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American Women: Resources from the General Collections

Sex Manuals

You can go as far as you like with me. 1907. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Forthright discussions of sexuality, especially women's, are difficult to locate in U.S. imprints before the twentieth century. As one author explained in 1896,

“Works upon sexual science, physiology, anatomy, etc., are too elaborate and extensive for the average woman to study or comprehend.”

E. Marea, The Wife's Manual, Containing Advice and Valuable Instruction for Married Women and Those Anticipating Marriage (Cortland, N.Y.: [n.p.], 1896; HQ46.M32), 3.

However, a surprising number of books from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were published to inform girls and women about their maturing bodies, female physiology and diseases, and marital duties. Most nineteenth-century works addressing girls and women avoided male sexuality or physiology.

Discussions of sex were sometimes disguised in chapters such as “What the Flower Teaches Us” (1919), but became increasingly specific and illustrated as the twentieth century progressed. Leslie J. Swabacker was unusually blunt in his Letters to My Daughter (1926) when he urged her to

“Be the most desirable mistress in the world in your husband's eyes,”

Leslie J. Swabacker, Letters to My Daughter (Chicago: Atwood & Knight, 1926; HQ51.S88), 81.

and Amy Ayer exclaims that celibacy

“is a crime against nature”,

Amy G. Ayer, ed., Facts for Ladies (Chicago: A.G. Ayer, 1890; RG121.A89), 218.

but of course she is addressing married women. In most of these works, questions of women's physiology and sexuality are inseparable from marriage and motherhood.

N. Currier (Firm). The young housekeepers, a year after marriage. 1848. Popular Graphic Arts Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Some older works seem humorous today. Much medical advice is wrong. Topics such as contraception, abortion, and masturbation were ignored or discussed only with great delicacy. Plain Facts about Sexual Life (1877) spends twenty-two pages explaining that it would be a “breach of propriety, even in this plain-spoken work” to mention devices used to prevent conception, but the author then devotes more than one hundred pages to exposing the “Solitary Vice” of masturbation of which he also disapproves. His focus is primarily on boys, but he mentions warts, sterility, and cancer of the womb as dangers to girls. By 1968, an edition of Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique (Theodoor H. van de Velde, 1968) gives masturbation only a passing mention, and methods of birth control are grouped in a clear appendix.

Recent transformations in public notions of female sexuality and behavior can be traced in the multiple editions and offshoots of Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (1973).

Sex manuals for the modern woman, heterosexual or homosexual, are plentiful and easy to find. Search tips and selected titles are displayed in the sections of this page.These volumes support research on many topics besides sexual reproduction. They can be used to explore issues of male-female relationships, woman-woman relationships, health and nutrition, exercise, etiquette, morality, religion, fashion, contemporary customs, and parent-child relationships.

Nature versus Corsets. Illustration from, "Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation." 1903. General Collections.

Combining the many subject headings for sex instruction, sexual health, and psychology with a broad range of call numbers, you can trace several centuries of information on this topic.

Below are some Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) that will lead to more resources through browse searches in the Library of Congress Online Catalog:

Library of Congress Call Numbers

The following Library of Congress Classification Numbers will lead to more items in the Library's online catalog, but can also be used in other library catalogs.

  • HQ31 (Sex instruction, general works)
  • HQ46 (Sex instruction, women)
  • HQ51 (Sex instruction, girls)

The subscription resources marked with a padlock  are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress.  If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.

The following print resources link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog In some cases, electronic copies are available and linked from the catalog record.