A previous post, The Subject of Sneers or Jests: Menstrual Education in the Service of Racism, examined the confluence of eugenic notions that conflated the effects of environmental factors like clothing, alcohol, and masturbation with heredity and health as expressed in a 1913 sexual health manual sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, What Every Young Woman Ought to Know. It is important to note that not every book about sexuality that emerged early in the century was as misguided and misinformed as that one.
Just 13 years later, in 1926, another guide to sex and marriage was published, Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, by Th. H. Van de Velde, M.D., that went on to its 44th printing at Random House by 1963. Though not much is actually known about its reception or the uses its readers put it to, its longevity suggests both popularity and impact. And in tone and content it is remarkably different from the previously discussed volume from 1913. It suggests that the sexual/menstrual ecology was in flux (perhaps it always is) but also that the earlier work did not fully reflect the spirit of its times.
In those sections of the book dealing with anatomy and physiology the information is mostly sound and presented in a straightforward manner. However, Ideal Marriage also contains an ample amount of less than thorough information about lots of topics, not the least of which is just what constitutes an “ideal marriage!” Of special interest to readers of re:Cycling are the portions that set out to explain and describe the workings of the menstrual cycle.
Though there are a few caveats or cautionary asides such as, “I am fully aware that we are here in an uncharted territory, full of traps and pitfalls. . .”(106) and that it is “. . . peculiarly difficult to sift the possible kernel of fact from the fantastic sheaf of tradition and superstition. . . ,” (107) none-the-less the author proceeds to paint a picture of the effects of menstruation as worthy of a Hitchcock thriller. Just before and during menstrual bleeding women have, “a lesser degree of bodily endurance, activity and dexterity; a tendency to exhaustion and malaise,” (100); “Temper, hypersensitiviteness, caprice, resentment, rapid changes of mood, liability to take offense unnecessarily appear, in women who are otherwise very free from these manifestations.” (100) And, women must take special care about “resolutely mastering their tongues and tempers. . .” (100) Naturally, these unfortunate flare ups create a special challenge for men: “For the husband, there are two occasions . . . in which tact, sympathy and self-control are urgently needed if he is to be an expert in love and life. Namely, in the first days of married life, and in the first days of the monthly vital ebb. The second is much the harder test—because it perpetually recurs!—but surely not any less important than the first.” (101)
In addition to these disturbances of mood, there are other physical defects that appear: “nausea and inclination to vomit, bad breath, increase of intestinal gas. . . a tendency to varicose veins, cold feet . . the vocal apparatus is impaired . . . the voice becomes easily tired and changes its quality. . .an appreciable narrowing of the field of vision, and less acute differentiation of colors. . . facial pallor, a tendency to blush easily, and blue rings under the eyes. . .[in effect] she is partly an invalid.” (104-105) Whew! Yet there is a saving moment. After a lengthy catalog of miseries and flaws we learn that, “Fortunately no one woman has to endure all the sufferings and disabilities described above. . . .And, I repeat, that fortunately, there are quite a number of women who do not suffer any of these things.” (105)
Despite the bleak depictions of what many menstruating women are believed to experience and what their husbands must endure, the author then goes on to confront and mostly refute the most deeply rooted sexual taboo of all. A full chapter is devoted to a discussion of sexual intercourse during menstruation and pregnancy. Beginning with acknowledging and identifying the wide range of historical religious and cultural prohibitions and traditions, the chapter then proceeds to describe how some women and men are not only indifferent to the prohibitions but, in fact, find menstrual sex more exciting: