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Wedding Night Terror: the uneducated virgin and Victorian England


Manuals of the nineteenth century: Confused and liberal advice

The cover page to an 1891 edition of Hanchett's manual.
Library of Congress
While Aristotle's Masterpiece was cheap and widely produced, the new manuals of the nineteenth century were more available to middle-class consumers since they were a little more expensive (Melody 45). These manuals were numerous and widely published, but were still considered taboo. Any manual that detailed any more than a scientific explanation of reproductive anatomy was considered filth, akin in pornography. The manuals discussed on this page are a fair example of the types of manuals available at the time.

Sexual Health: A Plain and Practical Guide for the People on All Matters Concerning the Organs of Reproduction in Both Sexes and All Ages by Henry Hanchett:
This manual, first published in 1887, toed the line between liberated and conservative advice. Hanchett opens the manual by refusing to apologize for dealing with delicate subjects: “[Hanchett] is fully convinced that much of our disease, as well as of the vice in which it originates, is due to the prevailing ignorance on sexual manners” (Hanchett 4). This idea, that ignorance leads to disease, is considered to be true even today. Hanchett's idea of vice, however, is different than ideas today. He disapproved of prostitution, which is absolutely still labeled as vice, but he also lumped masturbation in this category. It was common belief at the time that masturbation caused mental defect, and Hanchett was not an exception to these beliefs. Much of the manual is devoted to methods of diverting children from masturbation. Parents were encouraged to run their children around throughout the day in wild play so the children would be too tired to masturbate before bed (Hanchett 16). Sperm should only be used for procreation purposes: it is too precious of a substance to waste in self-abuse (16). Female children were discouraged from masturbation as well, but in a much less drawn-out matter. Women were considered by Hanchett to have a low, almost nonexistent sex drive, so only truly deranged females would succumb to the temptations of masturbation (36).

After dealing with the most important issue of vice, Hanchett delves into actual sexual and reproductive health. He encourages parents to have a similar attitude to his own: educating children will prevent them from coming to harm by making uneducated decisions. Girls, for example, should understand menstruation long before their first period, otherwise they may harm themselves trying to stem the flow of blood in a panic (38). The medical advice he dispenses was not perfect; as discussed on a previous page, he believed in vicarious menstruation. I'm sure many girls were confused and panicked based on this advice (did a nose bleed mean they were menstruating?!). Hanchett wanted women to understand their bodies. He discouraged female prudery, saying “it is no shame to have organs which can house and nurture a budding human life; it is no shame to study those organs and learn how they can best serve the new being that will be dependent upon them and their healthy condition” (qtd. in Michie 25). That being said, he also discourages women from taking advantage of their sexuality, noting that flirtatious women cause men to visit brothels for “relief,” which only adds to the spread of disease (Melody 21).

Once couples were married, however, flirtation was encouraged. According to Hanchett, married couples should have sex every three or so days. If they waited longer for sex, the children propagated from these unions would grow to be shriveled and unhealthy since their parents didn't express enough love (Melody 26, Michie 23). While he was encouraging married couples to have frequent sex, he was also very opposed to any method of birth control or “avoidance of offspring” (25). To those who did not desire children, he said “there is but one sure, safe, and proper plan for the healthy, and that is to remain single, or, being married, to live as if single” (Hanchett 70). Hanchett said to use a birth control method was against nature, but, the next manual discussed encouraged this sort of family planning.
Every Woman's Book by Richard Carlile:
When Richard Carlile wrote Every Woman's Book in 1826, his manual was seen as “irresponsible and obscene” and as a “radical alternative” to Aristotle's Masterpiece (Bush vii, 1). First of all, this manual was clearly written with females as the primary audience. Sex manuals before had been written for men, with the expectation that husbands would educate their wives, who may, in turn, educate their daughters. This audience selection alone made Carlile radical. A later edition of this manual included the claim that “every healthy woman feels the passion of love” (109), which was very different from the notion that women only put up with sex because of the prospect of motherhood. Carlile was also one of the first sex writers to label sexuality as a virtue, not a vice. He saw love as a desire for sexual gratification (which was perhaps an over-simplification of a complex emotion), and believed that the Christian Church encouraged prostitution and masturbation by discouraging sexual intercourse (11–12).

Perhaps the most radical claim his manual made was for the distribution of inexpensive, reliable birth control methods. He said that contraception would allow freer connection between men and women and would allow women to be sexually experienced and more likely to be happy in their eventual marriages (12). In the text of his essay “What is Love?” (a section in Every Woman's Book), he said “What a dreadful thing that... love cannot be enjoyed, without conception, when that conception is not desired, when it is a positive injury to the parties themselves and to society at large” (91). A few pages after this, he gives explicit instruction concerning how to use a prophylactic sponge, saying that neither party can feel the sponge and “pleasure is increased in the removal of all dread of evil consequences” (99). Carlile was way ahead of societal propriety. It was not until the 1870s that birth control (condoms, sponges and spermicides) became more widely used and less taboo. The upper-middle class were the first frequent users (Phegley 166).
The radical sexual writer Richard Carlile