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200 Years Of 'Sex' In America, In 1 Chart

What do we talk about when we talk about sex? Usually, well, um, uh, sex.

But over the past couple of centuries, American attitudes toward sex — and the language that surrounds it — have shifted.

"Historically," says Stef Woods, who teaches history at American University and focuses on American popular culture and sexuality, the word sex "was used to describe biological or physical differences. Now, it is more common to use gender or gender assigned at birth and reserve the use of sex for the act."

That distinction, Woods says, is supported by the words that appear in the chart above near the mentions of sex.

The chart is the creation of — a Florida-based marketing company — to demonstrate those shifting American attitudes toward sex. The visual, devised for Dr. Ed., an online British medical service that is sanctioned by the government's National Health Service, also reveals some strong tendencies and trends in America's past.


The researchers selected 15 commonly used sex-related terms and ran them through the Corpus of Historical American English. COHA, as it is popularly referred to, is a ginormous online database compiled by Brigham Young University, containing some 115,000 textual sources and roughly 400 million words written and spoken between 1810 and 2009.

The researchers entered the terms and gathered the surrounding context for each of them by collecting all words within 10 words before and after each occurrence. They also ran a significance analysis — known as "log-likelihood keyness" — that compares the frequency with which certain words show up in close-proximity to a sex-related word to the frequency with which those same words appear in the collection in general for each year.

Chartmaker Sam Deford sent us all 15 charts. Some of the clinical terms and graphics in the set are too, well, graphic for the NPR History Dept and Not Safe For Work. But choosing our words carefully, we were able to talk about the Sex Chart with Stef Woods and other researchers. Here are some of the observations:


"Much like the pendulum swings between political parties, the pendulum also swings between acceptance and disdain for the act of sex," Stef Woods says after looking at the chart. She notes certain spikes in the use of the word sex in the 1830s and 1840s, perhaps attributed to the beginning of the women's rights movement,limited — but notable — access to higher education and revisions in married women's property rights.

Between 1840 and 1900, she sees fewer mentions of the word sex, maybe because of "a return of Puritanical values. The Victorian era reinforced separate spheres for men and women."

And, she says, there was a focus on Industrialization. Plus, the Civil War and Reconstruction "led to less reading and writing for pleasure."

Clear spikes begin to appear in the 1900s, she says, "when women were granted the right to vote" and "when the Kinsey Report was released and workplace and reproductive rights were granted."

There were noticeable drops in the use of the word sex, she says, during Prohibition. And it's not surprising "that there were dips during the Reagan/Bush Era. I recall the shame and misconceptions surrounding an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, the return of Family Values, the preference for abstinence-only education and even how the Parents Music Resource Center advocated the banning of music for being too sexual."

You can also see in the blue, "Top Words" part of the chart that the word sex was often linked to the word education between 1810 and the mid-20th century. But, as researchers point out, after A.C. Kinsey's landmark reports on human sexuality – conducted at Indiana University — were published in 1948 and 1953, people increasingly began using the phrase sex education.

In February of 1948, George Gallup, then director of the American Institute of Public Opinion, summarized the results of one of his surveys – in the Bloomington, Ill. Pantagraph and other newspapers — showing that a large majority of Americans wanted more sex education in high schools. The poll also revealed that Americans, by a ratio of 5 to 1, approved of Kinsey's pursuits.

And the researchers noticed an uptick in more contemporary terms – such as sex appeal, sex offender and sex discrimination — near the end of the 20th century. And the debut of the phrase sex partner.

The term sex robot, however, is not on the list — yet.

Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing [email protected]

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Linton Weeks
Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.