Sex Manuals, Old and Modern West

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Sex Manuals, Old and Modern West

Sex manuals are books that contain pictures and/or texts that instruct how to perform sexual intercourse and other sexual practices. Some sex manuals may also include therapeutic sex and intimacy exercises, advice on various methods of birth control, and/or advice on relationship and marital matters (which may or may not include sexual intercourse). Sexual literature in the form of sex manuals and erotic art has existed in European and North American cultures throughout history. Shifts in political climate and obscenity laws have at times influenced the proliferation of sex manuals; however, black markets and underground sources have enabled the literature to endure such restrictions.

Contemporary sex manuals include not only typical sex behaviors and practices but also various other forms of sex, such as oral sex (fellatio and cunnilingus), anal sex for both heterosexual and homosexual audiences, as well as an array of various sexual positions and behaviors that challenge the traditional discourse of sex. In contemporary sex guides masturbation techniques may also be included as a new self-help method for achieving sexual gratification and orgasm. Despite historical and contemporary differences, sex manuals have existed to facilitate what is socially and culturally believed to be healthy sexual behavior.


Some of the oldest documented sex manuals and sexual literature derives from the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Sexual imagery lined the walls of baths and brothels in ancient times, serving the same purpose of images found in contemporary manuals. Some of the most famous images of ancient Roman times were found in the excavation of the Stabian Bath of Pompeii. At Stabian, the walls were covered in frescos depicting various sexual acts, positions, techniques, and sex behaviors that are believed to be representative of ancient Roman sex practices.

Between about 1 bce and 1 ce, Ovid, an ancient Roman poet, wrote one of the oldest sex manuals of the West to include text. The manual was titled Ars Amatoria [The art of love] and contained three separate books in a series, each written in verse. The first two books were directed at a male audience, one advising how to win a woman's heart and another on how to maintain her as a lover and partner. The third book in the series addressed women, advising ways for them to lure men to their hearts. Though the practicality of the books may be limited in regard to sexual practice, it does give a historic view of gender roles and relations in ancient European culture.

In the seventeenth century an anonymous author using the pen name Aristotle composed his Master-Piece, a popular guide to sex and procreation. Essentially, the book presented the traditional Christian view of intercourse, which included that sexual intercourse should only be conducted in the sanction of legal marriage and for the exclusive purpose of procreation. Underlining this point Aristotle's Experienced Midwife was often attached to Aristotle's Master-Piece, which maintained mainstream popularity well into the nineteenth century.

In spite of modern attitudes toward sexuality and sex in Europe and North America, sex manuals were completely banned in the United States and some parts of Europe at various times, particularly in what is known as the Victorian period. During this time most sexual materials consisted of either illicit pornography obtained from other countries or from underground markets. Sexual information was only available to doctors and other medical professionals, focusing primarily on sexual disorders or dysfunctions (e.g., female hysteria, vaginismus, and erectile dysfunction). Often these texts were written in Latin, limiting their accessibility to the general population. Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), a German sexologist, was one of the few professionals of the late nineteenth century to write and publish sexual information for the medical field with his book Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-Forensic Study.


The twentieth century was one the most evolutionary centuries for sex manuals. During this time sex manuals transitioned from medical literature for professionals to sex and marital information for the general public. The earliest sexual literature in the twentieth century focused specifically on marriage and birth control. Marie Carmichael Stopes (1880–1958) was one of the first Scottish women in Europe to complete a doctorate in science. Her scientific knowledge allotted her the authority to write Married Love (1920), one of the most influential sex manuals in Europe. Married Love was the first sex manual to raise radical notions of egalitarian marriage and equality in sexual pleasure. Stopes's book emphasized the importance of female orgasm, as well as shared emotional intimacy between partners, both before and after union (the metaphor Stopes used for sex). Another female author to write about sex and marriage was Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), an American birth control activist who also founded Planned Parenthood. Sanger was one of the first women to gain public and political support for a woman's choice to determine how and when she will bear children. Her book Happiness in Marriage (1926) not only discussed sex and marital issues but included information about pregnancy and birth control. This was the first time mainstream North American and European culture had access to nonmedicalized birth control information.

In the 1960s there was a significant shift in the content of sex manuals. The tone and style advanced from discussion of marital practice and procreation to sexual practice for pleasure and orgasm. During this time sex manuals first began to gain mainstream popularity in Europe and North America. Physician David Reuben published one of the first sex manuals, Everything You always Wanted to Know about Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask in 1969. Reuben's book was filled with descriptions of sex acts, but to avoid being considered obscene, the book did not include any sexual pictures or diagrams. In the 1970s, however, a plethora of sex manuals were introduced to mainstream European and North American culture. Alex Comfort, a psychologist, was one of the first authors to publish a fully illustrated sex manual that included various sexual positions and sexual practices (including fellatio, cunnilingus, bisexuality, threesomes) in his seminal book The Joy of Sex. Comfort's book was free of medical jargon and terminology, making it one of the first books intended for a popular audience. In response to the women's liberation movement and the development of women's reproductive rights, research psychologists Julia Heiman, Leslie LoPiccolo, and Joseph LoPiccolo wrote Becoming Orgasmic in 1976. This sex manual focused completely on the achievement of orgasm, marking the first time a sex manual had solely focused on female pleasure and enjoyment. As sex manuals began to focus more explicitly on pleasure, greater variation in sexual behavior was represented in the texts. The Joy of Sex only touched on the topic of bisexuality, but in the late 1970s, Charles Silverstein and Edmund White broadened their scope of behaviors in The Joy of Gay Sex, which targeted a gay male audience.

In the 1980s a flurry of sex manuals was published, giving rise to terms like sex therapist and sexpert, two professions that described individuals who were considered professionals of sexual knowledge. During this time Ruth Westheimer became one of the most publicized sex therapists in North America and Europe. Her earliest books, First Love: A Young People's Guide to Sexual Information (1985) and Dr. Ruth's Guide for Married Lovers (1986), were filled with information about relationships, marriage, sex, sexual positions, and sexual exploration. However, some critics have perceived her work to be a conservative approach to the milieu of sex and too exclusively directed at married heterosexuals. Conversely, Paul Joannides, a research psychoanalyst, took a more liberal approach to sex in his book The Guide to Getting It On!: For Adults of All Ages (1996). Joannides's book explores a wide range of sexual practices and behaviors that he describes as varying from traditional to kink, and is written like a sexual encyclopedia for an average reader.

In contemporary context sexperts (individuals who have self-educated on sex and sexuality through both experience and/or independent research) began to write sex manuals and guides from a new perspective. Authors Cathy Winks and Anne Semans penned The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex: The Most Complete Manual (1994), which is considered one of the most extensive layperson's guide to sex. Their expertise developed from working at Good Vibrations, the sexuality product retailer based in San Francisco, California. The sexpert approach allows authors to use their experience from working in the sex-toy industry to reach a wide audience of readers who may be looking to try new sexual practices. The context is explicit and straightforward and contains less medical or academic language, making these books more accessible to a wider audience.


Aristotle. 1799. The Works of Aristotle, the Famous Philosopher, in Four Parts: 1. His Complete Masterpiece. 2. His Experienced Midwife. 3. His Book of Problems. 4. His Last Legacy. Philadelphia: Printed for the booksellers.

Bush, Michael. 1999. "The Rise of the Sex Manual." History Today 49(2): 36-42.

Comfort, Alex. 1972. The Joy of Sex: A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Connell, Erin, and Alan Hunt. 2006. "Sexual Ideology and Sexual Physiology in the Discourses of Sex Advice Literature." The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 15(1): 23-45.

Heiman, Julia; Leslie LoPiccolo; and Joseph LoPiccolo. 1976. Becoming Orgasmic: A Sexual Growth Program for Women. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Joannides, Paul. 2006. The Guide To Getting It On!: For Adults of All Ages. 5th edition. Walport, OR: Goofy Foot Press.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. 1965. Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-forensic Study, trans. Harry Wedeck. New York: Putnam.

Ovid. 2002. The Art of Love, trans. by James Michie. New York: Modern Library.

Sanger, Margaret. 1926. Happiness in Marriage. New York: Brentano's.

Silverstein, Charles, and Edmund White. 1977. The Joy of Gay Sex. New York: Crown.

Stopes, Marie. 1927. Married Love: or, Love in Marriage, ed. William J. Robinson. New York: Eugenics Pub.

Westheimer, Ruth, and Nathan Kravetz. 1985. First Love: A Young People's Guide to Sexual Information. New York: Warner.

Westheimer, Ruth. 1986. Dr. Ruth's Guide for Married Lovers. New York: Warner.

Winks, Cathy, and Anne Semans. 2002. The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex: The Most Complete Manual Ever Written. 3rd edition. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press.

                                          Brandon J. Hill