These days, if you want to be delivered unto marriage with a sexual blank slate, it takes a village full of abstinence-only educators working overtime—and then some. Today, information about the most obscure kinks is a Google search away, there are detailed diagrams available for positions that would daunt a triathlete gymnast, and there’s an Internet full of self-appointed experts ready to answer your every question.
This was not always the case. Once upon a time, your best option was books like Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique. Written by a Dutch doctor, originally published in 1926, it was first translated and published in America by Random House in 1930. In the decades that followed, Ideal Marriage went through dozens of reprintings. You might recognize the title from a viral news story about a copy returned to the New York Public Library decades late, which inspired yours truly to find a copy.
Curious about what constituted an “ideal marriage” in 1930, I found a 1968 printing on Etsy; it was branded being as part of Random House’s “Lifetime Library.” Within it, I found a passionate appeal for “vigorous and harmonious sexual activity.” By “harmonious,” he means that the woman should always come.
That piece of wisdom, so very contemporary, is matched by elements of Ideal Marriage that feel hysterically dated. Author Theodoor H. van de Velde sprinkles the text with quotes from Ovid and Balzac and writes in a style so opaque you can forget for paragraphs at a stretch that he’s talking about, say, doggie-style. Furthermore, the book works under the presumption that husbands are fully responsible for educating their wives in the erotic arts.
Dr. Van de Velde is satisfyingly filthy. He’s very much in favor of practices like cunnilingus—or, as he prefers to call it, the “genital kiss.” But this is not pornography with “marriage” slapped on the cover to pass it through the censors. Dr. van de Velde’s cares deeply about marriage; achieving a successful marriage, rather than simply having good sex, is the whole point of the book. But van de Velde is here to make you see that you can’t have a good marriage without good sex, and to help:
Vigorous and harmonious sexual activity constitutes the fourth cornerstone of our temple…. Sex is the foundation of marriage. Yet most married people do not know the the ABC of sex. My task here is to dispel this ignorance, and show ways and means of attaining both vigor and harmony in monogamous sexual relations.
Surely—not the least for the focus on the importance of the female orgasm and the advocacy for “the genital kiss”—this book would’ve appealed to a female audience. Still, its stated one is very particular: the medical profession, and married men. The latter, he writes, are “naturally educators and initiators of their wives in sexual matters; and yet they often lack, not only the qualifications of a leader and initiator, but also those necessary for equal mutual partnership!”
It’s “initiation,” with its creepy ritual undertones, that he deems necessary:
The newly married woman is as a rule, more or less completely “cold” or indifferent to and in sexual intercourse. She must be taught to love, in the complete sense in which we here use the term.
If she isn’t taught to love, it’s the husband’s fault—and the husband’s loss, potentially in the form of cuckolding:
The husband may perhaps not succeed in imparting this erotic education; generally that is because he takes no trouble about it. She then remains permanently frigid, which explains the heavy percentage of anesthesia which all authorities confirm; or else the husband’s grave omissions are made good by another man.
Though their appointed office of “sex teacher” is vital, many men remain completely hopeless at their crucial task, according to van de Velde. He is careful to say that a man of “normal genital potency” can still render his wife in a condition of “suspended gratification” and call it bad luck when it’s really a matter of bad dicking. Specifically, a lack of foreplay. And there is nothing the doc disapproves of so thoroughly as clueless dudes skimping on the foreplay.
“For the man who neglects the love-play is guilty not only of coarseness,” he writes, “but of positive brutality; and his omission can not only offend and disgust a woman, but also injure her on the purely physical plane.” He adds, “This sin of omission is unpardonably stupid.” (He calls it stupid several times more in the course of the book.)
The thing is: good sex is just really good for women, he says. “Sexual harmony in activity is a real psychic panacea. It develops all the latent strength and sweetness of a woman’s character, ripens her judgment, gives her serenity and poise.”
When this book was published, van de Velde was far from alone in his solicitousness regarding the sex lives of married couples. In fact, Ideal Marriage landed upon America’s shores in the midst of a national push to improve the institution.
Prior to 1919 or so, there’d been quite a few radical thinkers stumping for wider availability and use of contraception and even advocating “free love.” There was a clampdown around the time of the Russian Revolution, but as scholar Christina Simmons recounts in Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II, the ’20s and ’30s brought a wave of middle-of-the-road thinkers who borrowed some of those ideas but sought to shore up the foundations of marriage, making it more attractive.
There was a push to put new polish on the institution: those decades brought a great deal of concern that marriage was losing its shine for young people, and young women in particular. World War I had everybody worried about VD; urbanization meant a new culture of dating and increasingly visible (and pathologized) homosexuality. And let’s not forget all those flappers running around with their short skirts and bobbed hair and disdain for fusty old-fashionedness.
At the same time, the “companionate” model of marriage was on the rise, which positioned the relationship less as a social institution centered on childbearing and more as an intimate bond between two people, with sex as (pardon the visual) the glue. There was more emphasis on having a “scientific” outlook and breaking with a presumed repressed Victorian past. Sex was natural and healthy, but very specific sorts of sex only.
“It’s really about making marriage more attractive,” explained Miriam Reumann, author of American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports. All of the above factors bled into one another politically, creating a sense that “you had to retrain people.” At the time, it appeared that “making marriage and sex something that is attractive will prevent lesbianism, will prevent venereal disease, will keep the economy rolling, it’s good for everybody. And a lot of sexologists [were] participating in this project.”
Court decisions pushing back on the Comstock laws had also made it easier to publish explicit books. Consequently, there was a wave of marital advice manuals with a heavy emphasis on sex, a set that included Marie Stopes’s Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties and Ernest and Gladys Groves’s Sex in Marriage. Several manuals were written by Europeans but newly translated and published in America, including Ideal Marriage, which proved particularly popular.
In these manuals, the presumed default dynamic was that men easily take pleasure in sex, with women losing interest quickly. This meant that men weren’t getting the pleasure they wanted, which then poisoned the marriage and alienated the couple from one another. “Universally, male, female, and joint authors stressed women’s fears, lesser (or more buried) desire, failure or slowness in being aroused, eagerness for but lack of sexual satisfaction, resentment, and resistance as enormous obstacles to happy marriage,” Simmons writes. There’s that weird tension again, with somewhat progressive sensibilities chafing against underlying assumptions that stink like two-week-old mackerel.
In Ideal Marriage, the old-fashioned patriarchal legacy of the institution is alluded to, then quickly discarded. “Should we abolish marriage?” van de Velde asks in the first paragraphs of Ideal Marriage. “Many voices have clamored for its destruction, but they have not shown a more excellent way. And a far greater number have defended this immemorial institution—the most distinguished thinkers among them,” he says, before outlining all the reasons it remains necessary. “It offers the only—even though relative—security to the woman’s love of love, and of giving in love,” he writes at one point.
And so he concludes that doctors and especially gynecologists and “sex specialists,” with their unique exposure to behind-the-scenes tensions, “must risk all in order to improve human prospects and potentialities of enduring happiness in marriage.”
So, here are some of the specifics. Van de Velde wants men worldwide to understand that getting your rocks off a couple of times a week without attention to your partner’s experience won’t cut it. He’d like them to know that women find it arousing to have their nipples touched:
Gentle kneading, rubbing and squeezing of these glands with the palm of the hand is sufficient in most women to arouse sexual excitement.
Also, Dr. van de Velde recommends a “moist” makeout:
For the erotic kiss, at least the longer and more fervent erotic kisses between lovers, is essentially, and in contrast to the formal, conventional kiss, not dry, but moist. The moisture passes from each mouth to the other, even if in a very small amount. And many lovers, perhaps most, prefer an amount that is not very small.
Biting is A-OK:
Indeed, both the active and passive partner feel a peculiarly keen, erotic pleasure in the tiny, delicate, gentle or sharp but never really painful nips man and woman exchange as love-play quickens, especially when such caresses are applied in rapid succession and in adjacent places.
He offers a number of sexual positions in handy chart format.
His descriptions of these positions are as technical as the manual for programming a VCR:
The woman lies on her back, lifts her legs at right angles to her body from the hips, and rests them on the man’s shoulders; thus she is, so to speak, doubly cleft by the man who lies upon her and inserts his phallus; she enfolds both his genital member and his neck and head. At the same time the woman’s spine in the lumbar region, is flexed at a sharp angle and the pelvic opening directed as far as possible upwards, so that the vulva lies sloping and almost flat, instead of vertically as in the normal medical attitude, and the vagina is directed almost vertically downwards.
Eventually, I began to wonder whether perhaps this wasn’t a real sex manual but rather a fetish object specifically for people who’re into sexy professor/doctor scenarios. (If that’s you, order it without delay! Best money you’ll ever spend!) He devotes pages and pages and pages to the female anatomy, complete with diagrams that belong on a gynecologist’s wall.
But this Man of Science posturing is, as it turns out, very deliberate. “This is something that I think van de Velde is at the forefront of and that people who follow him also engage in,” said Reumann. “They wanted to be authoritative, but they don’t want to be fuddy-duddy and scary. So they need to use language that authorizes behavior that many would see as licentious, like by saying oral sex is good because it will make your wife love you more.”
It’s important to note that for all his comfort with foreplay as an invaluable institution, van de Velde’s idea of “normal sexual intercourse” is very specific. Very, very, very specific:
The intercourse which takes place between two sexually mature individuals of opposite sexes; which excludes cruelty and the use of artificial means for producing voluptuous sensations; which aims directly or indirectly at the consummation of sexual satisfaction and which, having achieved a certain degree of stimulation, concludes with the ejaculation—or emission—of the semen into the vagina, at the nearly simultaneous culmination of sensation—or orgasm—of both partners.
That leaves quite a lot falling under the heading of “not normal.” Also, he’s got some very specific ideas about what men and women expect from a sexual experience:
What both man and woman, driven by obscure primitive urges, wish to feel in the sexual act, is the essential force of maleness, which expresses itself in a sort of violent and absolute possession of the woman. And so both of them can and do exult in a certain degree of male aggression and dominance—whether actual or apparent—which proclaims this essential force. Hence the sharp gripping and pinching of the woman’s arms and sides and nates. [The nates being the buttocks.]
Then there’s the single weirdest part, which is the absolute obsession with simultaneous orgasm.
Van de Velde insists that, “In the normal and perfect coitus, mutual orgasm must be almost simultaneous; the usual procedure is that the man’s ejaculation begins and sets the woman’s acme of sensation in train at once.” He returns to this theme over and over, really hammering it home. Reumann suggests that, “once you have a literature that focuses on heterosexual marriage, usually procreative, yes, simultaneous orgasm is the ultimate proof that you’re doing it right.” The brass ring, if you will.
Here—there’s a diagram.
One really gets the sense that van de Velde’s sexual universe, for all its emphasis on making your wife come and come and come, still revolves around the almighty dick. Though not in the ladmag sense—he says that women can also deliver “the genital kiss,” but we must proceed with the utmost ladylike caution. No regularly scheduled blowjobs to keep your man happy:
Is it necessary, however, to emphasize the need for aesthetic delicacy and discretion here? To advise her to abstain entirely from such contacts during the early stages of married life, and only to venture on them later, and experimentally? To remind her that she runs greater risks than he does, in approaching that treacherous frontier between supreme beauty and base ugliness? I think there is no need; for she knows this intuitively, she feels it with all a woman’s instinctive modesty.
Ah, yes, the frontier between our beauty and our “base ugliness.” Hey, sweetheart, I can’t give you a beej tonight—my instinctive modesty, you know.
He also occasionally veers into very uncomfortable racial territory. For instance, this discussion on jizz:
There is, first of all, a good deal of difference between races. The seminal odor of Orientals is stronger and more acrid than that of the “Caucasian” West. The semen of the healthy youths of Western European races has a fresh, exhilarating smell; in the mature man it is more penetrating. In type and degree this very characteristic seminal odor is remarkably like that of the flowers of the Spanish chestnut (Marrons), which also vary according to the condition of the trees and the atmosphere, and are sometimes quite freshly floral, and then, again, extremely pungent and quite disagreeable.
The whole thing becomes pretty disturbing when you remembered that the 1920s were a golden age for bigotry tarted up as science. (See also: the eugenics movement.)
For decades after its publication in 1930, Ideal Marriage thrived. Simmons says that the volume was on its forty-second reprint by 1962 and sold briskly until the late 1960s.
“He helps to establish a tradition for what a lot of Western sexual advice and commentary will look like,” explained Reumann. “People after him are often picking up those reins and taking them in a slightly different direction, but they’re sticking with the basic program, which is there are some graphs, there’s scientific or self-authorization, there’s a careful blend of this-is-about-pleasure and this-is-about-fertility.”
But ultimately, the clock ran out on Ideal Marriage and its prim contemporaries. First came Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), then—of course—The Joy of Sex. The new manuals offered “actual line drawings and pubic hair and it has names like the butterfly effect or whatever,” said Reumann.
And now, there’s Dan Savage and Reddit and the online pile of endlessly replicating crowdsourced repositories for filthy advice. The dirty professor vibe, marriage-preaching narrator, and bone-dry anatomical illustrations of Ideal Marriage are deep in the archives by now.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.