Imagine yourself as a young person during an era when there was no sex ed in high school. Sure, pornography exists, but you're more likely to get your hands on the smallpox virus than a properly illicit "French Postcard." The only depictions of sexuality you'll regularly encounter in your young life is the disturbing interactions of farm animals. And yet your wedding night approaches. How do you prepare yourself?
Well, you'll read any number of delicately worded advice books, written by people of apparent high moral standing and (usually vague) medical credentials. A sampling:
What a girl should know
First, the most important thing, as imparted to us by Emma Frances Angell Drake in 1902's What a Young Wife Ought to Know: "From the wedding day, the young matron should shape her life to the probable and desired contingency of conception and maternity. Otherwise she has no right or title to wifehood."
Now that your purpose as a woman has been made clear, how do you achieve it? It was assumed that all men approaching marriage had a rudimentary understanding of what was going to happen. But women of quality would not have been so exposed to rude talk, rumors, and basic knowledge of their own body. She might not even know the names and function of her own reproductive organs. This ignorance, says Walter Gallichan in 1918's The Psychology of Marriage, can be fatal:
It is necessary that the virgin should not enter the married state without even theoretical knowledge of sex. Those who counsel such unenlightenment are unconsciously guilty of cruelty. Many young wives have considered themselves the subjects of outrage on the bridal night. There have been cases of sudden disappearance and flight on the eve of wedding. Now and then one reads a painful report of suicide at this crisis in a girl's life. [The Psychology of Marriage]
But how much should a girl know to keep her from running screaming into the night or driving her to suicide? It depends on which expert you ask, but according to Maurice Bigelow in 1916's Sex-education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life, not so much as to make her too curious:
She should know the scientific names of her organs, not because there are many vulgar names as in the case of boys, but because dignified names help attitude. Ovaries, uterus (womb), vagina, Fallopian tubes, and vulva will be sufficient. Detailed description of the external organs (vulva) might arouse curiosity that leads to exploration and irritation. [Sex-education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life]
Bigelow asserts that a girl should only be taught that she has a vulva, not the parts that make up a vulva, lest she want to see or touch those parts of herself. Curiosity can lead to exploration, which can lead to…irritation.
Also, knowing too much is unbecoming in a bride. Men adore the fact you're ashamed of yourself, as Karl Heinzen explains in 1891's The Rights of Women and Their Sexual Relations:
There is, indeed, another kind of shame. It is that delicate shyness which the virgin feels when she is to step beyond the boundary of virginity, as well as that feminine reserve which strives to hide or to guard her charms. This "shame" is…a natural consequence of an emotional affection upon entering a new life…it has nothing to do with the consciousness or the fear of seeing something improper disclosed, is an ornament to every woman, and its absence is a proof of dullness and coarseness. [The Rights of Women and Their Sexual Relations]
It's so adorable that you feel icky and confused, darling.
Make sure he knows you're going to want to maintain your human rights beforehand.
Bernarr Macfadden was not afraid to take on the controversial new idea that women have rights over their own bodies in his 1918 Womanhood and Marriage. He's willing to allow that women might be embracing this new fad. But it is of greatest importance that she tells her husband she feels this way before a wedding date is set:
With the development of the idea of personal freedom has come the feeling, on the part of many women, that they should have the right of ownership of their own bodies — in other words, that they should have the privilege of choosing whether or not they will acquiesce in their husband's desire for entering into the physical relationship of marriage.
Since, however, it has been for so long a time an accepted idea that the husband's right over the wife's body was inherent, it is advisable for any young woman who takes the other point of view to make her attitude thoroughly understood by her future husband before she definitely takes upon herself the obligations of the marriage state. [Womanhood and Marriage]
The fact that a cow is a temperamental milker is not the sort of thing you spring on a poor guy after he's already bought her. Full disclosure makes for good business.
Before the actual consummation occurs, a few things should be considered. First, there is the physical condition of virginity. Nearly all 19th-century marital advice shuns the Biblical idea of blood proof of virginity. One Dr. Napheys says to know if your wife is truly a virgin, pay attention to her outer purity, not her inner membranes:
The presence or absence of the hymen is no test. There is, in fact, no sign whatever which allows even an expert positively to say that a woman has or has not suffered the approaches of one of the opposite sex. The one true and only test which any man should look for is modesty in demeanor before marriage, absence of both assumed ignorance and a disagreeable familiarity, and a pure and religious frame of mind. When these are present, he need not doubt that he has a faithful and chaste wife.
But if such a membrane is present, tender care should be taken. William Josephus Robinson, author of 1920's Sex Knowledge for Men, says that a truly loving husband will proceed with the deflowering of his wife very slowly, sometimes taking up to a week of gentle introductions before a full connection is made.
Sylvanus Stall, who writes in 1899's What a Young Husband Ought to Know, is not as generous in his timeline, but insists that if a wife is still hurting weeks after the wedding night, she should probably see a doctor:
It is important for young husbands to know that when a serious inconvenience is experienced in the consummation of marriage, if the hymen is not easily removed by care and consideration, but remains an impediment or a pain for a period of days, or a couple of weeks, medical advice and assistance should by all means be sought. [What a Young Husband Ought to Know]
Don't be in such a hurry to consummate, anyway. That fruit is going to taste pretty bland once it's no longer forbidden, according to Mrs. E.B. Duffey in her book The Relations of the Sexes: "Do not be in too great haste to brush the bloom from the fruit you covet. It will lose half its attractions at once."
No sex or bad sex makes women crazy
Robinson gets straight to the point when he says, "The bridal night is the most important turning point in a woman's entire life." Not just because this night will determine the success of the entire marriage (more on that later), but because, according to Gallichan, married sex is the only way a woman can keep her health. It's the only way to channel her anabolic energy:
Every intelligent physician knows that conjugal life is the salvation of many women. Every specialist in the nervous and psychic disorders of women is aware that a healthy vita sexualis is the remedy for many troubles of the brain. Many women have conflicts and longings which they attribute to any other source than enforced single life, disharmonious marriage, or unfulfilled maternal processes. The anabolic energy of woman may be said to desire avidly the catabolic force of man as the completion of being. No argument, no evasion, can destroy this fact of human life. [Sex Knowledge for Men]
Any woman who does not enjoy her sex life is at risk for insanity and illness. An interesting proposition that might still find a good many female supporters today.
Husband or beast?
Now let us revisit the subject of a husband coveting the forbidden fruit of his bride's love bud. New husbands are often driven mad by their desire to obtain this treasure. But be warned, one night of binging can wreck an entire life, says Mrs. Duffey:
This bud of passion cannot be forced rudely open. Its development must be the work of time. If the young wife is met with violence, if she finds that her husband regards the gratification of his own desires more than her feelings — and if she be worn and wearied with excesses in the early days of her married life, the bud will be blighted. The husband will have only himself to blame if he is bound all his life to an apathetic, irresponsive wife. It is easy to imagine the unsatisfactory conjugal relations which are brought about in punishment of the husband's early impetuosity and ignorance. He finds an unreciprocal wife, doubts her affection for him, because, with his masculine nature, he cannot conceive of a love unblended with passion. [The Relations of the Sexes]
Stall describes how an over-ambitious husband will ruin both his and his wife's life:
Many otherwise kind men have become possessed with the thought that every right is theirs immediately; and in their inconsiderate, rapacious passion, in the speedy consummation of marriage, at whatever cost of pain or wounded feeling on the part of her whom they have taken to love and honor, they well-nigh wreck the after happiness of both in the first days of their united lives.
Husband beware of the wrong of committing a veritable outrage upon the person of her whom God has given you as your companion, and suffering ever after the stings of remorse, that she never again can feel the same respect and love for you that she could, had you been more considerate of her feelings and desires.
It will be difficult for her to be persuaded that the animal nature does not control and dominate your love for her, rather than the higher instincts of the soul. [What a Young Husband Ought to Know]
For all your innocent bride knows, you made up this weird thing you want to do to her. A certain amount of patience will show her that you care more about her person than her privates. Forget this, and you have personally created a woman who will hate you the rest of her life.
But then again, if a woman does not enjoy sex, her husband will begin to hate her:
The woman who turns with aversion from a perfunctory performance of "conjugal duty" inspires an ardent and affectionate husband with the deepest suspicion of her love. His devotion must be strong indeed if he can preserve love and esteem for his wife after repeated suggestion of apathy, or manifestations of open repugnance or shameful compliance. [What a Young Husband Ought to Know]
The importance of restraint
Even if you are a gentle husband and lover, and even if your wife is enjoying herself, restraint is imperative. Says Robinson:
It will be seen that the husband who wishes to keep and retain the regard, affection, and gratitude of his wife, will be moderate and circumspect during the first few weeks of married life. Unless, of course, the wife herself is of a passionate nature and demands frequent satisfaction. In such cases the husband will comply with his wife's wishes as far as he can without injuring his health. [Sex Knowledge for Men]
Yes, the husband's health is as risk from over-indulgence. Even if a new wife is fond of the conjugal act, she must learn to restrain herself for her husband's sake. Less she drain him of his vital fluids. Macfadden explains:
Wives must understand that the life-giving fluid called the semen, which is produced in the creative organs of the man, is of great value in the upbuilding of his own body. It is only within comparatively recent times that the marvelous power of this creative fluid in building up and making over the body of the individual has been thoroughly understood. [Womanhood and Marriage]
Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance that if a couple is to have copious amounts of sex, that the woman be joyful and satisfied in the act. Otherwise, magnetic energy is not exchanged and you end up draining him like a sexual vampire:
In sexual intimacies, there is a discharge of this creative fluid from the body of the man, but where there is a full response on the part of the wife, there seems to be an exchange of magnetism or energy which makes up for the loss. If, however, his desire alone is active and she is simply fulfilling a supposed wifely duty, she gives nothing to him, and he, therefore, suffers a definite loss in vitality. It is claimed by some that such one-sided intimacies are almost as harmful to the man as masturbation. [Womanhood and Marriage]
As quaint as they seem to us, and as misinformed as they are, these books were trying to help. They were lights, however dim, in the fog of Victorian sexual confusion. They encouraged people to replace ignorance with education, selfishness with compassion. They didn't have the knowledge or values we have now, but the core ethic of trying to clear up rumor and confusion was still there, and is still admirable.
(Photos by London Stereoscopic Company, Hulton Archive/Getty Images, and ClassicStock/Corbis)
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