By Johannah King-Slutzky
Everyone knows that the sexual revolution invented sex, right? Oh, people have been doing this for millennia? With Masters of Sex
premiering Sunday, it's clear sex how-to is more than a one-off source
of fixation. But what did sex manuals look like before contemporary
iterations like The Lovers' Guide
or Savage Love? Nerve scavenged Google Books to find out just how
variable (and seemingly ahead-of-its-time) sex advice can be. Some of
it's beautiful, some of it's weird, some of it's eerily
prescient: Here's our favorite historical sex advice. (Illustrations
might be NSFW.)
1. The School of Venus, 1680
This premodern sex manual is surprisingly frank about sexuality,
covering seemingly anachronistic ground like condoms, female orgasms,
and fuck buddies. Samuel Pepys, noted diarist, called it "the most bawdy, lewd book that ever I saw" -- and then bought it. Excerpts and illustrations below. (h/t The Appendix)
2. An ABZ of Love, 1963
A favorite of Kurt Vonnegut's, this tender sex manual authored by Danish couple Inge and Sten Hegeler promises: "aspects of sexual relationships seen from a slightly different standpoint.” In the Hegelers' case, that meant a progressive approach to LGBT rights, sexism, and family-oriented sex ed, often penned in a sweet, wry tone.
"We are none of us so full of common sense as we would like to think ourselves. So there are two paths we can take: one is try to deny and suppress our emotions and force ourselves to think sensibly. In this way we run the risk of fooling ourselves. The other way is to admit to our emotions, accept our feelings and let them come out into the daylight. By being suspicious of all the judgments we pass on the basis of what we feel (and not until then) we shall taken a step towards becoming practitioners of common sense."
3. Private Sex Advice To Women, 1917
Penned by R.B. Armitage, M.D., this guide for "For Young Wives and Those Who Soon Expect To Be Married" is morally a mixed bag. On the one hand, Armitage spends several chapters talking about the major hip new technology of his time, eugenics. Not so great. But there's also advice that sounds surprisingly contemporary, namely, on the ethics of birth control and abortion. It's still just another old white guy talking to women about their bodies; but it's pretty cool that he grasped the importance of planned parenthood and the weight of such a personal choice before there was a Planned Parenthood or Pro Choice. The more things change...
4. Kama Sutra, 400 BCE-200 CE
Everybody knows the Kama Sutra is kinky. But what you probably didn't know is that its fascinations don't stop at the art of human pretzels. In Sanskrit Kama means sensual pleasure (one of the four goals of Hindu life) and Sutra, the root-word for English's "sew," means thread. All told, the Kama Sutra is a vast compendium of prose, poetry, and (eventually) illustration which served as both a practical guide to sex and a long treatise on love, family, and well-being. But while beautiful, to modern eyes it can get downright weird. For example, want 2400 year old Viagra? Try bee stings.
5. The Canons of Theodore, ca. 900
Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic church was a rapidly changing
institution over the course of the 500 some odd years that make up what
we now call "the Medieval Era." Penitentials are one such artifact of
that transitioning. First compiled by Irish monks in the 6th century,
penitentials are little handbooks that detail the sins a monk might be
likely to hear in confession.Though they might cover anything from
murder to eating habits, sex was the main course for these monastic
manuals. The Canons of Theodore, whose manuscript is featured
below, is one example. The proscribed punishments in these things aren't
that weird -- just seemingly arbitrary. But the many yays and nays of
monastically approved sex in the 10th century are totally wacky. (See: