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Wedding Night Terror: the uneducated virgin and Victorian England


Early sex manuals, like "Aristotle's Masterpiece"

Front pages of 1706 edition of "Aristotle's Masterpiece."
Books & Babies: Communicating Reproduction. Cambridge University Library.
The earliest sex manual that would have been available to Victorian audiences is the anonymously published Aristotle's Masterpiece, or Directory for Midwives. This 1684 manual was not by Aristotle and was not a masterpiece. In fact, it was just a compilation of various uncredited sources (Porter 33–6). The name Aristotle was chosen to lend an air of expertise and wisdom, which may have worked, since this manual circulated for over 100 years after its initial publication (43, 47, 37). The third edition is the one most likely to have been read by Victorian audiences. It was bawdy and irreverent, giving advice like “but if she is ugly, the advice is: do it in the dark” (qtd. in Porter 38), which probably accounts for teen boys passing this book around like a Playboy. It's important to recognize that teen boys are the only children that my research cited as reading the manual.  

Content of the manual: “Aristotle” agreed with the notion that female sexual pleasure is solely derived from the idea that a child may be conceived, but he takes this idea a step further: women may have even greater sexual satisfaction and pleasure than men because of their desire for motherhood (Melody 46). Aristotle also recognizes the clitoris as an analogous structure to the penis as far as pleasure is concerned (46). The authors of Masterpiece acknowledged that a missing hymen does not necessarily indicate missing virginity (Fisnell 63), a fact that would save many innocent girls from the wrath of the men in their life. This manual focuses, as many did, solely on reproductive, heterosexual intercourse (Porter 42). Unlike Victorian custom though, this manual encouraged marriage soon after puberty to make sure women took advantage of their full span of reproductive years (43). Aristotle said that finding the correct balance of sexual frequency was crucial: “They that would be commended for their Wedlock Actions, and be happy in the fruit of their Labor, must observe to copulate at distance of time, not too often, nor yet too seldom, for both these hurt Fruitfulness alike” (qtd. in Porter 44). Overall, Aristotle's ideas were socially advanced: while he discouraged sex out of wedlock, he understood female pleasure more than most.

Another example: Tableau de l'amour by Nicolas Venette. This manual was published through the late eighteenth century. Venette explained to women how to fake virginity on their wedding night: abstain for a while, apply constricting ointment and insert a clot of dried blood into the vagina (Porter 81).