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Top sex and marriage advice through the ages

We often think of antique relationship advice found in dusty books written by long-dead elders as useless or good only for a laugh. But some of it was remarkably insightful — and sexually specific.
Image: Here Comes The Groom
Most modern people are surprised to learn that by the early 1900s, sex advice was about as explicit as it was possible to get. It came complete with instructions as detailed as architectural plans. Paramount Via Hulton Archive / Getty Images file
/ Source: contributor

This month, 232 years ago, Benjamin Franklin advised people contemplating wedded life to “keep your eyes open before marriage, half shut afterwards.” That’s sage wisdom indeed, part of a trove of marriage and sex advice wise and not-so-wise elders have been offering the young for thousands of years.

For just as long, the young have been ignoring it.

In 1845, the magazine “Punch” offered this counsel: “Advice to persons about to marry — ‘Don’t.’” We keep doing it, though. And because we do, marriage advice became a minor industry starting in the 1800s.

We tend to think of much of this antique advice as useless, or sexist, or prudish, good for nothing but a laugh, such as Dorothy Dix’s advice in 1939’s “How to Win and Hold a Husband:”  “... by the awe with which you listen to his opinions; by the rapt expression on your face when you listen to him monologing along about himself ... Ask him why he has never gone into the pictures. Implore him to write to the President and tell him just how to settle the farm-relief problem and how to deal with the Japanese situation.” (For more such nuggets see Miss Abigail’s Time Warp Advice.)

Often we’re laughing in smug ignorance, suggested Christina Simmons, acting head of the history department and professor of history and women’s studies at Canada’s University of Windsor. Some of the advice is pretty smart.

So, as millions of brides and grooms step up to the altar or the beach sand or the living room fireplace to get married this wedding season, Sexploration is resurrecting a few bits of wisdom. 

“Marriage engagement should never be thought of unless there is first a genuine and rational attachment. No cold calculations of profit or loss, no hereditary estates or other adventitious circumstances, though they were equivalent to a peerage, or a realm, should ever, for one moment, even in thought, be substituted for love.”

— William A. Alcott, “A Young Man’s Guide,” 1836

In medieval times, Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State University in Olympia, Wash., and author of "Marriage, a History," told me, the saying went “‘He that marries for love has good nights and bad days.’” But with the rise of the middle class came the somewhat radical idea that people married for love. And because they did, they needed help curbing their own passions and choosing wisely since the community and parents no longer had veto power.

“That created all sorts of anxieties,” Coontz said. Today, she explained, “we see similar concerns in a world of rapid social change and growing inequality.” Then as now, “the middle class is more likely to say that success or failure rests on what you do” rather than any measure of luck.

Then as now, people craved steps they could take toward self-improvement and rules of behavior. Advice writers were there to help.  
“… A passionate love cannot by the very nature of our emotional faculties be retained at full tension always, and what is to happen, when for the moment the harp must be unstrung? Unless there is a less taut tie of mutual respect and common interests, it is like enough that the harp will not be restrung at all. Disillusioned, disgusted, chilled to the soul, you will leave the fine instrument under cover in the corner of your drawing-room, and seek for other music to fill the empty house.”

— Robert F. Horton, “On the Art of Living Together,” 1896

“Mutual respect” might surprise people who think of those days as totally male-dominated. But, Simmons said of advice books she has studied that date  from about the turn of the 20th century to World War II, “they meant both wife and husband should be open and listen to the other … Men’s tendency toward dominance and women’s toward manipulation of traditional rules of deference were warned against.” So it wasn’t all about the wife making mean martinis and macaroni and cheese.

Sex, on the other hand, was more problematic, especially for the 19th century advice givers. One thing Alcott knew for sure was that married men should never, ever, ever, masturbate. Not only would it wreck a man’s health, but the masturbating man condemned his descendants “to suffer by inheriting feeble constitutions, or actual disease.”

Alcott wasn’t all that keen on intercourse, either. “I am, however, quite sure that one indulgence to each lunar month is all that the best health of the parties can possibly require,” he wrote in “The Physiology of Marriage” in 1856. In fact, he argued, “paradoxical as it may seem, it is scarcely too much to say, that one of the very ends of marriage is gradually to purify us wholly from sensuality.”

If you do not want to be purified of your sensuality, be glad Alice B. Stockham was not your doctor. Marital sex, she taught, was a lot like prostitution (largely because men were too demanding). It was forbidden if a woman was pregnant not only because she thought it harmed women, but because it ruined the morality of the coming child, she warned in 1886’s “Tokology, A Book for Every Woman.”

Luckily, married people apparently could avoid temptation through diet. “To live continent lives, avoid food containing aphrodisiac stimulants, such as coffee, eggs, oysters, and animal food,”  Stockham wrote.

But one of Stockham’s peers, Dr. Andrew Ingersoll, took the view shared by Sexploration that a couple’s sexual appetite should not only be enthusiastically satisfied but also celebrated.  

“The sexual relationship is among the most important uses of married life; it vivifies the affection for each other, as nothing else in the world can, and is a powerful reminder of their mutual obligation to each other and to the community in which they live.”

Most modern people are surprised to learn that by the early 1900s, sex advice was about as explicit as it was possible to get. It came complete with instructions as detailed as architectural plans. (By 1937, you had Oliver M. Butterfield telling couples that “the male partner must insert the penis at a 45 degree angle downward” which evokes the image of a guy taking his protractor to bed.)

Marie Stopes, mother of the birth control movement and proponent of turning sex from a duty to a mutual pleasure, published “Married Love” in England in 1919 and promptly sold 700,000 copies, many of which were smuggled into the U.S. despite being banned. But she had a U.S. rival, Dr. H.W. Long, a most enthusiastic advocate of sexual joy in marriage. Anybody getting married this summer might want to follow some of his advice.  

“Such a first meeting of bride and bridegroom will be no raping affair. There will be no shock in it, no dread, no shame or thought of shame; but as perfectly as two drops of water flow together and become one, the bodies and souls of the parties to the act will mingle in a unity
the most perfect and blissful that can ever be experienced by human beings in this world.”

— H.W. Long, "Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living," 1919

Long also cautioned that men should not be, shall we say, overeager, and described a variation of the missionary position, and exactly how each partner should move, in precise detail: “Now if the wife be left free to move, as just described, and the in-and-out motion proceeds as it should, what immediately follows will vary in a great degree. Thus, the time taken to reach the climax, or last act of the performance, may be a few seconds, or several minutes, may require a mere half dozen motions, or several hundred! ... For a husband and wife to reach this climax, at exactly the same instant, is a consummation that can never be excelled in human life.”

Even afterglow had its technique. The couple ought to fall asleep, he wrote, even if they’d just made love in the middle of the day, which, come to think of it, sounds like awfully good marital advice.

Brian Alexander is the author of the book now in paperback.