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Sex Manuals and Other Vulgarities

(Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Selling Slaves in Rome, 1884)

I’m working on a couple of books set in the Victorian period (1837-1901) so I’ve been researching a lot about what Victorians knew about sex and how they were educated on the subject.

Fortunately, most of these books are now online and accessible to anyone who wants to peruse them. Unfortunately, they are not as many as I would wish.

From my research, and just to start, I recommend the following five books to anybody interested in the subject:

  • The Perfumed GardenPDF – Written in the 12th century in what we call nowadays Tunisia, it was translated into French and then English in 1886. It’s a work of Erotica with instructions.
  • Fortunes and misfortunes of the famous Moll FlandersPDF -More than a hundred years before the Victorian Era, published for the first time in 1722, this book is a novel by Daniel Defoe and it supposedly tells the true story of the notorious Moll Flanders. Some TV and movie adaptations of the novel exist but I think the book is essential if your goal is to delve in the minds of the Victorians who might have read it.
  • The Elements of Social Science; or, Physical, Sexual, and Natural ReligionPDF –  From the cover: “An exposition of the true cause and only cure of the three primary social evils: poverty, prostitution, and celibacy.” – The edition online is the 25th edition and was published in London in 1886. According to the preface, the 1st edition was published in 1854 and the 3rd in 1859. It’s a classic Victorian book about the subject–sanctimonious, confusing, and filled with unfounded pseudo-scientific information–but it’s a great source of information about how Victorians thought, their fears and their values.
  • The Transmission Of LifePDF – From the cover: “Counsels on the nature and hygiene of the masculine function. ” The 13th edition of this work is from 1872, Canada. It deals mainly with male sexuality but it has some expected overlap with the female body. Cringing to read at times, considering all the inaccurate information and preposterous affirmations given in a scientific tone, its value in researching the Victorians is important much because of that. Keep in mind that this is a Canadian book.*
  • The Married Woman’s Private Medical CompanionPDF – 1855, New York. Valuable information about the era’s approach to sexuality. It mainly talks about the understood mechanics of sex, pregnancy, fertility, menstruation and diseases associated with the female sex. Keep in mind that this is an American book.*

I’ll pursue this subject in a later post.

*If you are researching for a novel set in England in the Victorian Era, keep in mind that the notions and terms used might be different from country to country, and sensitivities might have been somewhat distinct.