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

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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

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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

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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.

Annie Besant: #FreeThinking For BBC Radio 3

So I’ve spent the last few months in a hermit-like existence writing ‘A Victorian Guide To Sex’ and ignoring everything else, especially my blog. But, now that the manuscript is finally in at its publishers, and just before I drown under the myriad of edits and rewrites (oh, and also get around to finishing the PhD, that would also be good) there was time to experience the insane, intense, and (yes, a lot of adjectives – IT WAS THAT GOOD) intellectually-explosive weekend that was Radio 3’s #FreeThinking Festival at the Sage, in Gateshead, as one of their ‘New Generation Thinkers’ for 2013.

BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, launch a yearly search to find 10 young academics, at the start of their careers, to showcase their research and areas of expertise to a wider audience. After a selection process which saw us flex our argument and opinion muscles, as well as coming up with, and pitching, ideas and subjects that would make great radio programmes, the final ten are named the AHRC’s and BBC Radio 3’s ‘New Generation Thinkers’ . Being selected as one of this year’s ’10’ has been an amazing experience, from taking part in Nightwaves debates, to The Essay, and having the chance to pitch ideas in Radio 3’s commissioning rounds. The first half of our year has been leading up to ‘The Festival of Ideas’, a great weekend of debate and discussion where we each presented an extended version of ‘The Essay’ on our own research, based around the festival’s theme of ‘Who Is In Control?’. It is also a great excuse to go out for a curry at 10 p.m at night, and stay up until 2 a.m talking about Doctor Who.

One of the things I knew I wanted to tackle was the preconception many of us still seem to have that the Victorians, and the 19thC as a whole, was pretty much a dry tumbleweed of sexual prudery or rampantly disowned deviance. Obviously both of those poles did exist, just like in our own society, but something that often gets ignored in our retelling of history is the attitudes and sexual norms of a historical period, in favour of the extremes. Having researched ‘A Victorian Guide to Sex’ for the last year, I’ve come across loads of exciting and surprising facts about the Victorians and Sex, as well as some truly unique stories, one of which I chose as for my #FreeThinking talk, ‘False Conception: Female Sexuality in Victorian England’ – which sounds like a bit of a mouthful, but is basically the story of one woman’s fight for contraception and sex education in the nineteenth century.  There, see, like I said, SURPRISING.

In 1877, Victorian society was rocked by the reports of the Bradlaugh-Besant obscenity trial. Arrested for publishing an immoral or obscene book, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh (who doesn’t really get that much of a look-in in my talk – Sorry Charles, your time will come, I promise), both editors of The National Reformer, had recently reprinted an American pamphlet from the 1830s, by Dr Charles Knowlton. Fruits of Philosophy’ set out every possible form of contraception available in the 19thC, as well as the methods and benefits they would give to the ‘Young Married Couples’ for which it was intended. The debates that this created are hugely important to our understanding of the Victorians and their attitudes to sex, as well as the persisting double standard between men and women at this time. Charles Bradlaugh held on to his parliamentary seat after the scandal, but in 1879 Annie lost the custody of her young daughter, Mabel, as the courts decided that there was to much of a risk that she might ‘grow up to be the writer and publisher of such [similar] works’ as her mother.

English: Photo of the social reformer Annie Be...

English: Photo of the social reformer Annie Besant (1847-1933) during the 1880s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Annie is a controversial figure, both in her own time, and now. After ‘False Conception’ first aired, one academic argued she was ‘a Malthusian, racialist & eugenicist’ and that I had conducted an ‘astonishing whitewash’ of Annie’s life. Which are pretty horrifying terms to be connected to, and all the more important to address. So let’s unpack this a little. To begin, Annie was not a Malthusian. She was a Neo-Malthusian, which means she disagreed with the Malthusian religious ideas of delayed marriage and abstinence, and instead advocated early marriage and the use of birth control methods. But, she did agree with the premise of Malthusianism – the subject of population control, and the fear that a growing population would be unable to be support itself. It’s an 18thC idea that was seen as highly controversial in its day, and throughout the 19thC. For Annie, it was also an intensely personal issue. Papers from her divorce case state that ‘her efforts to impress upon her husband their duty to limit their family within their means had been a source of friction between them.’ For Annie, the creation of children who would be born into a life of poverty and early death was akin to murder, and yet at the same time she seems to have possessed a uniquely practical outlook on the human condition – people want to have sex. More importantly, people are going to have sex, and unless you are going to educate them about how to have it safely, the most common result will be an unplanned and unsupported pregnancy. It’s an argument that is still going on today, as you can see from this epic smackdown delivered by Hilary Clinton in 2009.

Now for the terms racialist and eugenicist. I don’t think anyone can hear those two words together and not immediately think of the horrors of the Holocaust, or the atrocities and genocide that seems to reoccur in modern warfare. Eugenics – a term first coined in 1883 – and ideas of race are interwoven into many debates from the Victorian period, from the hilarious bad science of phrenology, to the awful beliefs and arguments for racial supremacy that persisted into the 20thC. So was Annie Besant a racialist and a Eugenicist?

Well, one of the joys of being a phd student is that you can’t – and wouldn’t – claim to know everything, and my research into Annie is still ongoing. But what I do know is this: Although born in England, Annie’s family were Irish and it is something of which she was intensely proud, saying that while, ‘her blood was three quarters Irish, her heart was 100% Irish’. Throughout her life she was known as a huge supporter of Irish Nationalism and the Home Rule movement, and marched as part of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration on the 13th of November, 1887. By the turn of the century, and now living in India, she became a passionate advocator of Indian Independence, publishing a weekly newspaper arguing for freedom from British Rule:

“We claim an open path for Indians to every post in their native land, as promised by the Proclamation of 1858, and the abolition of every law, that places them in a position inferior to that enjoyed by the English. We ask that capacity and high character shall determine all appointments to office, and that colour and religion shall be entirely disregarded as qualifications.”

– Annie Besant, Commonweal, 1914

These are not statements commonly linked to those who support racialist or eugenic doctrines. The 1877 trial is uniquely important to our understanding of sex, sex education and sexual attitudes during Victoria’s reign, and the wider Victorian ideas of true love, respect and mutual physical pleasure that I talk about in ‘False Conception’ exist in the majority of the marriage guides and manuals that I have read in the course of my research. This is the backdrop against which Annie Besant published ‘Fruits of Philosophy’, to a 19thC public as intrigued and as interested as we are in the experience and realities of sex. It was also a society concerned with eugenics, Darwinism, civil war, anarchists, socialists, slavery and science. And as always, is far more complex than it first appears. 12 minutes is not enough time to express all of those points, and so I’ve tried to address them here. I believe Annie Besant deserves greater investigation, she was a passionate campaigner for worker’s rights, the rights of women and personal freedom. Her advocacy of birth control in a society that refused to discuss it publicly cost her her daughter, and yet she was undaunted. She traveled the world, well educated, heavily politicized and extremely eloquent – an incredible nineteenth century woman, and a unique subject for research.

*N.B. Anyone interested in further reading should check out ‘Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England’ by J.A. and Olive Banks, which is a great book on the subject. Also Joanne Stafford Mortimer’s ‘Annie Besant and India 1913-1917’ in the Journal of Contemporary History, and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time: Annie Besant featuring Dr Lawrence Goldman, Dr David Stack, and Dr Yasmin Kahn.