Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed…. Bacon, Of Studies
Who would say no to sexual enlightenment? There are enough books on carnal knowledge to satisfy the appetites of the greediest, and we have devoured or dipped into them since the earliest sex manuals were written in China, more than two and a half thousand years ago. Sex and nature were synonymous throughout the early Chinese dynasties, sharing the same word, ‘xing’, and so outdoor sex was considered the most satisfying, each tree and flower suggesting a different position. A long and healthy life, the balance of yin and yang, was achieved through constant love-making with many partners. Men were instructed to bring their women to orgasm but not to ejaculate themselves, thereby emulating the mythical ‘Yellow Emperor’ who became immortal after congress with 12,000 women.The Indian Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, only privately printed for the first time in English in 1883, summarises works dating back as much as three thousand years. Ovid’s erotodidactic Ars Amatoria, is some 2,000 years old, and begins with the seductive encouragement, ‘Should anyone here not know the art of love, read this, and learn by reading how to love.’ For when a man ‘finds the spot where a woman loves to be touched’:
She’ll moan and whisper sweet nothings and sigh contentedly … But be careful that you don’t gallop ahead, leaving her behind. And make sure that she doesn’t reach the finish before you do.
Ovid, unfortunately, was banished by the Emperor Augustus for writing his ‘poetry as sex’ (and for an unknown act of folly), and in fifteenth-century Florence his works were cast into the great bonfire of Savonarola, as erotic, impious, and corrupting. But the heady erudition that suffused the Renaissance allowed the publication of Sinibaldi’s Geneanthropeia, the first standard Western work on sexuality (the English made do with a bowdlerized edition, Rare Verities, the Cabinet of Venus Unlock’d). Sinibaldi’s sex had marvellous and ‘Salubrious effects’, but only if ‘rendered lawful by matrimony and free of sin’, lest ‘the sinner lose his soul if not his health’. Aphrodisiacs were welcome, boys as lust-objects were not, and flagellation was a complete prodigy, for how could it be ‘that pleasure comes from pain, sweet from bitter, lust from bloody wounds? Does the same road lead to torment and to delight?’ The work bursts with libidinous folklore, revels in the concupiscence of women, and ponders whether nature could ‘more opportunely have located the male organ elsewhere, and why did she endow him with one only, and not two?’In the seventeenth century Nicolas de Venette’s The Mysteries of Conjugal Love Reveal’d was published, destined to be Europe’s most popular sex manual for the next two hundred years. In France it had run to thirty-one editions by 1800 and had been translated from the French into English, German, Dutch, and Spanish. Scientific and bawdy, serious and salacious, it unveiled everything from African erotic habits to autopsy reports to Christian pieties. Venette will tell you how to read the signs of an absent maidenhead, how many times one may amorously caress a lover in a night, and which is the most sensual, the man or the woman (Answer: the woman, for she has a lascivious imagination, a ‘great Bum and fleshy thighs’, and she is, happily, the more moist). He was a mischievous scholar and a master of the not-so-modern art of book-promotion. Insisting that his revelations were the ‘Naked Truth’, Venette suggested that ‘even the scrupulous may be dazzled’ and hoped the reader might ‘be fit enough to withstand the violent efforts of Love’ described. If he was not, and found the contents ‘never so filthy’, he ‘should rather accuse his own Lewdness than the words’, for the dirty mind of the debauchee was quite beyond the author’s blame. The infamous and almost as popular Aristotle’s Master-Piece first appeared in 1684 and, having no pretensions to medical research, it enthusiastically detailed all manner of sexual anecdote and perversity. It was written for the ‘Cultivation of the Mind’, and with this noble aim the author plunged himself into so linguistically sensual a description of the male and female ‘secret parts’ that even the modern reader in an air-conditioned Library feels the rising heat of her imagination stir and finds it difficult to concentrate on the text. That which is ‘stil’d the Seat of Lust’ in a woman, he writes, that ‘excellent Piece of Nature that we are to lay open [is] fresh and red … like Myrtle Berries’. And bless the man, for even then he taught that the ‘Clytoris is essential to a woman’s pleasure’ which ‘by swelling up causes Titillation and Delight in those Parts’. The clitoris, like ‘the Comb of a Cock’, he rhapsodises, ‘grows sometimes out of the Body two Inches, but that happens not but upon some extraordinary Accident’. Such a tragedy notwithstanding, it ‘both stirs up Lust and gives delight’, as does the male Yard that ‘Nature has plac’d obvious to the sight’ and ordered so ‘that when the Nerves are fill’d with Animal Spirits, and the Arteries with hot and spirituous Blood, then it is distended and becomes direct’. As to the Testicles, ‘their Number and Place is obvious (there are two of ’em) like a Bunch of Grapes’.
Alas, come Victoria and the likes of the eminent surgeon and moralist William Acton, playfulness was forced underground. Discipline and order ruled the new sexology, with its hysterical approach to the female body, its moral manacles, and its psychiatrization of all pleasures perverse. Acton’s ideas replaced inquisitive desire with erotic insanity; fortunate for women then that, according to him, ‘The majority (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind’. Sex was now a serious subject for serious men unafraid to face its more ‘loathsome aspects’. Philanthropists, surgeons and clerics were called upon to educate the thousands of ‘thoughtless, passionate, habitually licentious men’ and Paphian women who, under a ‘veil of artificial bashfulness’, indulged themselves, willy-nilly, in lubricious erotomania. It became harder to extricate the quasi-science from the sex manual but all was not lost, as long as popular appetite remained unsated there were those who did not ‘object to dealing with filth’ in order to talk dirty in the name of medicine.
Yet, even in 1942, Eustace Chesser of Harley Street was prosecuted for obscenity over his ‘plain guide to sex technique’, Love Without Fear, despite it being written expressly for the married couple (as practically all such volumes have purported to be). Chesser is a mid-century, cuspate mix of taboo and liberality, a prelude to the early 1960s with the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the beginning of Larkinesque sexual intercourse. In the ‘normal sexual embrace’, Chesser asserted, ‘the man plays the active aggressive, dominating part. The woman’s role is passive. She ‘submits’. He ‘takes’ or ‘possesses’ her.’ Kissing is unconditionally recommended though, especially if ‘lovers mutually explore and caress the inside of each other’s mouths with their tongues as profoundly as possible, sometimes for hours’. Lesbianism, sadly, is dismissed as just being ‘often due to practices indulged in at school’. But he does get the academic vote when he writes: ‘even bluestocking women can be good lovers … she takes off her blue stockings when she goes to bed’.
Manuals dedicated to liberating our sexuality proliferate still, and many mirror the earliest works with their playful indulgences laced with contemporary strictures. Surely everyone is comfortingly familiar with the erotic exploration of The Joy of Sex and its 70s message of safe delight, its orgasmic sounds of the suburbs. Today’s manuals have taken it all up a notch and now pander to our specialisms and diversity: we can sample Sex Tips from a Dominatrix; try out The Multi-Orgasmic Man; gently probe gender play with The Ultimate Guide to Strap-On Sex; or perhaps let Naomi Wolf show us hers in Vagina: A New Biography, in which she discovers ‘much to her own astonishment … that the vagina is not merely flesh’.
The heady fog of incense and the stinging stink of carbolic soap no longer pervade, though some contend that all sex manuals are nothing if not pornodidascalian, a secret titillation masquerading as an educative tool. Well, tut tut, heaven forfend that the valued and voracious reader might pleasure herself on her quest for enlightenment, or that knowledge should satisfy the body and mind together.