What was sex like in the olden days?
November 9, 2017 12:39 PM   Subscribe

I recently came across the husband and wife rating scales published by a psychiatrist in 1939 and was surprised to see that a husband would score 20 points for "ardent lover--sees that wife has orgasms in marital congress," as I didn't think there was much professional or personal insight back then into female sexual satisfaction. What would sex have been like in different centuries, and when did it become important for women to be sexually satisfied?

I've always imagined that the sex between the Romans and, say, the Great Depression, was probably pretty bland missionary sex and unlikely to have been pleasing for the woman, but perhaps this isn't true? I'd also like any suggestions for books that might discuss the history of sex and female sexual satisfaction.
posted by stillmoving to Grab Bag (49 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

Both my grandmothers were very sex-positive and gave me literature (fiction) with women protagonists who enjoyed sex. I'd guess women have enjoyed sex throughout history, and that it has been important for all involved just as long, though it does seem Christianity has messed peoples' brains up quite a bit.

Tiresias was a priest of Zeus, and as a young man he encountered two snakes mating and hit them with a stick. He was then transformed into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, married and had children, including Manto. After seven years as a woman, Tiresias again found mating snakes; depending on the myth, either she made sure to leave the snakes alone this time, or, according to Hyginus, trampled on them and became a man once more.[69]
As a result of his experiences, Zeus and Hera asked him to settle the question of which sex, male or female, experienced more pleasure during intercourse. Zeus claimed it was women; Hera claimed it was men. When Tiresias sided with Zeus, Hera struck him blind.[42]
Since Zeus could not undo what she had done, he gave him the gift of prophecy. An alternative and less commonly told story has it that Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he stumbled onto her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, begged her to undo her curse, but Athena could not; she gave him prophecy instead.
posted by mumimor at 12:54 PM on November 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

There is pretty much nothing new (with the exception of the execution of some toys I maybe) in the last 2000 years. EG: the Kama Sutra, while only being about 20% sexual positions, was written in between 400 BCE and 200 CE. There is lots of vintage photographic porn showing pretty much anything you can find today including such "modern" development as shaved pubic areas.
posted by Mitheral at 1:01 PM on November 9, 2017 [12 favorites]

“Every generation thinks they invented sex.”
posted by notyou at 1:02 PM on November 9, 2017 [53 favorites]

I've always imagined that the sex between the Romans and, say, the Great Depression, was probably pretty bland missionary sex and unlikely to have been pleasing for the woman, but perhaps this isn't true?

Oh dang, you need to read you some stuff. But fortunately it's gonna be REAL fun reading.

* The Decameron is a way fun medieval Italian work. It's structured like Canterbury Tales, in the sense that there's a frame story of a bunch of characters who are telling each other stories, but instead of being a bunch of pilgrims on their way to a shrine, the characters telling each other stories are a bunch of single 20-something Florentinians who have decided to all go on a vacation together to take a break from the fact that the plague has hit Florence. And because everyone's in their 20's, unmarried, and cute, easily about 75% of the stories are all about sex. Several of them are also about women claiming their own agency and taking control of their own sexual satisfaction, as well. (Protip: watch for the stories by the character Dineo, he's the wise-ass of the group and always goes last in each round of storytelling so he can make sure everyone ends with a laugh.)

* Anais Nin's Delta of Venus was written in the 1910's, 20's, and 30's, and there is all sorts of sexual hijinks going on there. It's a series of erotic tales that many of the women you know discovered in college and most likely read frequently.

* There is a Chinese novel from the 17th Century called The Carnal Prayer Mat - the general gist of it is that a guy gets chided for being a party dude by a monk, which just makes the dude double-down on the partying and he decides to go totally decadent (to the point that he actually has his dick surgically enlarged). He spends the whole novel fucking his way around China to the point that he finally wears himself out after several years, and heads to the same monestary and runs into the same monk who tells him basically that "well, I guess that was what you had to do to get enlightenment after all - cool!"

* Fanny Hill was written in 1748, and was a fictionalized look at what went on inside London's brothels. Among the acts they talk about are spanking and anal sex.

Oh hell, just have a look at any of these books. and have fun.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:13 PM on November 9, 2017 [30 favorites]

What I enjoyed most about reading DeSade (aside from the looks from the sweet old woman sitting next to me on the plane) was the odd escalation of filth. At one portion, he goes on about people eating poo. And then, things get more depraved when they... smell farts. Now, neither appeals to me, but I would rather smell farts all day before I chomped down on human waste. What we think of as kinky and sexy today, might be pase or taboo in the future.
posted by munchingzombie at 1:15 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've had this book on my Amazon wishlist since 2006: When Passion Reigned: Sex and the Victorians but haven't gotten around to it yet.
posted by muddgirl at 1:21 PM on November 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Several of The Canterbury Tales, from the late 14th century, focus on sex, such as "The Wife of Bath" and "The Miller's Tale" (now you know what "as the miller told his tale" means in the song "A Whiter Shade of Pale"). The Arabian Nights, from as early as the 8th century, is also full of sex. Much of this sex emphasizes female pleasure.
posted by ubiquity at 1:29 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the answers thus far! I'm also wondering what sex would have been like for normal people. e.g, my grandma was married in 1939: would her husband have had much interest/education in ensuring she enjoyed their marital congress? If so, how would he have acquired that knowledge?
posted by stillmoving at 1:40 PM on November 9, 2017

Who knows, there are no normal people and there is no such thing as normal sex. The academic way to say this is "it depends."
posted by sockermom at 1:46 PM on November 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

Individual mileage varies heavily. My grandmother, born in 1910, had my mom when she was 19. She was famous (in our family) for her testament that "I never liked it, but I never refused him." My mom, who grew up in the 40s, liked sex. I'm really not sure how she discovered it, but she did.
posted by ubiquity at 1:46 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

See Married Love, by Marie Stopes, from 1918. It's a free download and an entertaining read. She was a doctor and scientist who was deeply disappointed in her marriage, and wanted others to avoid being the same. One poignant story: a wife who suggested to her husband -- to his bafflement, grudging acquiescence, and eventual noncompliance -- that he might, on occasion, kiss her breasts.

I once read a fascinating aside about British men's jealousy of American servicemen in World War II. The GIs were a hit with the ladies, not only because they could offer charm, chocolate and nylons, but because they performed oral sex, a thing unheard of among respectable Britishers. This allegation is sadly unsourced.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:50 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

A man who's not interested in the woman's satisfaction is a bad lover--that's always been true. Did a lot of people endure marriages like that because they didn't have the freedom to leave or comfort to talk about things? Probably. But given that sex within marriage was mostly seen as normal and good, it's likely that lovers from time immemorial have been figuring out what works for both people.

Sex is better if you're both into it; people have been figuring that out since long before it was something that was openly talked about in polite company.
posted by gideonfrog at 2:07 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

The US was colonized by Puritans. That drastically affected how we deal with sex. In much of the rest of the world, especially Europe, sex was considered a great way for people to have fun together. Of course, since it came with babies and that was important to the patriarchy, it was legally limited to man and wife; since there was a risk of disease, it was especially important for the wives not to play around. (Nevermind that men are more likely to spread diseases. Can't be limiting men's activities when they're having fun.)

One of the things we learned at RenFaire classes: There was a law in Elizabethan England that outlawed sex during the Eucharist during church services.

Not: That outlawed sex at church services; that would've just been too much to require of people. But once the priest got out the holy bread and wine, people had to disengage their genitalia.

In a setting like that, while sex ed may not be formal, info about who's good at it and what they did to be good at it, gets around.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:07 PM on November 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

I came in to mention the Decameron and Chaucer as well. In his twelve-volume memoirs (which are a great read), Casanova placed considerable importance on women's sexual satisfaction (and indeed, on women generally). Now, he may have been an outlier is his attitudes, but I suspect not all that much -- if he was able to enjoy the success he did, the surrounding culture most have enabled it to some degree.
posted by Capt. Renault at 2:08 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

The GIs were a hit with the ladies, ... because they performed oral sex, a thing unheard of among respectable Britishers. This allegation is sadly unsourced.

I have no source for that one, but there's a set of formerly banned books, My Secret Life, published in the late 1800s; the author/protagonist has a LOT of sex with a LOT of women (warnings for rape, rape, kinkystuffs, more rape... he was a "gentleman" and basically no woman was allowed to say no to him; not recommending the reading of this thing), and he ran across oral sex at some point and it seemed weird and unnatural to him - in both directions.

I suspect that someone's grandmother married in the late 30's may not have imagined oral sex existed until several years after being married, and may never have experimented with it. However, I'd put that at a 65% chance or so - those who did hear of it and try it weren't going to be a thin sliver of a minority, just not part of the mainstream.

WWII may have changed that; soldiers may have figured out that oral sex doesn't have near the disease risks, and no pregnancy risks.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:17 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

To get a sense of how Americans perceived sex you might look at pre-code movies. Those are films that were largely untouched by censors and so talk about and depictions of sex were much more frank.
posted by brookeb at 2:31 PM on November 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

I've always imagined that the sex between the Romans and, say, the Great Depression, was probably pretty bland missionary sex and unlikely to have been pleasing for the woman, but perhaps this isn't true?

In fact, in medieval Europe it was popularly believed that female orgasm was necessary for conception, so people were often very concerned to make sure it happened.
posted by waffleriot at 2:32 PM on November 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

There was Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, which I found while trying to figure out what "marriage manual" it was that I saw at my grandparents' house (it probably was this one).
posted by trig at 2:35 PM on November 9, 2017

Also, Tijuana bibles, being cheap porn, are not good indicators of how married couples or sheltered lovers engaged, but they are a pretty good indicator of what American boys and young men learned might be out there with sex workers or loose women.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:39 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I’ve read that medieval belief had it that without orgasm women could not conceive. Cannot find corroboration, though,,
posted by Segundus at 2:45 PM on November 9, 2017

There's also Married Love from a decade earlier. It seems like it might have appealed to a different audience than Ideal Marriage, since it looks more flowery than clinical. On a quick look, I found this: "One result, apparently little suspected, of using the woman as a passive instrument for man's need has been, in effect, to make her that and nothing more. Those men – and there are many – who complain of the lack of ardor in good wives, are often themselves entirely to blame for it."

(On further examination, I take it back! This book is both flowery and clinical (and racist at least in passing): "Curves similar to those shown on charts I and II represent in general terms a simplified view of what my research leads me to believe to be the normal, spontaneous sex-tide in women of our race.")
posted by trig at 2:52 PM on November 9, 2017

There's pretty good evidence that an orgasm increases chances of conception -- that probably means that there's been evolutionary selection favoring men who give a crap about their partners, in addition to the She Lets Him Stick Around factor...
posted by acm at 2:59 PM on November 9, 2017

Here are the results of a sex survey of Victorian women (article begins with a bio of the survey's author, survey results start about halfway down), which seems pretty clear that many of the respondents liked and enjoyed sex. If you read Victorian marital advice books (because who doesn't?) there is definitely a surprising amount of "married couples ought to enjoy sex" in there, and if you read any recent biographies of Queen Victoria, you discover that she hated getting pregnant because it kept her from having sex with her beloved Albert.

Regarding the Middle Ages, the supposition seems to have been that women were the lusty sex, always up for it, driven by their lusts, etc. The Wikipedia page on medieval female sexuality has more info. Ruth Mazo Karras has written a number of books on medieval sexuality but I haven't actually gotten around to reading them.
posted by posadnitsa at 3:01 PM on November 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

Here is a collection of resources from the Talmud (traditional jewish rabbinic teachings). The wife has the right to demand regular sex from her husband. The husband does not have to right to demand sex from his wife.

While the Rabbis could be rather prudish, they did allow that "He may have intercourse with her whenever he so desires and kiss any organ of her body he wishes, and he may have intercourse with her naturally or unnaturally [traditionally, this refers to anal and oral sex], provided that he does not expend semen to no purpose."

So nothing explicitly about orgasm but definitely authorizing more than the missionary position.
posted by metahawk at 3:14 PM on November 9, 2017 [4 favorites]


on a quick scroll, at least one instance of cunnilingus, and several woman-on-top. for whatever that implies.
posted by j_curiouser at 3:23 PM on November 9, 2017

Both the Victorian Pearl and Edwardian The Modern Eveline include descriptions of cunnilingus(called gamahuche in the former).
posted by brujita at 3:45 PM on November 9, 2017

Twenty-six comments in and no one has mentioned Lady Chatterley's Lover?
posted by basalganglia at 4:06 PM on November 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you google image search moche erotic pottery, you'll see some very NSFW results and I think this couple look like they're both having fun.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:24 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

[Martin Luther] objects, in a lecture, to coitus interruptus, the most common form of birth control at the time, on the ground that it is frustrating for women. (from October 30th NewYorker article on Luther)
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:58 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

While you're seeing some excellent answers, many of them are unsourced and the sources that are given are frequently literary rather than historical. You might want to try asking this question (after lurking, natch) at AskHistorians, a subreddit which actually has tougher moderation than Metafilter. Any answers you get there should be based on reliable primary or secondary sources and reflect current academic understanding. They also won't hesitate to tell you if the true answer is 'no one knows'.

e.g, my grandma was married in 1939: would her husband have had much interest/education in ensuring she enjoyed their marital congress? If so, how would he have acquired that knowledge?

Regarding his education/knowledge, I'd suggest that trial and error for a specific partner has always been the best way to learn. Sex education is clearly a wonderful thing, but prior awareness of techniques, kinks and positions is not necessary to be a good lover. Most of them are pretty easy to figure out if one is sufficiently motivated.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 5:09 PM on November 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

This is kinda like asking when did people decide that food should taste good, i.e., people have been eating (and fucking) literally forever. So, why would the species have waited until just the last few generations to work on perfecting the practice?
posted by she's not there at 5:14 PM on November 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

In Lysistrata (circa 411 BCE), there are many, many references to sex. One I remember offhand was a reference to someone liking it like "the lioness on the cheese grater," which refers to the handles on cheese graters that often depicted a crouching lion; in other words, getting it from behind while she's on all fours. So we know that missionary sex wasn't the only flavor, at least a couple millennia ago.

The diary of Samuel Pepys, recorded between 1660 and 1669, records numerous sexual encounters in great detail. And I mean numerous. They include getting handjobs, having sex in moving coaches (with the curtains drawn, of course), and waiting until dark to meet with various (often married) women he knew from his travels.

Penny merriments (cheap, mass-produced and recopied pamphlets) from the 17th century often depict all kinds of sex acts; I have a book of penny merriments somewhere if anyone wants to see specific examples. I also have a book of bawdy songs from 18th century music halls that depict things like group sex, masturbation, and more.

We should also not neglect to mention homosexual sex, which has always been very popular. By the 18th century, many European cities had underground homosexual networks, with gay social clubs, and brothels known as "molly houses." Anal sex was routinely condemned. In America, we have evidence of cottaging at army forts in the 19th century, and the occasional dishonorable discharge for "unnatural acts." Like the handkerchief code, Victorians with a predilection for homoerotic acts could wear certain clothing or accessories as a signal for the similarly inclined.

(Going off of Busy Old Fool's comment, I pulled a couple books off the shelf to refresh my memory for this comment, including At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch, and Bawdy Songs of the Early Music Hall, selected by George Speaight. There's a couple books other books I have that talk about this, but I'm too lazy to hunt them down at the moment. I'll find them and give references if anyone wants to know. The information on cottaging in army forts is based on some work that I think is still unpublished. The reference to Lysistrata is a pretty common one. Anyway, I think literary references are fine.)
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:17 PM on November 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

This would have varied a LOT between cultures, social classes, religions, and individuals. I suspect it might have varied even more between individuals if people were reluctant to talk about it- nobody's going to know what you're doing, and you aren't likely to find out what everybody else is doing. And there was no internet, so it was harder to find out about these things without your associates knowing that you were.

My dad, born in 1938, told me once that his mother told him she had five children because she couldn't resist my grandfather. She had no verbal filter at times, so it doesn't surprise me too much that she would have said that. She may also have gossiped about it more than we might think people back then did, too.
posted by Anne Neville at 5:26 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well, OP, you've received many informative and informed answers from many people pertaining to many different parts of the time period you ask about. But I'm afraid that those referring specifically to the 20s and 30s have done you a disservice in not mentioning the standard text on sex and sexuality at the time, Thurber and White's Is Sex Necessary?.
posted by kenko at 5:36 PM on November 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

The US was colonized by Puritans. That drastically affected how we deal with sex.

There's "Puritanical", and then there's the fact that the Puritans who colonized New England were super into companionate marriage and mutual sexual fulfillment.
posted by Hypatia at 6:08 PM on November 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

Here's a nice poem about dildos.
posted by kenko at 6:39 PM on November 9, 2017

There's "Puritanical", and then there's the fact that the Puritans who colonized New England were super into companionate marriage and mutual sexual fulfillment.

Yeah, Puritan sexuality is often misconstrued by modern people.

Intimate Matters (which is an often entertaining history of sexuality in the United States) discusses how the concept of a "fallen woman" really only originated in the 1800s, after single men began to be able to move west. In a Puritan colony, a couple who got pregnant would be married and then returned to the church in good standing, perhaps after a tearful confession in front of their church. (Based on church records, something like 25% of all girls in some early colonies were pregnant when they were married.)
posted by steady-state strawberry at 6:44 PM on November 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

(for basalganglia)
posted by clew at 6:52 PM on November 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

Twenty-six comments in and no one has mentioned Lady Chatterley's Lover?

amidst all the jollity here it perhaps warrants a mention that there are literal pages of this book devoted to how alienating and revolting it is for a woman to have an orgasm when you, a virile man, are unfortunately in close intimate contact with her. it's famous for a reason but it is a profoundly hateful book and it is not about what sex was like but rather what sex was like for D.H. Lawrence. however -- the one thing you can learn from it is that sure, women enjoyed history sex plenty, and lots of men were very indignant about it if it wasn't their idea. even if -- especially if -- they were the agent of that enjoyment without meaning to be.

but see also the whole concept of 'frigidity.' well before the Depression, it was understood that you could blame a woman for not enjoying herself appropriately just as well as you could blame her for enjoying herself too much.

furthermore, old-timey pornography often follows a very standard template of escalation, starting with youthful initiation, running through all the consensual acts the author can think of, and then proceeding to the nonconsensual. do not make the mistake of thinking that Victorian porn especially is not full of rape of both adults and children, in addition to all the innocent flogging and quaint vocab and whatnot. not that this is very different from now, but an exhortation to "have fun" is a little irresponsible without knowing what you find fun.

if you want to know what sex was like for women sleeping with men, you have to look at material written by women and read between the ellipses, so to say. most of the informative stuff is not pornographic as such -- have a long read through a lot of popular romantic fiction of the last century and the one before that. takes time but tells much. I like to think men of History were not generally so awful as their pornography paints them, but I like to think that about the men of Today too, so you see what my ideas are worth.

and the only way to find out if your grandfather was any good in bed is to ask your grandmother. politely.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:34 PM on November 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Well, the wedding was over, the bride tolled the bell,
Jack trimmed her sails five times and that pleased her well,
She vowed in her heart she was satisfied quite,
But she still gave slight hints about Nine Times a Night.

Says Jack, "Me dear bride, you mistook me quite wrong,
I said to that family I do belong
Nine times a night's a bit hard for a man,
I couldn't do it myself - but my sister, she can."
(Bodleian Ballads, printed ca. ??)

The Comical Wager was for seven times in an hour, and the hour also full of lawyer jokes as a nut with meat.
posted by clew at 11:02 PM on November 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also from 1939: Ida Cox, One Hour Mama. You better believe women knew about demanding their pleasure in “the olden days.”
posted by Sublimity at 3:29 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

It doesn’t make sense to think that men caring about women’s sexual satisfaction is a recent invention. There are evolutionary reasons why women, as the people who can have kids only about once a year, are much choosier in picking a mate than men, who can impregnate many women in a year. (Note: this has nothing to do with whether anyone consciously wants to have kids — this applied before people even knew that having sex leads to pregnancy!) So if you’re a man with a strong desire to have sex with a woman, you’re highly motivated to figure out how to keep her sexually satisfied so she chooses to stay with you instead of looking for someone else. The fact that people in recent decades have become more willing and able to research and publicly talk about women’s sexual pleasure is nice and might have led to marginal improvements, but the underlying drive of men to sexually please women has always existed. To extend another commenter’s food analogy, we might have had scientific breakthroughs in understanding why different foods taste the way they do, but these are at best marginal improvements to something people have always done because nature has made us crave it.
posted by John Cohen at 6:27 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

So if you’re a man with a strong desire to have sex with a woman, you’re highly motivated to figure out how to keep her sexually satisfied so she chooses to stay with you instead of looking for someone else.

but in actual reality and history, men have been highly motivated to keep women legally, socially, and physically restricted from looking for someone else whether they want to or not. Making a woman so happy she doesn't want to leave is a very sweet notion but it only applies in situations where women have the option of leaving if they feel like it. the entire social structure where if you ruin a woman you have to marry her was based on the irrelevance of whether she liked it or not.

women have historically enjoyed sex with men to a certain degree because men are capable of learning and applying that learning, but to just as great a degree because of their own drives and assertive sexual behaviors. which are no more a modern invention than the clitoris is.

making the best of things is one of the most ancient womanly erotic arts. nice and skillful men have always existed here and there, but there is no such fact as Men were always sexually considerate because evolution made them do it. that is not the case. there is a lot of written evidence to sift through on this point and most of it is highly distressing.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:31 AM on November 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

So as everyone has said, people enjoyed sex well before 1939. The thing that changed in a modern era is the scientific study of sexology and a better medical understanding of sexual response. Masters and Johnson, Kinsey, and Hite get the credit in American publishing for this revolution. They all applied statistical techniques in one way or another, surveying a lot of people and synthesizing patterns of experience. But scientific study of sexual pleasure goes back further than that. Hirschfeld and Krafft-Ebing in Europe, for instance. They gave language to the idea of studying sexual behavior as a scientific enterprise, not just ribald poetry and marriage manuals.
posted by Nelson at 10:00 AM on November 10, 2017

I could write a really long comment about early modern sex in France and England, but instead, I'll just invite you to check out the School of Venus from 1680 (English translation of a French text, translation does vary from the original--it's called L'école des filles in French) here: http://theappendix.net/posts/2013/06/this-misterie-of-fucking-a-sex-manual-from-1680

There's also the Academy of Ladies by Chorier with its filthy engravings, or the 16th century Ragionamenti by Aretino, the most famous and earliest example of early modern erotic literature in Europe: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ragionamenti-lives-married-women-courtesans/dp/0586034676

People were getting down in all kinds of freaky ways in every previous time, everywhere--there is an unfortunate modern conception that this is something new to us, somehow, but it couldn't be further from the truth.

ETA: Not sure if it's been mentioned yet, but obviously, check out Volume 1 of Foucault's History of Sexuality.
posted by nonmerci at 2:30 PM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks for these wonderful replies.
posted by stillmoving at 9:26 AM on November 12, 2017

We've skipped over, I think, two other important pieces of historical views on sex. One is that an earlier culture could have agreed with us on women's having sexual agency and pleasure and completely disagreed with us on what that meant about women's maturity, mentality, morality. The second is that many cultures couldn't have answered "do women like sex?" without specifying the social class of the woman in question.

(Every so often, up to 1830 or thereabouts, I am puzzled by references to race among all-whites until I realize that the English or Scottish author means, by "race", a very extended family, nearly coextensive with a social class. It comes back in Walter Scott, IIRC, part of his romantic anachronism? )
posted by clew at 10:45 AM on November 18, 2017

Not by any stretch "olden days" but this is as good an excuse as any to share Jake Thackray's The Lodger.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:27 PM on November 23, 2017

Regarding the Victorians and early 20th century, you may cf. 'Kiss without shame, for she desires it': Sexual foreplay in American marital advice literature, 1900–1925 (DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/jsh/29.3.507).* It looks specifically at the prescriptive advice given to couples in the early 20th century, comparing it to the advice from the Victorian period and prior.

It argues, broadly, that there was a turning point (in the West) in the early 20th century where the advice shifted from emphasizing procreative sex-as-marital-duty to celebrate eroticism and (marital!) sex as a jointly pleasurable activity, although often with the caveat of only within a framework of gender dominance where men were both expected to and responsible for providing sexual pleasure to their female partners.

Naturally, both actual practice and popular opinion likely differed from the "best practice" espoused by writers, but it's an interesting point for comparison. Quite a lot of writing on sexuality is in the form of advice books and similar, so it's a good window into a particular time's idea of aspirational or idealized sexual behavior.

* Available via your friendly local research library, or elsewhere via the DOI.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:50 PM on February 20, 2018

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