Advice columns have a really neat history in our cultural experiences of sex and relationships. They were one of the few consistent and widely available public forums for discussions around interpersonal relations, sex, gender roles, marriage, family, etc. These columns also allowed a platform for women writers where there may not have been many other opportunities to reach a large audience. Most of us are familiar with Dear Abby and Ann Landers, but advice columns and advice and self-help books have been around since much earlier than the 20th century.
What we know of as the contemporary advice column—and their more current iterations of online chat forums, blogs, and social media groups—became pretty popular in the early/mid 20th century. These early advice snippets were, however, very, very suspect in the advice they dolled out to women.
So suspect, in fact, that on March 18th, 1970 feminists stormed the offices of The Ladies Home Journal to demand that the content written for women actually be written for women rather than the dictatorial, patronizing, and sexist content that was being promoted. But what’s better than spending your afternoon snuggled up with some vintage sexist and downright wrong advice for women? So, without further adieu, here are some of our favorite cringe-worthy excerpts from sex advice columns spanning from the 19th century to today.
The Book of Nature by James Ashton, 1861
“The particular food which is calculated to stimulate the sexual organs is shell-fish, or sea fish of any kind, and turtle, as these generally contain phosphorus. Among vegetables may be mentioned celery, parsnips, onions, peppers, asparagus, tomatoes, lima beans, & mushrooms and truffles are a stimulant, as is also mint, sage, pennyroyal, thyme, and spices of all kinds, especially pepper and nutmeg. Canvas-back Duck, in proper season, is of excellent stimulating qualities; and for puddings, sago, tapioca and arrowroot. For drinks take porter and strong beer, wines, or coffee. Spirits are too exhilarating, and cause a reaction.” Turtle and onions have been a well-kept secret for some time, it seems. And it’s always good to know which puddings are stimulating without being too exhilarating. Mmmm.
What a Young Wife Ought to Know by Emma Drake, 1908
“It occasionally happens that the wife during pregnancy is troubled with a passion far beyond what she has ever experienced at any other time. This in every instance is due to some unnatural condition, and should be considered a disease, and for it the physician should be consulted.” What is the clinical term for super horned up?
Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living by H.W. Long, 1919
“It is sometimes recommended that some form of oil, as sweet oil or vaseline, be used as an unguent for anointing the parts before engaging in coitus, but this practice cannot be recommended. Oil is not a natural product of the parts to which it is applied, it is chemically unlike their secretions, and to smear the delicate organs with a fluid that is foreign to their nature, is unwise, unsanitary, not to say filthy. It is like greasing the mouth to make food slip down easily. And it is easy to understand how such application of an unguent to the mouth would impair the taste, dull the nerves of sensation, and greatly interfere with the native and wholesome uses of the oral cavity.” So, don’t use lube. Ever.
These gems from an article from Ladies Home Journal 1955
“Don’t complain if he’s late home for dinner or even if he stays out all night. Count this as minor compared to what he might have gone through that day.” 😐 It’s true, he probably had a really hard day after staying out all night looking for his dinner you threw on the ground.
“Don’t sit up til he comes home from the club; better be in bed, and pretend to be asleep. If you must be awake, seem to be glad he came home so early. He’ll probably think you an idiot; but that’s inevitable anyway.” This is everything Destiny’s Child was fighting against.
And, even better, women should never be ill:
“Don’t mope and cry because you are ill, and don’t get any fun; the man goes out to get all the fun, and your laugh comes in when he gets home again and tells you about it–some of it. As for being ill, women should never be ill.” Only sick with feminine laughter HA HA HA HA HA HA! Oops, that sounded ill.
Ann Landers 1961 book Since You Asked Me
“Go out for football, basketball, or baseball. Play tennis, golf, ping-pong, soccer or handball. Improve your swimming, wash the car, paint the garage, practice the trombone, build a boat, do your homework, mow the lawn, clean the attic.” as a response to sexual…tensions. Fortunately, this led to the founding of the 1962 Women’s Trombone Chorus*. Talk about a horn section.
1968 Cooking for Two
“THE HONEYMOON IS OVER; the die is cast. You and you only stand between your husband’s and your own starvation. Either you surrender to the can-opener method of cooking, to allow you more time at the beauty parlor, or you make up your mind to follow a more rewarding path.” She starved her husband but she looked great doing it.
From Ellen Peck’s 1969 book, How To Get a Teen-Age Boy and What To Do with Him When You Get Him
“Looking second sexiest gives you a couple of advantages. Especially over the girl who looks sexiest. That girl (Irene) is going to look slightly out of place. She’s going to make the boys feel slightly self-conscious about approaching her. Oh, they’re turned on by the way she looks, all right. But a guy looks at Irene and knows if he picks tonight to make-out with her, he’s going to go through a lot of ribbing all next week!”
I mean, the title alone… Let’s file boys being intimidated and going through a lot of ribbing under “Not Irene’s Problem.”
1972 sex bible, The Joy of Sex
“Go systematically over every square inch of [him]…with long, slow, broad tongue strokes.” Nothing sexier than a systematic and thorough licking. Forget the hairballs.
Allen and Briggs’s advice to boys
“Even independent modern girls like to be reassured about mice and spiders, roller coasters, and thunderstorms.” Not to mention the modern girl’s worst fear: a mouse riding a roller coaster.
Dear Abby, Mid/Late 1900s
Dear Abby: Are birth control pills deductible?
Response: Only if they don’t work.
Dear Abby: Is it possible for a man to be in love with two women at the same time? —Jake
Dear Jake: Yes, and also hazardous.
Ann Landers, Mid/Late 1900s
Landers gives a young woman struggling with the “mother-in-law” question a blunt dose of reality:
Dear Salem: Face it. Your boyfriend is going to have to decide: Either his mother must live elsewhere, or you leave — unless, of course, you are willing to put up with the old battle-ax forever.
Since you aren’t married yet, there’s a chance you may win the power struggle, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Your future mother-in-law is going to be a thorn in your side, a fly in your ointment and a bone in your throat forever. Get some counseling to give yourself confidence and strength. You’re going to need it.
Just give her a lil’ lick:
“If you’re out in public but want to make your intentions clear, slowly and firmly flick your tongue against the palm of her hand. If she just wipes it off down her skirt, you’ve blown it.” This technique does not pass muster after the Great Hand Sanitizer Panic of 2020.
“Gently stick his penis through the hole then nibble around it, stopping to suck him once in a while. The sugary texture of your tongue will add an interesting new dimension.” This one is not keto-friendly.
I think we can all agree that these are mostly laughable, if not somewhat sad. What’s often overlooked in the laughter of it all, argues social science historian Julie Golia, is the contributions these columns made to the newspapers that published them. They increased readership and, consequently, the overall success of the publication. Furthermore, they served as a cool place that functioned as a forum before we could connect via the internet and social media networks. So, while we can find solace in how far we’ve come in our knowledge of sexual wellness, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss advice columns’ importance in our journalistic history.