The discovery and sale last month (February 2018) of a Georgian ‘sex manual’, dating from 1720, provoked curiosity and some gentle mockery in the press. This was apparently due to some of its dubious and unscientific advice, such as the efficacy of root vegetables and songbirds on male fertility, or the female lying on her right after sex to produce a boy, on her left for a girl.
However, one of the most striking points of the manual for me is the fact that women were expected to be as enthusiastic as bed partners as the men. The manual advises, for example, the couple to pay attention to foreplay, ‘to invigorate their mutual desires and make their flames burn with a fiercer ardour…’ Note that’s ‘mutual’ desires.
This expectation of female desire for and enjoyment of sex is something much of our western society appeared to lose in the nineteenth century. And the re-gaining of it in the twentieth was a slow process. The manual itself was banned at some point in the mid 17th century up until 1961.
According to The Facts of Life: The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain, Hall and Porter, in the 18th century, belief had it that whilst sex was expected to take place between heterosexual married couples and primarily for the purpose of bearing children, it nevertheless should be enjoyable for male and female participants. However, it would appear the Victorians have something to answer for, as moving into the nineteenth century, self-control and abstinence came to be regarded as virtues, aligning with middle-class respectability. One imagines women did not necessarily stop enjoying sex, or at least I hope not. Yet the public narrative, under this male-led orthodoxy, followed that a “respectable” woman was uninterested in carnal matters.
A second coming
In Western society today we can take it for granted once more that a sex manual will be as likely to focus on a woman’s pleasure as on a man’s. In the twenty-first century, there is a new openness about the ways women derive pleasure from sex – whether solo or with others, facilitated by a digital age and the Internet. This change is signalled by such websites as OMGYes, and the anonymous contributions to Howtomakemecome.
Erotica, too, echoes the trend. It is not that women haven’t been reading erotic literature for centuries. However, women are now seen as a mainstream target audience, particularly for the printed word, and increasingly also for film. A rising proportion of romance stories also appears to have taken on a more amatory flavour. Hopefully, much of the “shame” in buying and admitting to buying erotic material is gone. Although if you are embarrassed, today’s ‘brown paper bag’ of the e-reader will facilitate your secret purchasing.
Aristotle’s Masterpiece Completed In Two Parts, The First Containing the Secrets of Generation
Roy Porter and Lesley Hall. The Facts of Life: The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain, 1650–1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.