Packed with salacious, lip-smackin', soft-scientific inquiry, The Best of Sexology spans about 40 years of prurient geekdom. That's not surprising, given that founder Hugo Gernsback is better known for starting the first science- fiction magazine and lending his name to the prestigious Hugo Award for Science Fiction Achievement. With a flair for pulp, Gernsback began Sexology: The Illustrated Manual of Sex Science in 1933 to answer the question "Why keep one of man's greatest urges, the sex drive, and its many ramifications, in perpetual darkness and human beings in prehistoric ignorance?"
Why, indeed, especially since Sexology also ex-panded his magazine empire's market share? Finally, here was a publica-tion that answered questions about the need to do it in a "scientific" manner that reads, well, more like science fiction, although many of the contributing writers were credentialed sociologists, physicians and professors of history. Selections bounce from an exhaustive piece by Dr. Guhl, professor of zoology, on homosexual chickens ("rare among hens, not unusual among cockerels") to "A Doctor Looks at Self-Relief," subtitled "Aside from methods which may sometimes cause injury, there need be no concern about a natural and beneficial means of obtaining sexual release," authored by Dr. Clark, who was an ordained minister as well as a medical doctor. Then there is "The Story of a Lesbian," which helpfully begins, "Lesbians are female homosexuals," followed by "Wife Swapping," by Richard Stiller, a freelance writer and former teacher of social studies.
The book's non-sequitur structure makes for some funny bedfellows, with "Notorious Husband Poisoners" following "Sex Among the Eskimos." A litany of titles alone offers a good idea about what was once considered naughty, and quasi-medical advice like calling mutual masturbation less harmful than "solitary autoerotic pleasures" seems quaint.
Rising up again and again are references to transvestites, fetishes, prostitutes and phallic buildings. Interestingly enough, most stories that feature fetishes and "sex oddities" show pictures of naked tribal people while the text discusses white, middle-class romps. This disconnect provides a primary-source snapshot of our 20th-century cultural racism: Let's look at a bare-breasted African woman while reading about how a white guy gets off on women's gloves.
Reminiscent of '50s high-school textbooks, the illustrations - from graphs comparing women's educational levels with overt homosexuality to detailed renderings of countless chastity belts - lend scientific credence better than the Ph.Ds and M.D.s after an author's name. The most unforgettable diagram: the Male Sex Machine, a mechanical representation of the organs of the lower body, featuring curly tubing and glass laboratory vessels. It's here that a bellows (like an old-time camera body or an accordion) portrays the levator muscles while a caption explains: "By compressing levator muscle against prostate, you shut off flow of sperm by closing ejaculatory ducts." It's Insert-Tab-A-intoÐSlot-B all over again.
And remember, no matter how bad the economy is, Sexology reminds us "Sex life, however, is cheap," according to Dr. Jacob Hubler, writing in 1935 during the Great Depression. "Since 'misery loves company,' many a man and woman, who are both poor, indulge in sexual life simply as a mutual method of passing the time and for the momentary relief from the dullness of life."
Happy Valentine's Day.
The Best of Sexology: Kinky and Kooky Excerpts from America's First Sex Magazine
Edited by Craig Yoe,480 pages, Running Press, 2008, $14.95