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Monday, November 26, 2012

Things I Learned from a 1946 "Sex Hygiene" Manual

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Mon, Nov 26, 2012 at 12:30 PM

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Last night, I was perusing the shelf of Powell's "weird books" shelf (Orange Room, near the book buyers, absolute goldmine) and came across this gem from 1946:
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While the cover promises a digest on "the science of keeping clean, health, and happy!" the 92-page pamphlet is really about the secrets of sex and marriage. It's interesting to reflect on how much we've changed our attitudes toward sex and gender roles in the past 60 years—and how we haven't.

I read the whole little book last night and have distilled its post-war sex advice below.

1. If you are masturbating too much, stop eating so many pickles. By 1946, the "eminent medical and hygiene authorities of three continents" had moved beyond the idea that masturbation caused blindness and insanity and settled on the consensus that pretty much everybody masturbates but it is "not nice and it might lead to grave results." They recommend several ways to stave off masturbation including keeping busy, sleeping on your side, and eliminating from your diet "stimulating foods such as tea, coffee, pickles, and candy."

2. For a happy marriage, read the news and don't become fat. The chapter titled "For a Happy Marriage" gives plenty of advice, all of it about how a happy marriage hinges on the wife remaining purty and not driving her husband away with her dirty toenails, soiled housedresses, and "unsightly rolls of flesh." Also, try to keep up as much as possible with the news. "Nothing becomes more tiresome to a man than a woman who knows nothing of what is going on in the world... improve your mind as much as you can in order to remain interesting to your husband."

3. To determine if you're pregnant, inject your urine into a frog. In the days before peeing on a stick, there was peeing on a frog. The manual notes an exciting advance in the world of testing for pregnancy: Doctors can inject a woman's urine under the skin of an African Clawed Frog and, if the woman is pregnant, the frog will produce 100 to 500 eggs within eight hours. That sounds totally gross, but frog-urine-injection seems to have been surprisingly pretty widespread and reliable.

4. Your libido depends on race and social class. The manual actually has a rather forward-thinking attitude to women's sexuality, tossing out the Victorian belief that most women do not enjoy sex and saying instead that almost all women enjoy sex and couples should frankly discuss their "manner of love making" to find methods that both parties enjoy. BUT, the medical experts also embraced Progressive notions, noting that female "frigidity" varies according to country and "social stratum": "North America contains the most frigid women and they are much rarer in Latin countries."

5. Know when to sterilize yourself for the good of society. Another Progressive Era virtue we find horrific today: "Eugenic sterilization is a practical, human and necessary step to prevent race deterioration." The "feeble minded and insane" should be sterilized by the state, but it's also the duty of the following individuals to seek sterilization: alcoholics, people unable to learn in school, and anyone whose family has a history of cancer, tuberculosis, syphilis, or epilepsy. Yep.

6. Never, ever get an abortion. There's no discussion in the pamphlet of birth control methods, except an entire chapter on the dangers of abortion. The anti-abortion arguments could be spoken today by anti-abortion groups and actually reads a bit like a Focus on the Family pamphlet: Abortion is murder, doctors who perform the procedure are scam artists, the operation is extremely painful and will likely lead to sterility or death. The pamphlet also notes with surprise that the majority of women who get abortions are married—which is mirrored today in stats that most women seeking abortions already have at least one child.

7. If your husband is cheating, it's probably your fault. While the sterility section sounds insane today, one thing that hasn't changed, sadly, is the ingrained idea that men are just cheatin' machines and wives are probably somehow motivating the affair. From the chapter "Forty and After":

"A problem of middle age is the 'errant' husband. Suddenly your world tumbles about you. Your devoted husband of twenty years has committed adultery! You can hardly believe it! Honestly, now, have you examined yourself recently? How long has it been since you said anything complimentary to him—flattered his ego? What have you done to make him love you? ... But all men have a spirit of adventure and it often crops out at middle ago. What to do when you discover your husband is untrue to you? If you love him, nothing. Ignore it, pretend you don't know anything about it. Then take stock of yourself, your mannerisms, your appearance, your attitude toward your husband—and see if you cannot find the answer there."

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