Imprudent Acts and Great Bastards


Department of Sex Ed

Sex advice from 1861.


From The Book of Nature.

Let me be frank: Valentine’s Day is great if you’re getting laid. But there are, among the populace, a number of the “involuntarily celibate” for whom this “holiday” exists only to remind of isolation, rejection, and missed carnal opportunities. Where, in such times, can the lovelorn singleton turn for solace? There is but one place: the annals of sexual education.

There’s no better way to kill one’s sexual desire than to remember what it was like to learn about sex. Contemporary sex-ed is effective enough in this regard—we can all summon memories of high school filmstrips—but it turns out that the sex-ed of ages past was even more clinical, pedantic, and bloodless. All of which is to say it’s perfect if you’re looking to take the joy out of sex.

Proof positive: An 1861 work by one James Ashton, M.D.—a “lecturer on sexual physiology” who invented the “Reveil Nocturne,” which Google has thus far not elucidated—called The Book of Nature; Containing Information for Young People Who Think of Getting Married, on the Philosophy of Procreation and Sexual Intercourse; Showing How to Prevent Conception and to Avoid Child-Bearing. Also, Rules for Management During Labour and Child-birth. It is, in effect, the most abundantly unsexy sex-ed guide this side of What’s Happening to Me? A Guide to Puberty.

Woe betide the poor, curious, horny nineteenth-century youths who consulted this volume hoping for a frisson of some kind. They found instead the ultimate boner-killer: reams of aloof, upright prose designed to cast one of humankind’s most reliably pleasurable pastimes in the most sterile light possible. You know you’re in for a bad ride when the frontispiece, which depicts a naked woman, is captioned, “Unimpregnated Female Form.” Hold me back!

Here’s Dr. Ashton on the proper time to have sex:

The proper time for sexual indulgence is an important consideration, inasmuch as carelessness in this respect may tend to dyspepsia, indigestion, and other affections of the stomach. Persons who are predisposed to such diseases should never have sexual intercourse just before eating, nor very soon after a full meal. Its peculiar effect on the stomach is calculated to weaken digestion, particularly on the part of the male; and many a miserable dyspeptic might trace his unhappiness to imprudent acts of sexual intercourse. From two to three hours after or before eating a full meal, is the proper time for this business.

And on the variety of aphrodisiacs in our wide world:

The particular food which is calculated to stimulate the sexual organs is shell-fish, or sea fish of any kind, and turtle, as these generally contain phosphorus. Among vegetables may be mentioned celery, parsnips, onions, peppers, asparagus, tomatoes, Lima beans, &c. Mushrooms and truffles are a stimulant, as is also mint, sage, penny-royal, thyme, and spices of all kinds, especially pepper and nutmeg. Canvas-back Duck, in proper season, is of excellent stimulating qualities; and for puddings, sago, tapioca and arrowroot. For drinks take porter and strong beer, wines, or coffee. Spirits are too exhilarating, and cause a reaction.

The Book of Nature is also rife with misinformation, and many of its most enjoyable passages are its most incorrect. “Female prostitutes,” we’re told, “never enjoy their sexual connections with strangers—they are mere passive instruments—while the male only relieves himself of a superabundance of Semen.” And should your mind wander during sex, you risk affecting the intellect of your potential offspring:

Coition, or sexual union, may be compared to a fit of epilepsy, or to an electrical shock. It entirely engages both the mind and the body; we neither hear nor see, but the soul is entirely absorbed in the act. When a man is performing this act, if his thoughts wander, the product will be feeble, and if his wife become pregnant the offspring will be inferior. This fact is applied to the offspring of great geniuses, who are supposed to be thinking of something else when they beget their children, and hence their descendants are often much below them in intellect. In further confirmation of this theory, history informs us that some of the greatest men the world ever saw were bastards—children begotten with vigor, and when the minds of the parents are supposed to have been absorbed in the one idea of a loving sexual embrace.

Then there’s the complicated breakdown of what gender you can expect your kid to be:

Amorous females generally breed female children, while those of a colder temperament breed boys. When both are moderate in their desires, children of both sexes are produced. When the female is unnaturally amorous, (and such cases frequently occur,) she seldom becomes impregnated at all. The following mode of influencing the sex of the child, some physiologists assert, is really effective, and it looks reasonable.

All of The Book of Nature is this unreliable, and much of it, I’m pleased to report, is considerably more dull. Read the whole book here, if you wish to find the pleasures of intercourse vastly diminished.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.