(Photo: Bunny Yeager/Getty)

Bettie Page

Pin-up queen Bettie Page was openly flaunting her sexuality and sexual prowess in her '50s photos, including those in Playboy, in which she sported then risqué publicly panties, thigh-highs, bikini tops and barely anything else. So provocative was she and her trademarked bangs she ultimately triggered a United States Senate Committee investigation on the effects of pornography on youth.

Although her images explored new territory, including bondage and other bold sexual play, she would disavow her work later in life after becoming a born again Christian.

(Photo: Cleopatra's Feast, Public Domain)


Cleopatra VII, the great Queen of Egypt who took over the throne after her father King Ptolemy XII died in 51 B.C. and is now known as one of the world's most notable female leaders. She famously declared "I will not be triumphed over." However, she's also noted for sexual conquests including Julius Caesar, with whom she had a son, as well as Roman ruler Marc Antony.

Shakespeare describes Marc Antony as emasculated by his union with Cleopatra. He goes from military hero to weak consort. Even when he tries to kill himself with a sword, he is unsuccessful, while Cleopatra takes the asp — which is also a phallic symbol — and she's able to put it to her chest and kill herself, becoming the powerful sexual erotic figure that overtakes male sexuality.

(Photo: Public Domain)

Erica Jong

Erica Jong, author of books such as Fear of Flying and What do Women Want? Bread roses sex power, is noted for her honest representation of women's sexuality. She's also noted for coining the term, "the zipless fuck", which is according to Jong, the perfect sexual experience. She was frank, unflinching and open about women and sexuality, a bold breakthrough at the time. She is quoted as saying, "You cannot divide creative juices from human juices. And as long as juicy women are equated with bad women, we will err on the side of being bad."

(Photo: Reuters)


Madonna's sexuality has been integral to her career as a musician and has drawn ire over and over again from her critics. Perhaps it was her 1984 song, "Like a Virgin." Or maybe her 1992 book Sex. Or maybe it was her "Justify my Love" video—think early 50 Shades of Grey meets a bisexual orgy. Or maybe it was her 2003 appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards during which she ended her performance with an open-mouthed kiss with fellow singer Britney Spears (although, that seems tame now compared to her earlier work). Whatever it was, Madonna happily—and still!—flaunts her sexuality for all to see.

(Photo: Public Domain)

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, or Colette as she became known, was a French writer who explored the themes of love and sex and the pleasure and aches that come with both. While her early Claudine novels (in which her husband, Henri Gauthier-Villars, took credit for) were spicier in nature, she went on—after a stint as a dance hall performer — to pen works such as Ces Plaisirs, on female sexuality, La Fin de Chéri about an affair between a young man and an older woman. She in turn found her pleasures with both sexes via affairs with wealthy lesbian marquise de Balbeuf, and — after divorcing her first husband — married newspaper editor Henry de Jouvenel.

(Photo: Public Domain)

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was the daughter of an early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who both wrote a document arguing for women's rights and advocated for the free expression of women's desire in the late 18th century. She died in childbirth, but her daughter would fall in love with a man she met with secretly at her mother's gravestone.

That man was romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who tried to convince Mary to practice free love. But despite running off, becoming pregnant, and eschewing societal norms, Mary actually fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley and craved monogamy. Shelley didn't feel the same way and continued to sleep around with other women.

(Photo: Associated Press)

Virginia Johnson

It seems the show Masters of Sex has brought to light the prominent work on sexuality that both William Masters and Virginia Johnson had done. This two time divorcee was talking sex and female orgasms at a time when sex talk remained hush-hush in the bedrooms of the 1950s — and in fact she studied sex by participating in it with her research partner Masters, who she eventually married. But it was her belief that female sexuality should be researched that helped propel one of the largest studies ever conducted in sexuality in history.

(Photo: Public Domain)


While still married to Uriah the Hittite, she caught the eye of King David while openly bathing on a rooftop at dusk. The king, who was supposed to be at battle, was seduced by the show. Their affair began, she became pregnant, and when it became clear that David was going to be found out, he sent Uriah to the front lines where he was killed. Debate remains about her positioning on the rooftop — did she intend to entice? Was she there simply by circumstance? Either way, she's noted for being the turning point in David's life.

(Photo: Public Domain)

Alisoun (Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale)

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes a woman who draws power and authority from her experience in the bedroom. Alisoun in The Wife of Bath meets her fifth husband at the funeral of her fourth, and falls immediately in lust. Even though he's 20 years her junior, she decides that this is a boy she's going to marry. She describes both her genitalia — and how she likes to use them — as much as possible.

(Photo: Public Domain)

Mata Hari

This accused French spy from the early 1900s sold herself on her own sexual ticket. In the mid-1890s, the striking woman responded to an ad for a mail order bride for a Dutch East Indies captain. The two married, though that marriage dissolved by the early 1900s. After that, Hari moved to Paris and started working as an exotic dancer dancing seductively with scarves or even naked. She later reportedly supported herself by seducing military and government agents, the slippery slope which led to an affair with a 21-year-old Russian captain and later, her job as a spy.

(Photo: Public Domain)

Mae West

This performer from the 1920s first made her name in Vaudeville, then stage and then the movies and throughout all, she displayed her sexuality on her sleeve. (The first play she wrote was called "Sex" and another play on homosexuality was called "Drag"). She emitted powerful sexual energy, and is often quoted for her provocative lines on desire: "Why don't you come up sometime and see me" or "Good sex is like good bridge. If you don't have a good partner, you'd better have a good hand." Her open sexuality was enough to draw concerns from numerous moral rights groups over and over again.

For more tune into Doc Zone on Thursday Feb 12 at 9 pm on CBC for "The Truth About Female Desire".