11 Odd Bits of Victorian Sex Advice

Let's hope these two lovebirds didn't follow any of the dubious sex advice making the rounds during the Victorian era.
Let's hope these two lovebirds didn't follow any of the dubious sex advice making the rounds during the Victorian era. / Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Aphrodisia, pareunia, venery—sex. Victorians had many words for sexual intercourse and, in fact, many manuals and advice books that discuss the deed with surprising frankness. This is not to say that the advice you’ll find on their pages is informative; it’s often quite the opposite. But along with prejudice, prudery, and misinformation, there are sometimes timeless truths about sex contained therein. Below are 11 nuggets of Victorian sex wisdom—good, bad, and otherwise—published between 1837 and 1901.

1. Be aware that sex makes you stupid.

Knowledge workers of the world be warned: “The accumulated evidence of the world goes to show that celibacy is a most favorable state for severe mental labor,” according to Eliza Bisbee Duffey.

Though radically progressive on many matters, Duffey held to the ancient notion that sex wasted the body’s vital spirits. She therefore recommended abstinence, by which “the forces of the body are conserved, and are concentrated, and that goes to brain-power which would otherwise be exhausted in sexual union.”

2. Too much hair makes you horny.

Large buns coiled atop the head were all the rage in the 1880s, much to the chagrin of Dr. John Cowan. “This great pressure of hair on the small brain produces great heat in the part,” he warned, increasing blood flow to the brain’s sex center and causing “a chronic desire for its sexual exercise.” 

3. Use a card trick to avoid sex.

If you're looking to rid your mind of lustful thoughts, try Dr. Dio Lewis’s famous “card plan.” “Write on a card a number of words, each suggesting a subject of interest or a familiar train of thought,” he instructed. “When an impure notion obrudes itself, the idea of danger which has been associated with it will arrest the attention, the card is taken out, and a glance at it will help to shift the switch at once.”

4. To prevent STIs, give sex workers "free" examinations.

Though Dr. Matthew Berekely Hill's belief that prostitutes should be afforded “gratuitous” (that is, “free”) medical treatment for STIs was perhaps well-intentioned, his proposed tax scheme for implementing such a policy was unhelpfully cruel. Looking to the city of Bordeaux, France, for inspiration, where sex workers were subjected to forced examinations once a week, Hill explained that “Those who come on Tuesday and Wednesday are examined gratuitously. Those who delay till Thursday or Friday, are fined 75 centimes. Those who delay beyond this can still be examined on Saturday morning by paying two francs, but any defaulters are arrested on Saturday afternoon.” Many pointed out that this and other policies supported by Hill in the UK’s Contagious Diseases Act treated women unjustly; it was repealed in 1886.

5. Have sex to prevent nature from revolting.

Not all Victorians were so austere. Dr. James Teller points out that a person’s sex organs do a lot of good. “They afford an outlet for accumulated secretion; they assist in resolving the animal passions; they are the secret incentive to sexual love, and the bond of union between the sexes,” he wrote. “They give an appetite which, like hunger, must be appeased, or nature revolts, and the harmony of society falls before the unrestrained fury of maniacal solicitude.”

6. Have sex (in marriage) to cure disease.

Dr. Eugène Becklard goes further, recommending marriage—and presumably the sex it affords—as a cure for some decidedly Victorian ailments. “Maidens suffering from peculiar diseases, as nymphomania, uterine epilepsy, green sickness, (which is mostly the result of love), virgin convulsions &c. should be married as soon as possible,” he wrote, “for marriage is a certain cure in these complaints.”

7. Have sex twice a night, once a week.

“Sexual congress ought not to take place more frequently than once in seven or ten days,” advised Dr. William Acton. If that seems unsatisfying, Dr. Acton has the solution: “When my opinion is asked by patients whose natural desires are strong, I advise those wishing to control their passions to indulge in intercourse twice on the same night.”

8. Sex right before or after meals is a no-go.

Did your mother ever tell you to wait 30 minutes after eating before swimming? Probably. Did she tell you, like Dr. Jefferis and Mr. Nichols, that “intercourse should be absolutely avoided just before or after meals?” Probably not.

9. Use it or lose it!

“All non-exercised organs shrivel,” warned Orson Squire Fowler, though moderate use could help sex organs “be made larger in most cases.”

“I utter this all-glorious truth professionally, from having known many successful experiments,” he wrote. But be warned: “All half-crazed, fitful, fiery action of these organs, as of all others, burns out and diminishes their size.”

10. Trying to get pregnant? Aim for an orgasm.

This ever-present myth was given an infallible medical proof by Dr. Alfred Lewis Galabin: “I have known a lady who was married under 20,” he stated. “When she had passed the age of 40, she experienced the sexual orgasm in coitus for the first and only time in her life, and from that day dated her first and only pregnancy.”

11. Sex is a state of mind.

Pioneering physician Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell implored readers to treat human sexuality as a mental as well as a physical phenomenon, as something that profoundly shapes our thoughts and lives (for better or for worse). “It is this mental sentiment peculiar to human sex which is capable of a two-fold development,” she wrote. “It may grow into a noble sympathy, self-sacrifice, reverence, and joy, thus enlarging, deepening, and intensifying the nature through the gradual expansion of the inborn mental elements of sex.”

But be warned: “It is also this intensity of the mental form and power of sex, possessed by mankind alone, which allows of the perversion and extreme degradation of sex observable in the human race; and which, running riot in unchecked licence, converts to men and women into selfish and cruel devils—monsters, quite without parallel in the brute creation.”