Want 2400-year-old Viagra? Try bee stings.
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…
"One of the most distressing features of the popular prejudice against Birth Control, arising from a total misconception of the subject, has been the widely spread and popularly accepted notion that Birth Control is practically analogous to abortion[…]. We realize that in exercising control over the entrance gate of life we are not fully performing, consciously and deliberately, a great human duty, but carrying on rationally a beneficial process which has, more blindly and wastefully, been carried on since the beginning of the world. There are still a few persons ignorant enough or foolish enough to fight against the advance of civilization in this matter; we can well afford to leave them severely alone, knowing that in a few years all of them will have passed away. It is not our business to defend the control of birth, but simply discuss how we may most wisely exercise that control." (Via.)
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.
"When a man wishes to enlarge his lingam, he should rub it with the bristles of certain insects that live in trees, and then, after rubbing it for ten nights with oils, he should again rub it with the bristles as before. By continuing to do this a swelling will be gradually produced in the lingam, and he should then lie on a cot, and cause his lingam to hang down through a hole in the cot. After this he should take away all the pain from the swelling by using cool concoctions. The swelling, which is called 'Suka', and is often brought about among the people of the Dravida country, lasts for life.” (Via)
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: flowchart.)
6. The Pillow Book, 1002
No that's not a zipcode– it's the year Lady Sei Shonagon completed her surprisingly fresh collection of musings on life, love, and the art of negging. The Pillow Book belongs to a genre of writing called zuihitsu, which — and I'm sure I'm mincing culture horribly here — was more or less collected bedside Post-it notes. Very bloggerly. The Pillow Book feels particularly anachronistic because it was written by a woman, so instead of getting some kind of 11th century Act Like A Lady pulp, you end up with chapters called "Men Have Really Strange Emotions." No joke. Want some commentary on celebrities schtupping the maid? The Pillow Book's got you covered: "Sometimes a man will leave a very pretty woman to marry an ugly one." Or how about what it's like to order from ModCloth? "It is a great pleasure when the ornamental comb that one has ordered turns out to be pretty."
"I greatly enjoy taking in someone who is pleased with himself and who has a self-confident look, especially if he is a man. It is amusing to observe him as he alertly waits for my next repartee; but it is also interesting if he tried to put me off my guard by adopting an air of calm indifference as if there were not a thought in his head. I realize that it is very sinful of me, but I cannot help being pleased when someone I dislike has a bad experience."