Zoom calls have been ruthless in exposing our home decorating gaffes, our compromising bookshelf choices and recently — when BBC Wales TV footage revealed a sex toy perched behind an interviewee and went viral — our intimate lives.
Spotted on a Zoom bookshelf, this title would be unlikely to raise any eyebrows (though Greek scholars might be intrigued). But 350 years ago, it would have been stashed beneath a mattress.
First published in 1684, the bestselling pregnancy and childbirth manual was a What to Expect When You’re Expecting for the 17th century, containing “the secrets of nature in the generation of man”.
While today’s modern parents are quick to thrust a copy of Let’s Talk About Sex into libidinous teenagers’ hands, sex education in those days was an altogether more furtive affair. Advising on “the use and actions of the genitals” and the “purpose, pleasures, and particulars of sex”, the book was certainly a boon for the curious.
Reprinted through hundreds of editions in both Britain and America until the late 19th century, a copy could reportedly still be unearthed in the sex shops of London’s Soho in the 1930s.
The book was ahead of its time, too, in validating female sexual pleasure. One hearty recommendation is for a husband to “entertain [his wife] with all kinds of dalliance, wanton behaviour, and allurements to Venery” — though strictly, of course, in the noble pursuit of conception.
The Greek philosopher is not the author of the work, needless to say; the cocktail of 17th-century medicine and old wives’ tales was anonymously penned. But in English popular culture Aristotle had a reputation as an authority on sex, and his name on a book cover was a promise of bawdy content within.
Misconceptions abound within its pages, glaringly emphasised through crude woodcut illustrations. A difficult birth should be eased by the primitive practice of bleeding, the book advises, and pregnant women must ensure that their home is not “infected with frogs”. The section on “monstrous births” shows a boy with an umbilical cord protruding from his forehead.
By the 19th century, frontispieces began to feature near-naked women, perhaps in recognition of the book’s titillating appeal. But other works would eventually supersede Aristotle’s Masterpiece as the people’s go-to sex manual, from Marie Stopes’s Married Love (1918) to Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex (1972).
On my parents’ bookshelf was a well-thumbed copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). For enterprising teens, it was a fount of candour about carnal matters — French carnal candour — in a seminal work of early feminism.
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