite gender to advise a magazine's demographic was also favored by Men's Health, which was founded in 1986 and features a Girl Next Door column, where women have answered common sex questions from men, like "What’s the one thing that never fails to light a woman’s fire?" and "Does size matter?"
Soon after the first men's and women's magazines started to include sex columns, newspapers also began doing so: In 1994, writer Candace Bushnell began writing Sex and the City, her column for The New York Observer that spawned the HBO TV series of the same name four years later. Like her character Carrie Bradshaw, Bushnell wasn't writing sex advice as much as firsthand accounts of her experiences and those of her friends. In 1991, the Seattle newspaper The Stranger ran the first Savage Love column from advice columnist Dan Savage, where he answered the sex and love questions of all different readers from his perspective as a gay man.
In the late '90s and early 2000s, less historically raunchy women's magazines began adding sex to their usual topics of coverage in order to attract more readers. Ladies Home Journal printed its first Behind Closed Doors sex column in 2000, and Redbook began running its sex column, Red Hot Sex, that same year. Soon, sex wasn't just a topic reserved for magazines known for their edginess; it was an expected part of mainstream women's publications. Men's magazines underwent a similar shift, with magazines like Esquire and GQ (both founded in the '30s and originally focused on fashion) increasingly covering sex.
Inclusive feminism and LGBTQIA+ voices altered the scope of sex advice
Women's magazines, however, garnered a reputation for publishing sex advice that appeared outdated in light of the intersectional feminism of the 2010s, with excessive focus on pleasing men and a bias toward heterosexuality. In 2013, Cosmo's new sex and relationships editor, Anna Breslaw, hosted a Reddit AMA explaining that she was hired to help make the magazine "funnier, more feminist, and less about creepy servile blowjob magic." In the years following, the publication made a point to include more empowering and inclusive sex articles, with LGBTQ perspectives and advice geared toward feminists. Glamour similarly did away with content focused on "what guys think," including a columnist by the name of Jake, to emphasize sex advice focused on women's empowerment.
Around the same time, in 2014, the Playboy website relaunched with an emphasis on articles and completely got rid of nude photographs, which led to a boom in traffic and the magazine to get rid of nudes in the print issues as well. This makeover also led to an increasingly feminist bent in the content, following the direction of women's magazines, with more female writers and articles on topics like sexual consent and women's health. Today, much of Playboy's sex coverage emphasizes women's pleasure and LGBTQ issues.
Still, the LGBTQ community has been largely underrepresented in sex advice columns, though some writers have recently stepped up to fix that. In 2017, John Paul (JP) Brammer started the sex and love advice column ¡Hola, Papi! in Out magazine to provide guidance to queer people who don't have the same access to information about their sexuality online as straight, cis people. Sessi Blanchard similarly began her column MTF & DTF to talk about the little-discussed experiences of dating and sex from a trans woman's perspective.
Sex columns have also recently shifted in favor of enlisting experts, rather than journalists, as writers. Time magazine's Ask Dr. Ruth column features advice from the renowned sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Glamour now runs a sex column by neuroscientist Dr. Nan Wise and The New York Times has a column called The Cycle about sex and women's health by OB-GYN Dr. Jen Gunter.
Sex advice has also, of course, expanded way beyond newspapers and magazines (and their corresponding websites) to sites dedicated to sex education. There are also apps dedicated to teaching people about sex, forums on sites like Reddit where people give one another sex advice and sex ed channels on social media apps like TikTok and YouTube.
Because of all this new technology available to us, information that was previously hard to access is at our fingertips. The challenge, now, is wading through all the misinformation on the internet to find good advice. That's something those in ancient Greece and India didn't have to do, but it does mean people have a greater chance at finding advice that's geared specifically toward them.