Monday 23 October 2017

Everything you ever wanted to know

We might have been afraid to ask in the past, but we are not shy about buying the book. As Irish people spend €500,000 a year on sex manuals,Tanya Sweeney looks at the history of the erotic guide

Library Image. Photo: Getty Images
Library Image. Photo: Getty Images

Tanya Sweeney

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the recording of the world's first Kama Sutra audiobook, just released, not least during the reading aloud of its most notorious chapter ‘On Sexual Union'. Thanks to wily British publishers Beautiful Books, Eastenders actress Tanya Franks imparts 1600-year-old sex techniques and instructs listeners on some 64 different ways of making love.

And for anyone loath to crack open the world-famous sex manual on the Luas, Beautiful Books' Simon Petherick says: “Now there's no need to feel embarrassed by reading a copy of this wonderful and important book in public — simply download it on to your mp3 player and liven up your commute to work. Indeed, the possibilities are endless.”

Given the fact that the sex manual market in Ireland is in rather fine fettle — estimated at around €500,000 a year in Ireland — the outlook for this new incarnation of the Kama Sutra seems healthy. “Ultimately, we have books that teach people to read, write, dress themselves, so why not a book on another natural function?” observes Dr Mel Duffy, who runs the new MA in Sexuality Studies at DCU. “These books are an imparting of essential knowledge.”


As it stands, the five-and-a-halfhour audiobook is more of a philosophical paean than a ‘left a bit, up a bit' manual.

“When a woman sees her lover is fatigued by constant congress, without having his pleasures satisfied, she should with his permission lay him down on his back and give him assistance by acting out his part,” states one passage.

“She should do this to satisfy the curiosity of her lover, and also her own desire of novelty. There are two ways of doing this; during congress, she turns around and gets on top of her lover, so as to continue the congress without obstructing the pleasure of it. The other is when she acts out a man's part from the beginning.

“At such a time with flowers in her hair and her smiles broken by hard breathings, she should press upon her lover's bosom with her own breasts.”

Little wonder the ‘Kama Sutra’ — written by Indian philosopher, Vatsyayana Mallanaga — has lasted through the ages. Even 1600 years ago, people were getting clued up on finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, living as or with a courtesan, using drugs, adultery, prostitution, group sex, sadomasochism, male and female homosexuality, and transvestism.


The last decade has seen the ancient text launch in a number of intriguing new guises; in 2003 a pop-up book was released, while ‘The Complete Idiot's Guide to Supercharged Kama Sutra’ came shortly afterwards. Look hard enough and you'll find a copy of ‘The Kama Sutra of Pooh’, featuring pictures of stuffed animals in compromising positions.

Eithne Bacuzzi, sex therapist with the Marriage and Relationship Counselling Services, hints that the Irish may need more of a helping hand in this area than one might think.

“It's astonishing how many Irish people don't have an understanding of their own sexual functions,” she notes. “The lack of education in this area is huge. Men don't understand the pace of arousal for women. It's much slower than a man's, and this is something that often creates difficulty.

“Added to which, quite a lot of people are still uncomfortable with, and have scant knowledge of their own bodies,” she continues. “Some people are appalled about the idea of pleasure. There's a myth that this thinking is a generational thing that applies to people of a certain age but in my experience it still applies to lots of people. For 30 to 34-year-olds, there isn’t an openness about sex. In school, some people were told it was a sin, and this sort of thing stays with people.”


Indeed. We weren’t always so comfortable with the idea of sex manuals. Dr Alex Comfort's genre classic ‘The Joy Of Sex’, which was banned in Ireland until 1989, caused more than a stir when it arrived on Irish shores in the 1980s, featuring memorably on a heated episode of ‘The Late Late Show’. Yet while sexual pleasure and education thereof are according to some, relatively new concepts in Ireland, the sex manual's history runs far and long.

Where many people believe that the Kama Sutra is the world's first sex manual, it transpires that the first known guide is thought to be the ‘Chinese Handbook of Sex’ written 5,000 years ago by Emperor Huang-Ti (2697-2598 BC).

Later, in the 3rd century BC, a Greco-Roman sex manual was written by Philaenis of Stamos, who was thought to be a courtesan. Aristotle's (not the famous Greek philosopher) ‘Masterpiece’ a popular guide to sex first composed in the 17th century, became a bestseller throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Essentially, it presented the bog-standard Christian view; without the legal sanction of marriage, sex was improper and that its exclusive purpose was procreation. In February 1826, a tin-smith named Richard Carlile produced a sex manual/essay entitled ‘What Is Love?' The essay was composed of two forms of progressive sexual instruction: one on the benefits of birth control; the other on the pleasures of sex.


Around that time, education on birth control was the sex instructor's main concern, and by 1832, Robert Dale Owen's ‘Moral Physiology’ and Charles Knowlton's ‘Fruits of Philosophy’ had appeared in the UK and Britain.

Some 50 years later, the ‘Kama Sutra’ experienced something of a rebirth at the hands of author Sir Richard Francis Burton, who translated the text for British audiences and brought it kicking and screaming back into the mainstream. However, scholars have rejected the Burton translation:

“It treats sexual matters with Victorian squeamishness and a pornographic delight in the indirect,” says David Shulman, professor of Indian Studies and Comparative Religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


Predictably, any sexual thrill-seekers in the Victorian era looking for instruction had their work cut out for them. One Victorian sex manual allegedly instructed: ‘ladies, don't move'. However, the stereotype of the frigid and repressed woman of Victorian times was not as common as one might think. England's first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, stated bluntly and publicly that female sexuality was every bit as strong as that of males.

Yet another book stated otherwise. Ruth Smythers' book ‘Sex Tips For Husbands & Wives’ from 1894 has experienced something of a renaissance in recent times, becoming, as it has, a sort of humorously ironic gift for 21st century newlyweds.

Predictably, Smythers' sex tips are an ode to the uptight and repressed Victorian era within which they were born: “Give Little, Give Seldom, And Above All, Give Grudgingly,” is one such shining example. Another reads, with nary a hint of irony: “Sex, when it cannot be prevented, should be practiced only in total darkness.”

Men are also advised on how to keep their wives from getting overheated: “When he finds her, the wife should lie as still as possible. Bodily motion on her part could be interpreted as sexual excitement by the optimistic husband.”

In her 2008 book ‘Victorian Honeymoon Journeys To The Conjugal’, Helena Michie writes that even within marriage, sex was a taboo subject. One unnamed sex manual from the time warns against “abnormal amativeness”, depicting the honeymoon as a “nightly repetition of legalised prostitution, sinking the pure, high and holy into the low, debasing and animal”.


In 1845, French physiologist Eugene Becklard sought to balance the debate by releasing his ‘Becklard's Physiology.’ By Victorian standards, his sex manual was positive, helpful, big-hearted and sympathetic, offering hope to anyone who thought themselves sexually inadequate. Scandalously, Becklard even wrote about how to ‘undo child conception'. Immediately after sex, “dancing about the room before repose, for a few minutes, might probably have that effect… but trotting a horse briskly over a rough road on the following day would ensure it.”

In the late 19 th century, an America women's right activist named Ida Craddock became a leading light in the sex guide sphere, writing books aimed at married couples including ‘The Wedding Night’ and ‘Right Marital Living’.

In her 20s, Craddock offered “mystical” sexual counselling to married couples via mail order, paving the way for her educational tomes. However, their distribtion led to numerous confrontations with various authorities. She was held for up to several months at a time on morality charges in five local jails as well as the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane.

A few decades later, in 1918, the next groundbreaking manual was Marie Stopes's ‘Married Love’, written when the author was a virgin (and had been married for a year). “In my first marriage I paid such a terrible price for sex-ignorance that I feel that knowledge gained at such a cost should be placed at the service of humanity,” she wrote in the book's preface. The book had sold 750,000 copies by 1931 and Stopes became a sexual health superstar.


Fast-forward to the present day, and a slew of new titles have appeared alongside old standbys. In these ‘Sex and the City’-saturated times, the ‘how-to' guide has become sexier and more aspirational than ever, resplendent in ‘Cosmopolitan’-pink jackets and replete with arty, black and white shots featuring pneumatic models and burly beefcakes.

“The bestsellers in the area are definitely Kama Sutra titles, with two books on that subject topping our yearly chart so far,” says Marie Dickenson, Head of Purchasing for Eason.

“After that, authors Tracey Cox and Anne Hooper are the most popular. ‘The Joy of Sex’ is always in our top 10 and there are definitely more female purchasers now, with Nancy Friday's ‘Women On Top’ placed at number.

Although ‘Sex Diaries: Why Women Go Off Sex & Other Bedroom Battles’ is also very popular, which might be a bit of a contradiction!” she adds

For all their perennial popularity, Bacuzzi acknowledges that a sex manual will only really get a couple so far:

“It's great to have the factual information presented to you, but (sexual fulfilment) is more something that comes from within. Books can tell you what to do and what can happen…but after that, people really have to feel it for themselves.”

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