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How a 1918 Author Introduced the World to the Concept of Female Pleasure

Married Love by Marie Stopes was revolutionary in its frank depiction of sexuality.

Marie Stopes at her microscope. Before tackling birth control, her studies were focused on botany. (Photo: Marie Stopes International Australia/Public Domain)

“I have some things to say about sex, which, so far as I am aware, have not yet been said, or if said will bear repeating and reemphasizing.”

So wrote Marie Stopes in Married Love, a groundbreaking advice book published in 1918 that aimed to end the “sex-ignorance” of the adult populace. Released in the U.K., the book was immediately condemned by the Church and banned from the U.S. But thanks to discreet mail orders, Married Love made its way into the desperate hands of men and women alike, tackling the epidemic of sex-ignorance, prompting a tidal wave of correspondence, and establishing Stopes as the closest thing to an expert on sexual equality that the early 20th century ever had—despite, as all evidence suggests, her being a virgin herself.

“That girls can reach a marriageable age without some knowledge of the realities of sex would seem incredible: but it is a fact,” wrote Stopes. A functional marriage, she said, was not instinctual, and even the “supreme human art” required practice. At the very least, she wrote, every mating man and woman should know the essential facts. She added a wild, bonus proposition: women needed to enjoy their time in bed, too.

One of many encouraging quotes in Married Love. (Image: Married Love/Courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine)

Married Love began when Stopes discovered that her first husband was impotent. (“It was the moment when Canadian impotence makes its mark on the world,” as 20th-century British historian Stephen Brooke would say.) Upon discovering their sexual incompatibility, Stopes went to court to file for a divorce; however, as a woman in 1916 England, the only way she could get a divorce was by proving non-consummation of their marriage. The only way to do that was to present a certificate from a doctor testifying that her hymen was intact, explains Janine Utell, Professor and Chair of English at Widener University, who is currently doing work on one of Stopes’ earlier and less known texts, Love Letters of a Japanese

This adverse experience spurred Stopes to educate others on sexuality. She had paid “such a terrible price for sex-ignorance,” she wrote, “that I feel that knowledge gained at such a price should be placed at the service of humanity.” By the end of 1913—with the help of medical libraries and her experience talking with “thousands of men and hundreds of women”—Stopes had put together a collection of biological basics, social stances, and erotic advice. Five years later, after being turned down by every publisher in town, birth control activist and Stopes’ soon-to-be second husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe, provided the financing to launch the book. 

Women joined the workforce during World War I, shifting a new paradigm into gear. (Photo: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums/Public Domain)

Married Love’s first 2,000 copies were snatched up within a fortnight, and by 1921, it had gone through 100,000 copies, six editions, and multiple translations. By 1938, it had sold 820,000 copies worldwide. In England, even those who had not encountered the book had most likely heard of it (you might have even noticed it mentioned between characters in the British TV series Downton Abbey), and there are even examples of the book being found in army barracks during World War II. Stopes was a pioneer, mainstreamer, and popularizer of information on sex, following years of obtuse, science-focused conversation among elite (male) sexologists. Stopes wrote “simply, and for the ordinary untrained reader,” she said in Married Love, and focused on sexual normalcy rather than sexual abnormalities. “It’s as frank as you’re going to find,” says Stephen Heathorn PhD, a historian of modern Britain at McMaster University, of the book at the time.

In an era when sex was still considered a husband’s right and a wife’s duty, Stopes’ arguments were revolutionary. “The number of people who buy the book suggests it’s this very quiet revolution—the mainstreaming of something that has been considered unspeakable: talking about sex, and sexual organs,” says Brooke, the author of Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day. “She’s a critical figure—not just in terms of contraception; also the idea of sexual pleasure, and the insistence that sexual pleasure is essential to marital companionship,” he says. Equally shocking, says Heathorn, was the idea that women should take control of some aspect of the sexual relationship.

A chart in Married Love illustrating the “Periodicity of Recurrence of natural desire in healthy women.” Stopes kept detailed records on the swings and shifts in her own body as early as 1914. (Photo: Married Love)

Author and professor Janine Utell says Married Love hit at just the right moment. By the 1890s, women were opting for greater freedom of attire and birth rates were going down. During World War I, thousands entered the workforce and also served as nurses, an experience that forced many of them them to deal with men’s bodies in a frank and open way. By the end of WWI, people were starting to talk more about family planning; in 1918, women in Britain over the age of 30 gained the right to vote; and in general, questions of equality and sex had begun to brew. Over in America, Margaret Sanger, who advised Stopes on her writing, was publishing booklets like Family Limitation (1914) and The Case for Birth Control (1917), and in 1916, founded Planned Parenthood in New York City.

Yet, even after these seismic shifts, society was still, perhaps, not quite ready for all that Stopes had to say. Heathorn points out that the assumption has long been that women were the most interested in birth control during this period. Yet many of them preferred to preserve what Stopes describes in Married Love as a “flower-like innocence,” that she considered willful ignorance. Interestingly, says Heathorn, nearly half the letters Stopes received were written by men rather than women. Though Stopes was trying to empower women to take ownership of their own bodies, most women still handed that responsibility over to their husbands—birth control included.

The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps marching in London at the end of World War I, 1918

The British Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps marching in London in 1918, at the end of World War I. (Photo: National Library NZ on The Commons/Public Domain)

Before becoming Britain’s resident sexpert, Stopes was the youngest person in Britain to receive a Doctor of Science degree from University College London and the first woman to earn a PhD in botany from the Botanical Institute in Munich. She voiced support for women’s suffrage and kept her surname through two marriages. In 1920, she published a “practical sequel” to Married Love titled Wise Parenthood, closely detailing different birth control techniques, and soon after, “A Letter to Working Mothers,” a condensed version aimed specifically at the working class. In 1921, she founded England’s first birth control clinic and the Society for Constructive Birth Control, and would later expand her efforts internationally. Over the course of her widespread career, she spearheaded the Birth Control News, wrote a travel book on Japan, published plentiful poetry, and even managed to have a kid in the midst of it all.

Her intentions and moral compass can, of course, be criticized from our current perch, 100 years later; she did not support abortion, and sex in her opinion belonged strictly within a heterosexual marriage. Moreover, Stopes was a staunch supporter of eugenics, even bequeathing a good chunk of her fortune to the Eugenics Society. A Roman Catholic doctor named Halliday Sutherland even accused Stopes of using poor women for birth control experiments, to which Stopes responded by suing him for libel; the resulting trials brought Stopes a great amount of publicity and boosted both her book sales and her prominence as a public speaker.

'Prorace' cervical cap, London, England, 1920-1950

A “Prorace” cervical cap, one type of birth control that was dispensed at Stopes’ London clinic between 1920-1950. (Photo: Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)

As Brooke notes, there were very few people at the time who were interested in sexuality and not to some degree influenced by eugenics. (For example, at the time, cervical caps were often referred to as “racial caps,” in reference to bettering the human race by controlling reproduction.) But eugenics was not Stopes’ crowning cause. “She was trying to carve out a space for female sexuality that is not marginalized, castigated, demonized,” says Brooke. “I don’t think that’s to do with eugenics, but her experience as a woman… someone who changes the expectations of marriage, in a way.”

In Married Love, Stopes points out that men have mainly run the world, and that consequently, the “woman’s side of sexual life has found little or no expression.” Woman, she wrote, “has been content to mold herself to the shape desired by man wherever possible… woman has bowed to man’s desire over her body, and, regardless of its pulses, he approaches her or not as is his will.” She made it abundantly clear that rape can exist within marriage.

An illustration of cervical caps in Wise Parenthood. (Image: Wise Parenthood/Courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine)

To Stopes, women’s fear of pregnancy meant that sex and birth control were inextricably intertwined. How could a woman ever enjoy sex if in constant fear of becoming pregnant? Miscarriages and failed pregnancies, malnourished infants and unwanted children were a source of pain and imprisonment, especially for working women—not to mention a giant impediment to anything resembling “married love.” Interestingly, this newfound concept of female sexual fulfillment could have signaled a new phenomenon for men: “You could say, of course, and I think it has been argued, that this is the beginning of a lot of male anxiety about sexual performance,” says Brooke. “And again, this comes from the book—for Stopes, the litmus test for a satisfying sex life is female orgasm, but not just that: mutual orgasm.”

But to Stopes, “married love” went beyond the mere physical. It also meant intellectual equality: “Every year one sees a widening of the independence and the range of the pursuits of women; but still, far too often, marriage puts an end to woman’s intellectual life. Marriage can never reach its full stature until women possess as much intellectual freedom and freedom of opportunity within it as do their partners.” 

Women's suffragists demonstrate in February 1913.

Suffragettes out in the streets in 1913. Not all suffragettes were in support of Stopes’ work. (Photo: Rose Sanderson/Public Domain)

The politics of sex and family planning in early 20th-century Britain—as in modern-day America, Zika-infected Brazil, and everywhere else—was inseparable from issues of class. While mechanical forms of contraception, such as cervical caps, spermicides, and reusable rubber condoms, were available in Britain by the 1880s and 90s, they continued to be expensive and hard to access throughout the following century (and even today). Aside from disposable income, the upper classes also had access to medical information generally lacked by the working class. “Knowledge is needed, and as things are at present,” wrote Stopes in Married Love, “knowledge is almost unobtainable by those who are most in want of it.”

Almost 100 years after the publication of Married Love, the name Marie Stopes is rarely recognized, but we are still navigating the seas of a movement she spurred into motion. Even if one doesn’t agree with Stopes’ stance on “sexual anesthesia,” “wave-lengths of the soul,” and diseases borne of abstinence, or agree that there are “tragically few marriages which approach even humanly attainable joy,” it is impossible to ignore all the things that Stopes got right, back when no one was getting them at all. She refuted the idea that marriage requires the sacrifice of one member (the woman), and addressed the ever-relevant issues of intimate partner violence, intellectual equality, and the right to female pleasure.