my writing, photography and the occasional handicraft

I hesitate to actually categorize this post, because it really needs a category of its own. You’ll see what I mean.

Today, I received a mass email at work that there were some old books that the school was clearing out, and that if anyone wanted these books, they could be found in the staff lounge. When I went to microwave my soup for lunch, I was drawn to the side table with the books. When the school said the books were “old,” they weren’t kidding. Where I’m working at the moment is a Catholic school founded around the turn of the last century. Apparently, these books were the left overs from the founding nuns’ bookcases.


After poking through what were mostly old “grammars” and “readers” from the Twenties, I decided to take these three books. A bit moldy, the top two are hardly-used, and quite readable (I spent a delightful hour with the Milton). The third book is a completely different story: it is well-loved and nearly falling apart. As soon as I read the word on the front of the book, I had to open it and see what it was (the spine, by the way, says: The Science of Human Life and Twilight Sleep).


Yes, that big gold word is “Eugenics,” which is a word I normally associate with early-Twentieth Century policies on racial purity and breeding. Of course, I had to pick it up. Inside the first page is a color plate of an angel and two adorable children and a title page that reads:

Nature’s Secrets Revealed. Scientific Knowledge of The Laws of Sex Life and Heredity or EUGENICS. Vital Information for the Married and Marriageable of All Ages; a Word at the Right Time to the Boy, Girl, Young Man, Young Woman, Husband, Wife, Father and Mother; Also, Timely Help, Counsel and Instruction for Every Member of Every Home.

Covering all the bases, you have to admit!

It continues: Together with Important Hints on Social Purity, Heredity, Physical Manhood and Womanhood by Noted Specialists Embracing a Department of Ethics of the Unmarried by Professor T.W. Shannon, A.M.

And who is our Professor Shannon, you may ask?

International Lecturer; Editor Eugenics Department, Uplift Magazine; President Single Standard Eugenic Movement; Author of Self-Knowledge, Perfect Manhood, Perfect Womanhood, Heredity Explained, Guide to Sex Instruction, etc.

Promising, don’t you think? I mean, that’s quite a CV!

The book was published in 1915, but the first edition was published in 1904, which makes a lot of sense, given its absolutely Victorian content. Because this book is exactly what it says it is (and not really a book about Eugenics, actually): it’s a guide to sex — or, rather, not having any — in the Late Victorian period. And it’s awesome. It may be the greatest thing I’ve ever read.

Or the most terrifying. Could go either way.

The first few chapters are social guides, with long lists of do’s and don’t’s for a socially-conscious young man or woman seeking to be popular with peers. There’s  quite a long section on motherhood in a general sense (a sort of paean to mothers, really), and another on “Etiquette” that isn’t nearly as much fun as one would hope. I mean, if I wanted to be told to keep my elbows off the table, I could just flashback to my childhood.

It doesn’t really pick up until it starts talking about sex and marriage.

The book is particularly obsessed with the concept of “spooning,” which I think would be most accurately described today as “making out” or “necking.” It is not encouraging on the moral turpitude which can result from too much spooning! At some point, I’ll have to transcribe the absolutely anguished “letter” written by a “college student” to Professor Shannon about the relationship between too much spooning with his girlfriend and the sexual downfall of mankind. His horrified realization that kissing his sweetheart is not, in fact, quite like kissing his sister is priceless in its hysteria.

But once we move from adolescent fumbling through corsets to actual congress, the book really outdoes itself.

Take this paragraph, in a section on the nature of the wedding night (yes, each paragraph has it’s own bolded subject sentence, I assume for easy reference, since the book is monumentally enormous in scope):

Painful to the Bride. —  A husband should be aware that while, as a rule, the first conjugal approaches are painful to the new wife, and therefore that she only submits and can not enjoy them, this pain should not be excessively severe, nor should it last for any great length of time — not more than one or two weeks. Should the case be otherwise, then something is wrong; and if rest does not restore the parts, a physician should be consulted.

It’s reassuring to know that if the wedding night rape is so vigorous that one’s wife takes more than two weeks to recover, something might be wrong. The book is really very clear on this subject, as the next paragraph goes on to make certain that husbands understand the serious consequences of being a bit too eager:

A Source of Misery. It is especially necessary that great moderation be observed at first, an admonition which we the more urgently give because we know it is needed, and because those specialists who devote their time to diseases of women are constantly meeting patients who date their months and years of misery from the night of the consummation of their marriage.

Well, that’s encouraging! Go to it, kids!

Sexual problems of all sorts are discussed with a certain refreshing candor.


It is really worth noting the second barrier to sexual fulfillment this author felt necessary to include in this list:


I’d never, honestly, considered the possibility that some poor man would get married, eagerly awaiting his wedding night, only to find that his new wife LACKED A VAGINA. I suppose it’s obvious, in retrospect.

Of course, after exhorting the readers to have sex only for procreative purposes (your wife hates sex anyway, dude, because women are completely uninterested in sex… and who wouldn’t be, given the lifetime of misery awaiting her after her wedding night?), the book tries to be evenhanded by explaining that the wife has a right to refuse to have more children after she’s popped out a few. The book isn’t really pro-birth control and labels abortion as feticide (is “feticide” a word?), so what’s a man to do if his wife refuses to live the rest of her life in misery?

Not this:


It’s critical that one avoids “Satan’s Pottage” at all costs.

Especially since I don’t know what it is.

Oh dear god, according to Wikipedia it’s a “thick stew”.

Husbands, unfortunately, do not have any recourse at that point, but that’s okay, they’re prepared. This is because they’ve already read the chapter on…


And yes, ladies and gentlemen, it will absolutely make you go blind:


Is anyone else as delighted with the phrase: “venereal indulgence” as I am? I mean, seriously. What about this phrase: “vicious culinary preparations and stimulating condiments.” Goddamn you, ketchup, you evil force for venereal indulgence!

But considering that masturbation will, apparently, destroy YOUR ENTIRE BODY, including your brain, you might feel a sense of frustration at the human inability to stop playing with the meat puppet, so to speak. Don’t worry, Professor Shannon has an answer for you!


You might not want to Google-image search “infibulation.” I’m just saying.

The book proposes a motto to live by: The mind away from sexual thoughts, and the hands away from the parts.

Is there any euphemism for genitals that can compare to “the parts?”

The book has much to say on the subject of sexual chastity (it gets its own chapter) and on the various hideous venereal diseases that can result from, you know, everything. I particularly liked the story about the unfortunate young woman who made the mistake of borrowing a pencil from a strange man at a party so she could write something down. Like a fool, she put the pencil in her mouth for a moment and BAM!


I’m so glad someone warned me!

And gentlemen, you don’t even want to know what happens if you get the penile equivalent of diarrhea.


I’ll give you one guess about how one “acquires” this terrible affliction…

That’s right: too much self-pollution, buddy! Better put that thing away or it will leak uncontrollably! (Is this even a real thing? I don’t think I want to know, but I rather suspect the clue is in the words: “A Very Rare Disease”).

The anatomical drawings are… well… absolutely terrifying. What the hell is going on here?


The book finishes with nearly half its total pages devoted to incredibly detailed and frightening advice on childbirth, parenting, and various diseases (need a “cancer poultice”? I got the scoop on one, as well as a treatment for gonorrhea that involves urethral injections). The “Twilight Sleep” of the book’s spine turns out to be advocating the use of newly-discovered anesthesia to completely knock a mother out for childbirth. There are several chapters devoted to the advantages of being unconscious during labor. I’m not totally in disagreement there, Professor!

The illustrative plates are worth the price of admission alone:


I think the fact that the family dogs are viciously destroying the child’s toy is the least of his “troubles.”

Anyway, one last treat for me was the discovery a photograph inside.

Considering the book is inscribed to Howard F. Lindsay on the inside cover, perhaps this photo was of Mr. Lindsay’s spooning-partner? Or maybe not, since this book once belonged to a nun.


On the back, this is what she’s written:


It’s always good to know that your friends are “only sitting,” and not “crippled” in the photos they send you!

All in all, this book has provided me with the greatest night of entertainment I’ve had in a very long time. There’s so much in there… it’s a cornucopia of terrible, terrible advice on nearly every subject imaginable. I anticipate years of enjoyment. But not too much enjoyment, you understand! I need my eyesight.


12 Responses to “Writing: Sex, Self-Pollution and the Most Terrifying Book Ever Written”

  1. bernasvibe

    Wow! What an interesting read..I wonder, more often than I should, just exactly HOW nuns & priests are able to remain celibate for life..Especially considering not all of them were virgins upon becoming nuns/priests..The memories alone! would serve as excellent source of background for masturbating..Or mayhaps thats just for recent folks, like me, trying to walk that line until marrying again..OMG this is a topic that could lead to hours of discussion

    • jessicaminiermabe

      Truthfully? I don’t think most of them do. I think a few are asexual and just not that interested. I think the rest slip up, not necessarily with other people, but they do. And I personally find the whole thing a bit sad. Sex is a healthy part of life.

      • bernasvibe

        I’m Catholic..An active Catholic actually..It is a subject with interests me; highly..I personally know several African priests..Got to tell you I was surprised to find out they’re not all sad & dreary people ! I also believe sex is a healthy part of life that our bodies crave and demand..But I’ve also learned people can & do live without it happily..Or least they look & act happy..Who knows what they think when they’re alone? (but can’t the same be said for folks having sex?) I can share something interesting..A priest whose a friend shared that the Christmas season is the lonliest time of the year for priests..People get caught up in their families and forget about their priest..Majority of priests haven’t been able to start a family..That is the part I find sad..My life wouldn’t be the same without my sons in it(even though we’re separated by miles they’re still part of me!)

      • jessicaminiermabe

        I think the thing is, Bernasvibe, that we can’t actually know what priests do or don’t do in their private time. I don’t mean affairs, necessarily, but I just feel bad for all those people who are naturally interested in sex, and who torture themselves with remorse if they give in and uh… pollute themselves, so to speak. I’m sure many of them could care less. My mother was, at least later in life, blatantly asexual and perfectly happy that way, but I can’t believe that every priest, ever, felt that way. Or that the millions of women who became nuns because that was one of the few choices for women that didn’t involve marrying someone they had no interest in, felt that way.

        I have known some outstanding priests. In fact, I’ve never known any I didn’t like. Especially the Catholic priests I’ve known over the years. But I think celibacy ought to be a choice, not a requirement, for the vocation. The Anglican church hasn’t fallen apart because the priests marry. And yes, I think many of the priests I’ve known would have been lovely husbands and fathers. Thanks for the comments!

      • bernasvibe

        You’re absolutely right; we can’t know what priests/nuns feel…One can only go by what they say when they share..And it is a topic not many speak out about..That is other than to say they’re totally devoted to the church..Sex is seen, and in all honesty IS, a distraction..Even for those who desire it or partake in it..I can see the logic behind abstinence; I just can’t see myself doing it for a lifetime..I’ve recently witnessed and was a part of(by singing her vows with her as a choir member..) a nun celebrate her 25th anniv as a nun ; she renewed her vows. She’s orginally from Nigeria; and she renewed her vows with utmost reverance..Not unlike I’ve done when I married..She seemed/looked elated..Difficult for those of us who enjoyed marriage and sex to totally understand..But it is what it is..And the Catholic church has NO intention of changing the abstinence rule. For years I always said it just wasn’t humanly possible nor fair to Catholic clergy; but that was before I witnessed seeing how they live on a personal basis. Enjoyed the dialogue ; as always 🙂

  2. Lisa H.

    Mabe, you are awesome. Hilarious. Nathan and Rachel “What, what’s so funny?”

  3. Karen B

    I found a picture in a used book once. It was someone’s pornographic selfie. Yikes!

  4. Sage W

    Oh my goodness, I want to read this whole book so badly. My scientific feminist mind was cringing the whole time.

  5. Carol K.

    I picked up a copy of this book for next to nothing at a garage sale a few years ago. While re-arranging my craft stash in the basement (which includes, among countless other things, a lot of old books that I use for collage work), I re-visited this tome. Decided to Google it to see if it was worth much in case we are inspired to have a garage sale ourselves come summer, and came across this blog.
    I think you should have included above some excerpts from Chapter IX, “Husband and Wife” in which the pros and cons of sharing the same bed are addressed, the husband advised “not to neglect the cares of toilet” if he is “anxious to maintain pleasant relations in his home circle.” And then there is the paragraph titled “Passion in Women.”
    OMG! For the edification of your readers, allow me to transcribe it here. I very nearly used a lot of capitals for emphasis, but restrained myself. The reader will readily imagine where I would put them! LOL!
    “There are many females who never feel any sexual excitement whatever; others, again, to a limited degree, are capable of experiencing it. The best mothers, wives,and managers of households know little or nothing of the sexual pleasure. [!!] Love of home, children and domestic duties are the only passions they feel. As a rule, the modest woman submits to her husband, but only to please him; and, but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions. This is doubly true of women when they are with child, and when they are nursing.”
    The author also refers to menstruation as “the monthly sickness of the wife” and “her monthly illness.” During these times, “a complete cessation [“of the hallowed pleasures”] should be observed” and even “for a day or two after that epoch.”
    And for us older women: “During and after the change of life, it is also important to observe an unwonted moderation. During that period, and unaccustomed excitement of this character may be followed by flooding and other serious symptoms, while after the crisis has been passed, the sexual appetite itself should wholly or almost wholly disappear.”
    Author Shannon also quotes Jeremy Taylor, “the quaint old English divine” at length, with that worthy gent’s conclusion that “Married people must never force themselves into high and violent lusts with arts and misbecoming devices, but be restrained and temperate in the use of their lawful pleasures.”
    Oh, this chapter, though but 6 pages in length, is quite an eye-opener! And the very long section on “prescriptions – i.e., home remedies – borders on horrifying.


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