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London - Deeply embarrassed yet clearly keen to make a success of his marriage, the anonymous correspondent plucked up the courage to ask for advice on a delicate matter: how to make love to his wife.
“For the first four months of our married life I did not know that it was necessary to move my body in any way,” he wrote. “We only know of the one positions [sic] in which my wife is underneath... now can you tell me of alternate positions and also is my wife supposed to move about?”
The letter was one of many sent to Marie Stopes, the birth-control pioneer and author of Married Love, a manual with information on physical intimacy that emphasised how husbands should endeavour to satisfy their wives rather than merely expecting them to put up with “it”.
The book, published in 1918, was an instant bestseller and reprinted 39 times in the next seven years. Young couples and those who had been married for years devoured it.
Though erotic novels had long been in circulation, practical advice for “normal” couples was non-existent. Brides went into marriage woefully ignorant of what to expect, while their bridegrooms were very often equally naive.
When Stopes asked her readers to write to her with evidence to support her theory that women had a “cycle” of desire - feeling more amorous at certain times of the month than others - she was inundated with thousands of letters from men and women desperate for information about sex. The act of “married love” did not come naturally for many, and they were acutely aware of their failings. Some of the letters are touchingly naive, others heart-breaking.
Other men and women were writing letters sharing their sexual experiences, fantasies and bizarre proclivities to magazines such as London Life. These were published alongside racy pictures of chorus girls disrobing.
An American academic has unearthed these letters to Stopes and the risqué magazines, drawing on them for an intriguing new book about British sex lives between the wars and how people communicated their sexual problems and desires.
While Victorian marriages had been largely about wives submitting to husbands - in the bedroom and elsewhere - by the Twenties many men and women (at least among the middle classes) wanted a more equal relationship. But they’d been raised by Victorian parents reluctant to broach such a distasteful subject, so often had no idea how to do it. This was where Stopes stepped in.
She had been entirely ignorant about sex before she married. Highly educated though she was (she had a doctorate in botany), it was not until several years into her marriage that she stumbled across a description of sex in a library book and realised she had never experienced it.
In 1916 she obtained a divorce on the grounds her marriage had not been consummated - a claim her husband furiously denied - and set about trying to dispel the ignorance that had led her and, she surmised, many others to miss out on this vital part of marriage.
The reception of Married Love proved her right. Though the Church, press and medical establishment were outraged (couched though it was in coy euphemisms), ordinary couples fell on it eagerly, using it as a guide to navigate their way through territory as bewildering as another planet.
One woman wrote that her husband, despite having a biology degree from Cambridge, was clueless as to the geography of the female body, and they’d been unable to achieve “union”. After studying the book, they pinpointed the vital location and “eventually were successful”.
Not all sexual impasses could be resolved so happily. The war had left many men with physical injuries that made sex impossible. Others suffered mental trauma that inhibited them.
One young man wrote to Stopes that he had been wounded three times during the war, the last time in both legs. He had suffered shell shock and two nervous breakdowns but had recovered - or so he thought - sufficiently to get married in 1925.
Sadly, he had been unable to consummate the marriage on honeymoon, and the experience was so off-putting for his wife that she lost all desire for him.
Other men with disabilities worried that their inadequacy would cause the wives to have nervous breakdowns. They were mortified and felt “selfish and mean” or “like a cad” for being unable to fulfil their role.
Perhaps some feared their wives would seek sex elsewhere, like Constance in DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
For other men, the war had provided an outlet for sexual preferences they hadn’t been aware of.
A sapper wrote to London Life of how, while taking part in morale-boosting theatrical performances, he’d discovered he loved dressing in women’s clothes. One man claimed happy memories of cross-dressing sustained him during a long recuperation from war wounds.
Most refused to see their penchant as effeminate. One man who liked wearing female underwear wrote robustly: “Nothing namby-pamby in that!”
The era also saw the rise of the sporty girl, who cast off the corsets and stays worn by her mother’s generation and enjoyed hiking and tennis.
Some saw the rise of these modern women as deeply worrying, but for others the image of girls wrestling or boxing was a source of admiration and titillation.
Magazines such as London Life obliged by running reports of such matches accompanied by photos of semi-naked girls in the wrestling or boxing ring. One woman, calling herself Sporty Wife, wrote many letters to London Life, sending readers’ pulses racing with descriptions of her underwear.
In response to multiple requests, she sent in her photo and it was printed. But her fans were disappointed by the disparity between the curvaceous figure she had described and the reality. One wrote in describing himself as ‘Sadly Disillusioned’.
Magazines with deceptively anodyne titles catered to more risqué tastes. Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, for instance, was all about whipping.
Novels were a source of information and titillation. In 1919, nearly a century before suburban housewife EL James wrote Fifty Shades Of Grey, EM Hull, a pig farmer’s wife from Derbyshire, published The Sheik - a romantic novel about an Englishwoman who is kidnapped in the desert by a sheik and spends months being sexually dominated by him until they fall in love.
The bestseller was made into a hit film starring Rudolph Valentino.
People who wanted something more raunchy could visit certain bookshops in London, though the National Vigilance Association and London Public Morality Council would alert the police if the material being sold was too explicit. (Presumably, these moral guardians had to read them thoroughly first in order to make such a judgment.)
Many people preferred to get erotic literature from mail-order companies that would deliver it in brown paper.
Most consumers were middle class, as were Marie Stopes’ correspondents - at least those concerned about sexual pleasure.
The working classes, if they could write, tended to have more practical concerns: they wanted information about birth control.
Their mothers were equally reluctant to enlighten them about the facts of life as those in the middle classes. One young woman from Lancashire believed that ‘if a lad kissed yer, you’d be having a baby’.
Such innocence seems a world away from our own, rather more sexually confident age. - Daily Mail
* Making Modern Love - Sexual Narratives And Identities in Interwar Britain by Lisa Z. Sigel (Temple University Press).