9 Books That Will Change Your #19thC Sex Life

I’ve written this as a response to the @BuzzFeed article: 9 Books That Will Change Your Sex Life, because the Victorians were awesome and knew a hell of a lot more about sex than we give them the credit for.

1. Fruits of Philosophy: Published by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, 1877

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 22.27.51

WHY: Originally a book from the 1840s, ‘Fruits of Philosophy’ was a contraception handbook for the late victorian period. Covering everything from the withdrawl method, douching, early spermicides and condoms, this little known book exploded in popularity in 1877, when it’s new publishers were tried for obscenity and inciting public immorality. The readership rocketed from 700 a year to 125,000 within a couple of months, as crowds of hundreds gathered to get their hands on a copy.

2. The Kama Sutra, Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1883

Burton in 1864

Burton in 1864

WHY: You might be surprised to learn that we have the Victorians to thank for this making its way into our society, but we do. Originally translated in the 1880s, Burton’s copies of The Kama Sutra, and A Thousand and One Nights, holds it’s most shocking ideas in the footnotes, which argue that pederasty has a place in society, and that western men have no idea how to sexually please a woman.

3. “The Art of Begetting Handsome Children”, Author Unknown, 1860


WHY: This virtually unknown pamphlet argues for two things: Firstly, that if you want beautiful children then both people have to really, really enjoy the sex that they are having. Because that is the best expression of true love, and true love results in beautiful children. And secondly, that the only way a woman would become pregnant was if both people invovled climaxed at the same time. So there we go: the Victorians – sexual pleasure and the female orgasm.

4. A Guide to Marriage, published by Albert Sidebottom, 1865

this-might-be-workingWHY: Contains a lot of mentalness, but also a hell of a lot of common sense and advice for a young couple intent to marriage, including: ‘All love between the sexes is based upon sexual passion..the sex instinct is in itself neither coarse or degrading, unless it exists in a coarse or degraded individual’. It does also say not to marry anyone who is constitutionally diseased, or who sufferers from strongly criminal or drunken tendencies. So we’re all doomed.

5. My Secret Life, Henry Spencer Ashbee, 1888


WHY: If you want to know just what sexual positions, slang and dirty language was used in the 19thC, then Ashbee’s anonymously penned autobiography is the book for you. He collected and maintained one of the worlds largest collections of erotic objects and literature from across the ages till his own, leaving it to the British Museum on his death. Small word of caution: very, very, VERY #NSFW.

6. Doctor Teller’s pocket companion, or marriage guide : being a popular treatise on the anatomy and physiology of the genital organs, in both sexes, with their uses and abuses, 1855

300px-GynaeWHY: I have a lot of love for this tiny, and seriously odd little book, but mostly because it argues that celibacy was a really bad idea for men AND women, and would send you mad, or worse. ‘Every part of the human economy has its particular use. The productive organs have theirs, but it is not only for the propagation of the species: They assist in resolving animal passions,; they are the secret incentive to sexual love, and the bond of union between the sexes; they give appetite which, like hunger, must be appeased or nature revolts, and the harmony of society falls before the unrestrained fury of maniacal solitude’

*Basically what we’ve learned so far is that the Victorians thought we all needed to have sex well, and often, or the world would end.

7. Sexual Inversion, Havelock Ellis et al, 1897


WHY: The first medical textbook to explore, and attempt to *understand*, homosexuality, Ellis’s work is also a voice in favor of a more accepting attitude towards those whom most Victorian society are believed to have reviled. Seeing as Oscar Wilde’s trial for sodomy was only a few years early in 1895, this was no mean feat.

8. The Library Illustrative of Social Progress, John Camden Hotten, 1872

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 00.56.46

WHY: Probably one of the closest 19thC ideas to 50 Shades of Grey, this book was published falsely claiming to be from the 18thC. It had actually been taken from the collection of one of the Victorian’s greatest pornographers, Henry Spencer Ashbee, and covers the themes of Flagellation with the immortally titled ‘Lady BumTickler’s Revels’.

9. Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard Krafft-Ebing, 1886

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 22.21.16

WHY: Possibly not a the greatest book to have on the list, this was the first attempt to categorize all the different fetishes that the human sexual identity could dream up. From foot fetishists to early ideas of BDSM, this is the book that proclaimed to the world that women had little to no sexual urges, and that homosexuality was an act of sexual deviance.

So there we go, 9 books on sex and sexuality from the Victorians – and not a broken corset string in sight.

Defining the Historian: Women Who Write About Sex


I’ve spent the last month being part of two amazing initiatives run by the BBC, here in the UK. Firstly, as part of the BBC’s new campaign to increase the number of women it can call on for expert opinions, the aptly titled #ExpertWomen (you can see my brilliantly cringe worthy audition tape here) and then as one of the AHRC and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers. Both were amazing experiences, and while I am incredibly lucky to have had them, they were timely reminders of what the world outside of academia, the public *real* world, finds interesting about the research that we do.

I’ve blogged about my experiences as an #ExpertWoman over at the BBC Academy website, but on all the days, there was one question that I kept finding myself being asked over and over again; WHY? Why do you write about sex? Why do historical sexual attitudes interest you? And more intriguingly, ‘are you worried about how you’d be perceived, publically, as a young woman talking about sex?’

Now, I’d like to be able to sit here and tell you all that I hadn’t given it a second thought, that I am a strong independent feminist and if I want to talk about sex, I’m going to talk about sex, and you had better just sit down and listen. But I can’t. I have been, in the past, occasionally, worried. And I’ve been trying to understand why. Why do we immediately judge women if they initiate a discussion about sex? What is it about the feminine voice, discussing sex with authority or knowledge, whether that is medical, personal, or historical, that society finds so challenging, so revolutionary, or so subversive? Surely women have been writing about sex for as long as men? I’m pretty sure we’ve been talking about it for even longer. So to try and answer this question for myself I turned first to my books, and then to the brilliant community of historians I know on twitter. And we made a list. A list of women who have written about sex, throughout history, so that I can prove women have been doing this for just as long as men. Sexual knowledge is not the authority of just one gender, although history often likes to tell us differently.

Sappho c.630/612 – 570 BCE The original influence behind the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘sapphic’, Sappho’s existing poetry explored love, and the acts of love, between men and women, and women and women. She achieved such status in the classical world, she was known as one of the nine earthly muses.

Hroswitha of Gandersheim. 935-1002 A.D. “With zeal ministering to my womanly muse…” a playwright found in an Abbey? This was Hroswitha, whose writings explored love, and sexual exploitation of women, as well as the desires and lusts of men in power.

Trotula 11th-12th C Although the concrete history surrounding Trotula is a little murky, she is believed to have been an early authority on medical texts covering women’s anatomy, health and wellbeing in the medieval period. Although scholars disagree on just how many texts to attribute to her, she is widely believed to have practiced at the School of Salerno, one of the worlds earliest medical schools, combining knowledge from both Eastern and Western doctrines, and allowing both men AND women to study there. Well, until the Catholic Church degreed otherwise.

Héloïse d’Argenteuil c.1090-1164 “God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself. I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.” I picked up a book of the love letters between Heloise and her lover Abelard back when I was an undergrad. It still remains one of the most moving and erotic set of letters I have ever read. As far as I am concerned Abelard was a bit of a wuss, but Heloise writes with a strength and a passion that I never expected to find evidence of from a women in this period of history. Read it, and be inspired.

Hildegard of Bingen 1098-1179 Not only did she write of her holy visions as sexual encounters, Hildegard also wrote passages exploring the difference between men and women’s sexual urges and passions. She divided men and women into four types according to their personalities and urges, arguing that celibacy was not for everyone – the artistic woman, for example, needed to have a sexual relationship with a man, ‘If they remain without men…they suffer from a number of bodily conditions. If they have men, they are healthy.’

Julian of Norwich 1342-1416 Often acknowledged as the first women to write a book in English, rather than Latin, Julian focused her explorations of Christianity and Christian tradition on the feminine aspects of her relationship to God. Scholars have argued that she wrote passionate descriptions on being married to Christ, and enjoying a sexual relationship with him, all from the comfort of her bricked-in cell. Controversial much?

Jane Sharp 1641-71 Author of one of the main texts on Midwifery, whose influence continued into the eighteenth century, Jane Sharp argued that women, not men, should learn the medical knowledge needed to safely deliver children into the world. She argued that men had no idea what it felt like to be a women, and as such, should have no say over women’s bodies. Someone might want to bring this to the attention of the American senate committee currently debating birth control…

Aphra Behn 1640-1689 Not only is she the first woman to earn a living by her pen, Aphra’s personal life is worthy of it’s own dramatisation. Although most of the women on this list are women orientated in their work, Aphra is unique because she wrote ‘like a man’ exploring men’s sexual attitudes and relationships.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague 1689-1762 Her memories of the freedom of women in the Ottoman Empire, and enjoyment of women-only spaces were one of the many reasons Lady Mary Montague made this list, along with her passionate love life. She left a great collection of letters and memoires exploring women’s society and relationships.

Mary Robinson 1757-1800 Mistress of the Prince of Wales, champion of women’s rights, and notorious for her sexual affairs, she packed a hell of a lot into her short 42 years.

Mary Wollenstoncraft 1759-1797 Although most well-known for ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ her other writings also argued that to deny a woman’s sexual desire was immoral.

Colette 1873-1954 One of the most beautiful writers at the turn of the century, Colette’s description of her relationships with both men and women in the music halls and salons of France were written into all of her books.

Marie Stopes 1880-1958 Author of the modern sex manual, ‘Married Love’, Stopes is one of the earliest voices of the modern birth control movement. She also highlights, in my opinion, women beginning to seize back medical authority over their bodies.

Radcliffe Hall 1880-1943 Possibly the only writer since Sappho to write books about women, for women, Hall’s overtly lesbian narratives matched her lifestyle.

Anais Nin 1903-1977 One of the greatest writers of erotic, Nin’s Little Birds and Delta of Venus were published after her death. Her letters and other writings often explored women’s relationships with love and sex, and she is utterly inspiring. Seriously, put down 50 Shades of Grey and read something real.

So there we are, a list of the women who have made history by writing about sex. From medical texts, to playwrights and poets, from the ancient world to the modern, it is in no way complete – but at least we can see that men haven’t been the only voices exploring sexual desire. Women talk and write and think about sex with just as much eloquence as their male historical counterparts. Maybe you find that challenging, but I know I don’t, not any more. All I need to do is look at this list, and I know I’m in good company. Anais Nin once said, ‘women who write about sex are never taken seriously as writers’. Erica Jong replied ‘But that’s why we must do it’. I think I agree, don’t you?