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Sex Manuals
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You can go as far as you like with me, Copyright 1907. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-111681(b&w film copy neg.)

bibliographic record

Forthright discussions of sexuality, especially women's, are difficult to locate in U.S. imprints before the twentieth century. As one author explained in 1896,

“Works upon sexual science, physiology, anatomy, etc., are too elaborate and extensive for the average woman to study or comprehend.”30

A surprising number of books from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, were published to inform girls and women about their maturing bodies, female physiology and diseases, and marital duties. Most nineteenth-century works addressing girls and women avoided male sexuality or physiology, and each sex was kept uninformed about the other.

Titles such as What a Young Girl Ought to Know by Mary Wood Allen (Philadelphia: Vir Publishing Co., 1897; HQ51.A4) [catalog record] and The Sex Life of Girls and Young Women by Grace Reese Adkins (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1919; HQ51.A3 Overflow) [catalog record] survey health, hygiene, and sexual relations in scientific terms but with strong moral and religious messages.

Discussions of sex were sometimes disguised in chapters such as “What the Flower Teaches Us” (1919),31 but became increasingly specific and illustrated as the twentieth century progressed. Leslie J. Swabacker was unusually blunt in his Letters to My Daughter (1926) [catalog record] when he urged her to “Be the most desirable mistress in the world in your husband's eyes,”32 and Amy Ayer exclaims that celibacy “is a crime against nature” (1890),33 but of course she is addressing married women. In most of these works, questions of women's physiology and sexuality are inseparable from marriage and motherhood.

Some older works seem humorous today. Much medical advice is wrong. Topics such as contraception, abortion, and masturbation were ignored or discussed only with great delicacy. Plain Facts about Sexual Life (1877) [catalog record] spends twenty-two pages explaining that it would be a “breach of propriety, even in this plain-spoken work” to mention devices used to prevent conception, but the author then devotes more than one hundred pages to exposing the “Solitary Vice” of masturbation of which he also disapproves. His focus is primarily on boys, but he mentions warts, sterility, and cancer of the womb as dangers to girls.34 By 1968, an edition of a popular marriage manual gives masturbation only a passing mention, and methods of birth control are grouped in a clear appendix (Theodoor H. van de Velde, Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, rev. ed. [New York: Random House, 1968; HQ21.V415 1968] [catalog record]; earlier editions in RBSC).

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Nature versus corsets, illustrated. 1903. LC-DIG-ppmsca-02907(scan from b&w copy photo in Publishing Office).

bibliographic record

Recent transformations in public notions of female sexuality and behavior can be traced in the multiple editions and offshoots of Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973; HQ1426.B69 [catalog record], with subsequent editions and title changes).

Sex manuals for the modern woman, heterosexual or homosexual, are plentiful and easy to find. Recent titles show the variety: Kosher Sex by Shmuel Boteach (New York: Doubleday, 1999; HQ31.B7255 1999 Overflow) [catalog record], Joel D. Block's Sex over 50 (West Nyack, N.Y.: Parker Pub., 1999; HQ31.B569 1999) [catalog record], The Lesbian Sex Book by Wendy Caster (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1993; HQ75.5.C37 1993 Overflow) [catalog record], and one subtitled Fostering Your Child's Healthy Sexual Development by Beverly Engel (Beyond the Birds and the Bees [New York: Pocket Books, 1997; HQ31.E743 1997 Overflow]) [catalog record].

These volumes support research on many topics besides sexual reproduction. They can be used to explore issues of male-female relationships, woman-woman relationships, health and nutrition, exercise, etiquette, morality, religion, fashion, contemporary customs, and parent-child relationships.


Campbell, Patricia J. Sex Education Books for Young Adults, 1892-1979. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1979. Z7164.S42 C35 [catalog record].

Sahli, Nancy Ann. Women and Sexuality in America: A Bibliography. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984. Z7964.U49 S26 1984 MRR Alc [catalog record].


Sex instruction for women [girls, youth, lesbians]
Woman—Health and hygiene
Women—Health and hygiene
Hygiene, sexual
Gynecology—Popular works
Sexual ethics
Women—Sexual behavior
Birth control
Beauty, personal

LC CALL NUMBERS: HQ31, HQ46, HQ51 for many sex-advice titles.

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