What Sex Was Like in the Wild West

Society has a certain image of the Old West. Though we look back and picture cowboys wandering the wild frontier, guns on both hips, we tend not to wonder what intimacy was like in the American West. There appears to be good reason for that, as Wild West facts about hooking up are more scarce than you would imagine. Even in a time when cat houses were a staple in almost every town and city, people still didn't talk openly about what they liked to do in the bedroom. This surely owes, in part, to the puritanical nature of American settlers. Not to mention the matter of hygiene or doctor visits.

Even though it was a taboo topic, there are a few fascinating tidbits relating to hooking up in the Old West.


  • America's 'Oldest Profession' Was In Full Swing
    Photo: Karl A. Dimler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    America's 'Oldest Profession' Was In Full Swing

    One thing is very clear about the Old West: sex workers were a staple to any town or city. What's surprising is the range of such options throughout the West. Some places were more stereotypical in terms of the treatment of those who worked within them. Others held this kind of work in higher regard, with expansive and elaborate spaces for workers to do business.  

    This kind of work was also indicative of socioeconomic classes in Old West society. Most of these workers were young (30 or younger), largely uneducated and, in many cases, illiterate. Some were immigrants, and pricing was based not only on looks but also nationality and ethnicity. Like the anonymous, easily replaced miners and railroad workers of the American frontier, sex workers filled a social and economic function necessitated by capitalism, but, as individuals, were largely irrelevant and forgotten. 

  • Gender Roles Were Fluid And Homosexuality Was No Big Thing
    Photo: NBC Television / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Gender Roles Were Fluid And Homosexuality Was No Big Thing

    When you think of the Old West, your mind might conjure images of tough, macho men who embodied stereotypically masculine traits. A cowboy riding valiantly on his horse to rescue a poor damsel that's tied to the railroad tracks, for instance; spitting dip, loading guns, and drinking hard. 

    If that's how you view the Old West, you might be shocked to know how cowboys really viewed homosexuality. Wild West society didn't necessarily label people homosexual or heterosexual, but rather allowed each person to be who they need to be in any given moment. In an interview ("Homos on the Range: How Gay was the West?"), University of Colorado at Boulder History Department Chairman Peter Boag, author of the book Same Sex Affairs, said, "people engaged in same sex activities weren't seen as homosexual."

    When women weren't present in large communities, say a mining camp full of men for example, some men would fill the role of women for physical pleasure and domestically, and normal gender roles were challenged. In effect, men in the Old West got it where they could. 

  • Birth Control Involved Ingesting Toxins
    Photo: Erin / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    Birth Control Involved Ingesting Toxins

    In an era of freewheeling attitudes, you might wonder why people weren't having as many babies. Condoms were available, but very expensive, so many people relied on medications to end any pregnancy.  

    These substances contained toxic ingredients, often from plant sources, that would end unwanted pregnancy upon arrival. For women engaging in this type of work, pregnancy was a major hazard - not only could it end their careers, it was also life-threatening. In fact, many women on the frontier passed during childbirth. Women were often left with the choice of life-ending pregnancies or noxious substances to end an unwanted pregnancy. 

  • Privacy During The Act? Think Again
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Privacy During The Act? Think Again

    It was common in the Wild West for families to live in small houses, usually made up of one large room. So, naturally, when it came down to every member of a family sharing one space, privacy wasn't possible. In which case, it's fair to question how they would get intimate when sleeping in a bed with children or other relatives. 

    Writing on the development of privacy, and adult pleasure as a private practice, in Europe, author Brian Watson explained that, during the Reformation, figures such as Martin Luther created a sanctity of privacy surrounding intimacy, something previously nonexistent. In the United States, this type of privacy was afforded by class. Money meant privacy, and most in the Wild West didn't have any money.

  • Cross Dressing Went Both Ways
    Photo: C.E. Finn / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Cross Dressing Went Both Ways

    In his research of the Old West, historian Peter Boag was surprised to discover how common cross dressing was. Women often dressed as men to get ahead and gain advantages denied to them during this time because of their gender. However, men engaged in the practice as well.

    During a talk on sexuality and gender issues of the American West at the University of Wyoming, Boag stated, "What I was unprepared for when I started uncovering all these female-to-male cross dressers, I also started to uncover hundreds of stories of men who dressed as women."

  • Some Things Were Too Risque for Cowboys

    In the book Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940, Chad Heap, Associate Professor of American Studies and Undergraduate Advisor of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at George Washington University, explained that oral pleasure was considered a little too foreign for Americans during the time period, and therefore wasn't readily performed.

    There's evidence that even sex workers were against it and would shun others who didn't mind engaging in the practice.