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Sex

Screw upon a Screw: Sex Education in the Gilded Age

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As you might imagine, this post is sexually explicit. You have been warned.

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Featured photograph is a close up of a Fallopian tube and ovarian ligaments in Henry Morris’s Human Anatomy: A Complete Systematic Treatise by English and American Authors, 5th edition, 1914, p. 1270.

When I started writing historical romance set in the Gilded Age, I needed to know what level of sexual ignorance I was dealing with.

  • Did doctors of the day believe in “virginity tests”?
  • Did they understand a woman’s body and how to bring it pleasure?
  • Did they think that sex should be pleasurable for women in the first place?
  • Finally, how did they feel about masturbation, or self-pleasure?

In my unscientific, random sampling of (cishet) primary sources, the Gilded Age scored 2.5 out of 4, which was a little better than I anticipated. Let’s investigate:

“VIRGINITY TESTS”:

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

The hymen does not start whole—a perforation is needed to allow menstrual fluid to escape, after all—but a woman can easily tear and rub away the rest through an active lifestyle. Horseback riding, yes. Sneezing? Eh, probably not. But it was nice that Dr. Foote erred in her favor. It is also nice that he acknowledged that the hymen test was “cruel and unusual.”

However, it is depressing to also note that, due to “popular prejudice,” even the best physicians concealed the whole hymen truth. This led some fearful young women to try to “tighten” their vagina with alum, something I found discussed in a magazine of 1880 erotica (written by and for men). The alum suggestion wasn’t new—women had been encouraged to try this since medieval times—but it didn’t work then, and it still doesn’t. It just dries you out. There is no virginity test other than asking a person.

A WOMAN’S BODY:

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

This may be the Gilded Age quote that surprised me the most. I had thought for sure that today’s popular culture would be more knowledgeable than 150 years ago, especially regarding the clitoris, but no! In fact, did you know that even in the eighteenth century, the most widely printed medical book in Europe and America informed men about the clitoris? Yay, cliteracy!

Fortunately, my heroine Allegra will have a Gilded Age anatomy book to guide her explorations. Every virgin should have one! Her hero, Ben, will appreciate her sharing her new knowledge with him, too. This is why I love writing romance, a genre that prioritizes the needs, strengths, and happiness of women. Real romance doesn’t ignore the clitoris! I’m going to cross-stitch that on a pillow someday.

A WOMAN’S PLEASURE:

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Pleasure and procreation may coincide, but one is not required for the other—for women. Herein lies a problem with how we teach (or don’t teach) women about their bodies. Even today, students may be taught reproductive biology, but that curriculum illustrates a prudish bias: a woman’s anatomy is described like plumbing, with pipes only used for pumping out children. In this narrative, only the male’s sexual pleasure is required for procreation, leaving the impression that men are the only ones who experience desire (or who should experience it).1

How sex-positive were Gilded Age experts? Did they think women should receive pleasure from the act? Dr. Foote, author of the above quote about the clitoris, believed that all aspects of sexual interaction—from friendly conversation to full, pleasurable intercourse—were absolutely necessary for good health: “I place sexual starvation among the principal causes of derangements of the nervous and vascular systems,” he said.

Now let’s check in with a woman, “sexual outlaw” Ida Craddock, who was sent to jail for sending “obscene” sexual education materials through the mail (to subscribers).2 Craddock’s description of a woman taking an active part in intercourse, even to the point of describing specific motions, is refreshing. She also claims that these motions will improve a woman’s sexual passion, which is encouraging. But—and this is a big BUT—Craddock believes the woman’s passion is irrelevant. A fortunate by-product, yes, but unnecessary. Bummer.

In fact, Craddock believed so strongly that sex was for procreation that her vision of contraception was coitus without orgasm—for both partners—for the entire duration of pregnancy and two years following. She thought this sexual brinksmanship would make both partners stronger. Three years of deliberate sexual arousal without release? No wonder Anthony Comstock, self-appointed male protector of American postal virtue, had her thrown her in jail.3

Overall, I’ll give the Gilded Age half a point here, and that’s being generous.

SELF-PLEASURE:

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Your own pleasure starts with you:

Rosa did not have a lot of experience—none very good, at least—but neither did Jonas, it seemed. And Rosa knew something he did not. She knew what she liked.

“Look,” she said. She parted her lower lips to reveal the ridge that gave her the most pleasure when she was alone.

Or was this too much? To admit such a dirty secret, especially to a man—had she not learned her lesson? When she had tried to show Archie, he had lectured her about sin and a woman’s shame. Now she risked her husband’s disapproval, too.

Jonas looked up. “Show me what you want,” he said.

— Tempting Hymn

If Rosa could do it, so could anyone in the Gilded Age, right? Well, maybe not. Masturbation has long been considered a sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition, ever since Onan spilled his seed on the ground (rather than give his brother’s widow an heir) and God smote him (Genesis 38:9-10). In many traditional sources, the act is called Onanism. Thus, we are back to the idea that sex is only for procreation, a mission that made sense for the small, struggling band of Hebrews trying to survive the rough-and-tumble world of the ancient Near East.

more recent concern by the Catholic Church about masturbation is the idea that it draws away from the sexual relationship—a withholding of yourself from what should be the most intimate aspect of marriage. It is considered “radically self-centered.” While, yes, an addiction to masturbation may be unhealthy, the knowledge of one’s own body cannot help but lead to a better shared experience. A shocking idea, I know.

And it was shocking in the Gilded Age. Edwardian prophets took the above warnings and turned them into near paranoia. The same level-headed, seemingly enlightened Dr. Foote who criticized the hymen test, described the importance of the clitoris, and said sex was healthy—well, he had only dire warnings about masturbation in 1887: “Many a promising young man has lost his mind and wrecked his hopes by self-induced pleasures.” Another author agreed: “That solitary vice is one of the most common causes of insanity, is a fact too well established to need demonstration here.” (That logic is convenient: it’s so true that I don’t need to prove it. Hmm…)

Dr. Jeffries (1985) listed more terrible symptoms of this vice: a slimy discharge from the urethra, a “wasting away” of the testicles, ringing in the ears, heat flashes, large spots under the eyes, nervous headache, giddiness, solitariness, gloominess, and the inability to look the doctor in the eye. Others added cancer (!), acne (yep, that old hogwash), and a craving for salt, pepper, spices, cinnamon, cloves, vinegar, mustard, and horseradish. That last one is a head-scratcher. So if you wanted to eat anything with flavor at all, that was a giveaway? I’m in trouble.

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Dr. Jeffries’s unexplained (and unverified) diagram of what happens to semen after masturbation. Are you wondering how he obtained the first sample without masturbation? Me, too.

Speaking of food, did you know that Corn Flakes were invented in 1898 to keep you from masturbating? For real.4

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

The John Harvey Kellogg quoted above is the Kellogg of breakfast cereal fame. His obsession with sexual purity was so extreme that he never consummated his own marriage. He and his wife slept in separate bedrooms and adopted their children. By the way, who did Kellogg believe were the worst masturbatory offenders? Foreigners, of course. Russians especially. Add eye roll here.

The cure? Clean living! Rising early in the morning, eating the recommended bland breakfast, abstaining from smoke and drink, keeping busy, avoiding solitude, and circumcisionThis is why the procedure became routine in American hospitals in the twentieth century and still predominates today. It is not good medicine but good morals. Or so they said.

There is still a bit of taboo in talking about masturbation today—well, maybe more than a bit. In 1994 President Bill Clinton forced his Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders to resign because she said that masturbation should be taught in schools as a preventative for teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. Still, I think we are a far cry from saying it causes cancer. And we’ve sweetened breakfast cereals beyond recognition, so there, John Harvey Kellogg! More and more parents are questioning routine circumcision for non-religious reasons, though the procedure has traction because it is what people in the US are used to.

All this brings me to an interesting realization: if you asked me which parts of my books would have most shocked real Gilded Age readers, it would have been the openness most of my characters have toward masturbation. And, guess what? I’m not going to stop writing it, historical accuracy be damned. Long live romance!

Footnotes:

1. What follows is a whole domino chain of bad decisions, including a teenage “hook up” culture that emphasizes sexual trophy hunting (most often by boys), rather than two people finding mutual pleasure in a mature relationship built on respect and trust.

2. The law against this distribution of “obscene” materials, the Comstock Law, is still on the books in a modified form. It no longer covers sexual education or contraception, the latter of which became a legally protected right—to married couples, originally—under the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v Connecticut, also known as the Birth Control Revolution. Good thing, too, because this post would have gotten me jailed.

3. And she was not the only sexual rights crusader to have disturbing ideas. Marie Stopes believed in eugenics and forcible sterilization for those “unfit” to carry on their genes. She even “disinherit[ed] her son when he married a woman who had poor eyesight.” Yikes. And Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger dabbled in eugenics, too, by the way. We need to question everything from this period because racism, classism, and ableism were pervasive.

4. The original purity food was the graham cracker, which was nothing like your s’mores building block of today. It was made of unrefined flour with no sugars or spices—deliberately bland. Because that contained sexual desire, didn’t you know?

Married Love by Marie Stopes, the Book that Scandalized WWI Society

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Dr Marie Stopes

The war forced sexual matters to the forefront of society. Soldiers were sent to hospitals more often for venereal disease than bodily injury, young women were in contact with young men in an unchaperoned capacity for the first time, and there were even scandals over the supposed immorality within female military branches (Violet Douglas-Pennant was forced out of commanding the WRAF and blamed her dismissal on the senior officers covering up affairs between men and women of the air force). On a more mundane level, sex sold entertainment during the war years, and racy revues and musicals, and the French boudoir farces banned from England by the Lord Chamberlain during the Edwardian era, found much favor with theatergoers. In short, the heightened awareness of mortality and a desire to shrug off stodgy, old-fashioned morals, led to many young people growing up in the shadow of war to seek pleasure where it lay, when it lay.

When Marie Stopes published Married Love in the spring of 1918, she was a divorcee who placed the blame for her failed marriage on the social and sexual inequalities between men and women. Married Love was her treatise on how a healthy and happy marriage should work, and placed particular emphasis on the disasters prone to the marriage bed. Needless to say, this book shocked and offended most respectable people, even as it immediately sold out and was in its sixth printing within two weeks. In the United States, still under the yoke of the then forty-five year old Comstock laws, Married Love was banned as obscene, but it was published privately by Dr. William Jay Robinson, who, with other medical titans, deemed it “scientific”.

Robinson’s publication was barely tolerated, and the only way an American reader could lay their hands on the text was to purchase it from a bookstore. Of course, it was probably smuggled into the States via Canada, but smugglers and resellers alike bore the risk of imprisonment. Despite these setbacks, Stopes and her book were revolutionary, and influenced a generation of young people to think about and look at sex and marriage in a new, truly modern and twentieth century light.

Full text at the Digital Library of the University of Pennsylvania

A Vest Pocket Guide to Brothels in 19th-Century New York

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Storyville prostitute, 1912

I discovered this book earlier this year during one of my haphazard click-throughs on the New York Times website, and was very intrigued that it has survived for over 100 years (who purchased the book? Who preserved it?). Alison Leigh Cowan of the NYT blog, City Room describes it:

Only this palm-sized book, published in 1870 and long hidden away at the New-York Historical Society, did not confine its anonymous critique to the quality of wines or the ambience of the 150 establishments listed between its covers. Rather, it defined its role as delivering “insight into the character and doings of people whose deeds are carefully screened from public view.”

…Readers of the book, “The Gentleman’s Directory,” learned that “an hour cannot be spent more pleasantly” than at Harry Hill’s place on 25 East Houston Street. And they learned that Ada Blashfield of 55 West Houston Street had “8 to 10 boarders both blondes and brunettes,” playing host to “some of our first citizens.” The book also divulged that Mrs. Wright’s place at 61 Elizabeth Street had “everything that makes time pass agreeably,” and that Miss Jennie Creagh had spared “neither expense nor labor” at 17 Amity Street, a onetime Manhattan address, to conjure a “palace of beauty forever” out of French mirrors, rosewood furniture and fine bedding.