The Victorians may have been well-documented prudes living in an era of rampant sexual misinformation about how sex works, but compelling evidence shows that a certain segment of the Victorian-era population were certified freaks who were kind of obsessed with sex, talking about sex, writing about sex, and, well, telling other people how to have it. They didn’t actually ever use the word “sex;” they just wrote a lot of how-to manuals with titles that borrow a lot of heavy flower imagery along with euphemistic discussions about “pollination” and “seeds.”
Much of the popular advice found in Victorian sex manuals in understandably bad, some involves “lying back and thinking of England,” and some actually isn’t bad at all — if you can get over descriptors like “ripe” and “sour.” Here are ten of the most noteworthy pieces of Victorian sex advice.
Stay pretty, don’t masturbate
According to Becklard’s Physiology, a self-help guide published in 1845, “solitary practices” like masturbation “stop the growth of the organs, and the development of the various functions … and produce an artificial ripeness which must soon wither and dry up.” In short: abstaining from masturbation helps decrease the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and helps prevent organ failure and ARTIFICIAL RIPENESS OH GOD gross.
Don’t have sex, ever
In her 1894 manual Instruction And Advice For The Young Bride, Ruth Smythers described sex as “at best revolting and at worse rather painful, it has to be endured.” She goes on to say, “The wise bride will permit a maximum of two brief sexual experiences weekly — and as time goes by she should make every effort to reduce this frequency. Feigned illness, sleepiness, and headaches are among her best friends in this matter.” And thus a generation of women with bedtime headaches was born.
Flirting will kill you
Henry Hanchett, author of Sexual Health: A Plain and Practical Guide for the People on All Matters Concerning the Organs of Reproduction in Both Sexes and All Ages, believed that “[I]t is no shame to have organs which can house and nurture a budding human life,” but, “flirtatious women cause men to visit brothels for ‘relief,’ which only adds to the spread of disease.” Indeed.
Don’t seem too interested
The classic, “don’t seem too interested so as to come across as apathetic and emotionally unavailable and therefore totally not desperate and therefore desirable” move, courtesy of Ruth Smythers. Smythers also wrote that women should (Smythers’ all-caps, not mine), “GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.” Ruth Smythers: deflating boners since 1894.
Have sex in the dark
“Sex, when it cannot be prevented, should be practiced only in total darkness,” Smythers added. Note: This is actually good advice if you’ve just eaten a burrito ten minutes prior.
Being lazy in bed makes ugly kids
Another popular belief of the day cited in Fern Riddell’s The Victorian Guide to Sex: Desire and Deviance in the 19th Century was, “any union without true love, according to the manuals of the day, would bring forth ‘ill-looking, sour and spiritless offspring,’ while those hoping for good-looking children should remember that sex must not be ‘faintly or drowsily performed.’” Meh. Good-looking kids are over-rated.
Keep your clothes on
Smythers again: “MANY women have found it useful to have thick cotton nightgowns for themselves and pajamas for their husbands — they need not be removed during the sex act. Thus, a minimum of flesh is exposed.” Thank you, Ruth. Clothes-on sex requires minimal effort while my feet stay maximally warm in ill-fitting sweatpants and socks. It’s a win-win.
Don’t spread STIs
From What a Young Woman Ought to Know a Victorian book for young girls: “The busy bee intent on getting honey for himself has no idea that he is bearing life on his hairy thighs, but they are covered with the pollen he has caught in his visit to a flower and this will be left in the seed-bearing blossom of the same species of flower he next chances to call upon.” This is the story of a busy bee who spread his herpes all over town without a care in the world. Get your hairy thighs tested. Don’t be gross.
Your orgasms will shape the human race
“[T]he party whose temperament predominates in the child was in the highest state of orgasm at the period of intercourse”, Becklard wrote. This is something I could get on board with.
Have an after-sex dance party
Becklard also had advice for anyone who did not want a kid: “dancing about the room before repose, for a few minutes, might probably have that effect.” He also wrote that “strong victuals” and “spirits that promote thirst” are also “great enemies to reproduction.” The moral of the story: have sex, dance around naked, get drunk.
Sofia is a part-time writer and full-time anxiety-haver. Read her on xoJane, LadyClever, Ravishly, and Bustle. For more bad advice, follow me on Twitter.