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Wedding Night Terror: the uneducated virgin and Victorian England


20th century knowledge: Victorian after effects

The provocative Marie Stopes
Manuals of the early twentieth century were a little more mindful towards the happiness and sexual health of females. Misinformation was still prevalent: it was commonly noted in these manuals that anything less than simultaneous orgasm during intercourse was “not agreeable.” Women were given the “right” to refuse sex if their husband could not achieve “the orgasm of the woman and the ejaculation of semen of the man in the same instant” (Porter 204). This circumstance is obviously difficult to achieve for even experienced partners, so this expectation surely set some relationships up for failure from the beginning. Isabel Hutton called this act of simultaneous orgasm “mutual adjustment” in her 1923 manual The Hygiene of Marriage (211–14). While manuals were encouraging this perhaps impossible-to-achieve goal to inexperienced partners, they also admitted that first sexual couplings between married people may be awkward, but practice should allow them to learn each other's bodies (214). Hooray for progress! 

Married Love by Marie Stopes was perhaps the most honest and controversial manual of the day. Published in several editions and volumes in the early 1900s, the manual encouraged mutual sexual satisfaction. She was also a huge proponent of birth control and sexual experimentation. Stopes was discredited as a wanton woman, but her honesty gained many fans. Soldiers were known to gift this manual to their fiancees, so the uneducated women would be prepared once their husband-to-be returned from war (Porter 249, 253). Stopes said that the men who visited prostitutes and their frigid wives were the product of their society, which made sexual knowledge and experience taboo (Michie 112). Since men were likely to have been with a prostitute prior to their wedding night, they would find their wife's inexperience off-putting (113). She acknowledged that the inexperience was so extensive that women may actually be shocked by their new husband's physical expectations and refuse to participate (113).

While the women to which Stopes is referring were not even born in the Victorian period, they were absolutely affected by the sexual education practices of the time. Since their mothers were uneducated, these modern women did not have any way to learn about sex. It was very much a chain reaction. Parents felt their daughters should learn about sex the way they did: on the wedding night (Porter 251). Even mothers who wanted to explain sex to their daughters were so uneducated and shy that proper explanation was impossible (251). One letter from the time documents a mother telling her daughter on the eve of the daughter's wedding “[there are] certain things your husband will require from you. It's not nice and you'll just have to put up with it” (254), which is petrifying advice to hear when you are about to be alone with a man for the first time. Modern women's young married friends were even often too ashamed to tell unmarried women of what would be expected by husbands (253).

In conclusion...

The cycle of shame and sexuality has obviously not been broken today, but improvements have been made in leaps and bounds. Each generation became more comfortable with sex than the one before it, and it is a rare event for an American woman to begin her married life with no sexual knowledge. Thank goodness.