August, 2016 Archive

The Birth of the Butt Plug

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Humans have been carving and using many different devices for pleasure since the beginning of time. We not only learned how to use tools to create shelter, clothing, works of art, and weapons as we evolved but used those tools to make sex toys. The dildo is as old as, well, dirt but I was surprised to find that other sex toys weren’t fully fleshed out until the 19th century. One such item is the butt plug.

I was hard pressed to find much evidence of butt plugs before the 1800s. I’m surprised because I can’t imagine the concept of toys for anal play just sprung into someone’s mind a little over a century ago. Anal pleasure seems to have been limited to manual, genital, and dildo penetration. A flanged base was nowhere to be seen as far as I could tell. The only prehistory I could find was the practice of “Figging” which is the practice of peeling ginger into a butt plug shape then inserted vaginally or anally. Figging was a form of punishment or torture. Today it is used in consensual BDSM play.

Just to be clear, a butt plug is a device that has a cone shaped or anatomically correct shaped end that is inserted into the anus. It has a flanged base to keep it from slipping further inside thus rendering it irretrievable by any means not requiring a trip to the emergency room. The area between the flanged base and the central part of the plug curves in sharply to prevent the butt plug from slipping out. A butt plug is different than an anal plug for medical use. A medical anal plug does not have a cone shape but a disc or plug shape to prevent fecal incontinence. A butt plug can be worn for added pleasure during sex, during masturbation or even worn during the course of the day for continual sexual stimulation. Modern butt plugs vary in width, length, and shape. They also come in a rainbow of colors and a variety of materials. But where are the butt plugs of the past?

The earliest example of a butt plug I could find were rectal dilators used to help with constipation and hemorrhoids, also known as piles. The most famous dilators were a set sold as Dr. Young’s Ideal Rectal Dilators from 1893 to 1940. Dr. Frank E. Young of Canton, Ohio patented his rectal dilators in 1892. Advertisement for Dr. Young’s patented rectal dilators can be seen by 1893. The package includes several dilators of increasing sizes in a somewhat familiar butt plug shape of today; olive-shaped tip with a straight shaft and flanged end. They were originally made of rubber, and the instructions suggested they be used with either Dr. Young’s Piloment lubrication or vaseline. One would gradually insert the dilator then as one adjusted to the size, would move up to the bigger size. The dilator relaxed and stretched the rectum to either relieve constipation or to allow hemorrhoids to heal. This treatment is still used today. One surprising recommendation for use back in the late 19th century was to prevent or treat insanity. Thankfully something the dilators are not used for today.

Dr. Young was not the only person to recommend the use of rectal dilators. There were others who came up with their own versions.

George Starr White used a method he called The Finer Forces of Nature to “… diagnose and treat all manner of unhealth.” He started his research on his particular form of medical treatments as early as 1881. One of the devices he sold was the Valens Bio-Dynamo Prostatic and Rectal Normalizer around 1928. White wrote many books about his cures and methods of diagnosis, many of which rely on natural remedies. 1931. His theories about chromotherapy and “The Golden Planet” of his true origin, remind me of an early L. Ron Hubbard. The Federal Trade Commission forced him to discontinue advertising his prostate treatment in 1931.

The Recto Rotor looks longer than most of the rectal dilators I’ve seen but was marketed for the same conditions; piles, constipation, and prostate trouble. Its extended length gave it access to the prostate, and it bills itself as “… the only device that reaches the Vital Spot effectively.” This product may be trying to do too many things at once since it also has vent holes to apply lubrication, or as the ad description says, “… through which the undulant inserted in the chamber below may be forced out by turning the knurled cap.” Everything about the Recto Rotor makes Young’s dilators look tame. The “knurled cap” doesn’t look like it’s flanged in any way so I can’t tell if this is supposed to be left in or just held by the user.

Some products were variations on Dr. Young’s rectal dilators such as Whitehead’s Dilator from the 1870’s and Thebaud’s sphincter-ani dilator from the 1880’s. Curvlite made glass rectal dilators and were around until about 1950’s. These look a bit more like the spawn of a standard butt plug and a chandelier light bulb than the straight-sided bulb tipped Dr. Young version. The bulbous main body of the plug has an extension at the tip that makes it look a bit gentler than Young’s. Just like Young’s dilators, these come in various widths so you can “gradually” increase the girth. I saw a set similar to the Curvilite glass set but made out of bakelite. It was on an online auction site, so there wasn’t much info but they seemed to have many early 20th to mid-century dilators mostly culled from eBay. I even found a company called Klystra (an enema supply company) that had a self-proclaimed takeoff on Young’s dilators complete with replica packaging. Unfortunately, Klystra has gone out of business so you can’t actually order one.

I found only one device that had a unique shape. The box is labeled The Talisman and has an entirely different shape that the ones I previously mentioned. It has a curved shape before ending at the olive-shaped tip. The auction house that was advertising it labeled it as a 19th-century medical vulcanite rectal dilator but the narrow shaft and curved angle looks more like it’s intent is to put pressure on the prostate. It looks more built for pleasure than for medical purposes, but since companies couldn’t advertise their products as pleasurable until relatively recently, we may never know the creators intent. It’s difficult to determine when these dilators turned from medicinal to pleasurable. While I’m sure someone had to look at them and think “oooh, that looks like fun,” no one was going to put that publicly in a catalog or advertisement for quite some time.

There had to be someone to who sold butt plugs for pleasure, but I have yet to find who that is. The first official brick and mortar sex shop, Beate Uhse’s Specialty Store for Marital Hygiene, was opened up in Germany in the 1960’s. Before that, Beate sold her products along with contraception advice through a catalog. I’m hoping to find some surviving examples of early catalogs like Beate Uhse’s to the first distributor. I look forward to having more info for the next Anal August

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Mughal Painting: Dildos, Sex Doll and Anal Sex

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In my travels around the internet to find interesting (well at least to me) pieces of sexual history, I’ve come across some things that I don’t seem to be able to fit in anywhere else. They just need to stand alone and be admired, discussed or pondered over. One such thing is one particular photo I found while researching sex dolls. The painting shows a copulating couple using some sort of improvised sex toy or machine. The first thing I notice is the two dildos are attached to a board, and one of them is being used for anal sex. Upon closer inspection, I see that the woman is headless. I find the same thing every time I search for more info about this painting, an article using it as evidence of sex doll use in early Persian culture. But is it really a sex doll? Is it really from early Persian culture? This painting was a mystery I just had to solve.

I’ve done some investigating but so far haven’t found out anything that relates to this particular artwork. Not even Wellcome Library in London which houses the actual manuscript page in its collections has any more information other than a possible date. Wellcome has it dated as 19th century, which means it’s not a painting from the heydays of Mughal paintings. It would have to be from the 15th-17th centuries. The piece looks to be part of a manuscript, and there are several other pages done in a style that appear to be part of a series. The other pages have similar looking backgrounds and the same man playing a reoccurring role in them. The manuscript pages seem more like a catalog of sins than a sex manual like the Kama Sutra. The other paintings show the same man copulating with a deer, having anal sex with what looks like a demon or the devil, a crocodile performing cunnilingus on a female demon, women masturbating with vegetables, and more. It’s possible that the subject matter is influenced by the time period. The 19th century found India becoming much more conservative about sex.

There have been several centuries of evolution in Mughal painting before we get to the time of this painting. The Mughal’s Muslim Persianate empire started in the 16th century. The Empire peaked in the mid 17th century, which was a golden age for architecture that included the Taj Mahal. By the mid 18th century, the Mughal’s influence started to decline and was given over entirely to the British Empire by the mid 19th century. During that time, the empire was known not only for its art and architecture but also for science and technology. Mughal paintings were often about the lives of royalty, including their sex lives. The sex portrayed in these paintings is quite explicit, even if the body positioning is painfully unrealistic. Erotic Hindu art greatly influenced Mughal art. Sex was shown as natural and commonplace, even if those practicing it are Mughal kings with their large harems or gods and goddesses. The tone of this painting and the others that seem to be from the same manuscript is entirely different than the ones from the three centuries before it. The sex depicted here is distinctly taboo. It has 19th-century Victorian moral hangups written all over it.

Knowing that this painting is from the 19th century also means that it’s not proof of the early use of sex dolls. I also find that the “headless model,” as Wellcome refers to the figure the man is copulating with, doesn’t look much like a doll. It has pubic hair, and henna on the hands and feet. Perhaps it’s more of a depiction of a headless woman, a way of further dehumanizing the already extremely dehumanized women of the Mughal dynasty. Another possibility is that the figure is a headless goddess, something not uncommon among Hindu deities. The most notable is the tantric goddess, Chinnamasta. She is often shown holding her head while blood gushes in three streams from her neck. This makes it unlikely that the figure in this painting is her specifically. It could be just a random headless goddess. And as if having sex with a headless goddess/doll wasn’t edgy enough, there is the double dildo contraption behind him.

The two realistic dildos, including hair covered scrotum, appear to be attached to a swinging board. I’d bet you dollars to donuts that he can push back on the bottom of that board and have the top part push forward to penetrate himself anally. He may not have all the cast members for an official threesome present, but he’s MacGyvered a sex doll and dildo board for a DIY threeway. We’re talking major maker innovation here.

I still can’t quite figure out where that second dildo is going. Perhaps he borrowed this from someone who uses it for double penetration. Or maybe there’s another painting where headless goddess sex doll is going airtight.

Perhaps I have thought way too long about this painting.

I can’t tell what was the purpose behind these manuscript pages. Were they part of someone’s kinky manuscript of sexy perversions that were meant to titillate or Victorian Christian propaganda trying to make this Mughal king look like the host of a satanically influenced sex party that includes demons, root vegetable dildos, crocodiles, and vagina birds? Yes, vagina birds.

Most of these paintings have some writing at the top, as this one does. I couldn’t find any translations and an email to Wellcome about the text has yet to yield an answer. The writing is in Urdu, which I would love to get translated at some point. I didn’t want to wait until I got a translation to write about this painting. Lakeside anal dildo sex seemed the perfect thing to share with you before Anal August is over. I’m going to continue looking into the mystery of 19th-century pseudo-erotic Mughal paintings. Look forward to sharing what I’ve learned with you.

Here is the full image:

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org

 

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Condom History – Evidence from the 16th and 17th century

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The early history of condom use is murky with conjecture and myth. We don’t have much substantial evidence other than some anecdotal evidence and some paintings that show people were using linen, leather or animal intestines as condoms. Our first physical evidence was found in excavations in England and Sweden. Both finds date back to the mid 17th century and are examples of the use of animal intestines for protection. While they may have been used as birth control, they were more than likely used primarily as a barrier against STIs. The 15th century saw a surge of syphilis and gonorrhea infections. It was a growing problem with deadly consequences and was still a concern by the 17th century. Condom use was a way to reduce the spread of disease. They often soaked condoms in a solution that was thought to prevent infection then dried before use. Looser than the condoms of today, they were often tied on with a ribbon. They were also cleaned and reused, something we would never think of doing today.

The 16th century brought us one of the first texts to mention more modern condoms. Italian anatomist Gabriele Fallopio, or Fallopius, treatise De Morbo Gallico (The French Disease) was the first document to mention a condom-like device in 1564, published two years after his death. Fallopio is best known for his namesake the fallopian tubes, but he was also involved in the research and writing of many other important medical discoveries. In this pamphlet, he described a device made out of linen, first soaked in a chemical compound, that would prevent the spread of syphilis. Fallopio states in the text that after clinical trials with over a 1,000 men he concluded that none of them had contracted syphilis.

The 17th century was about the time we start to hear about condoms being used to prevent pregnancy. Most literature about condom use spoke of disease prevention and not pregnancy prevention. You get the first birth control reference in about 1605. Unfortunately, it was written by a Catholic theologian to denounce condoms as immoral due to its contraceptive use. The use of a condom for contraception would come up in a bawdy French novel, L’Escole des Filles, and in a report by the English Birth Rate Commission as a reason for a drop in the fertility rate by the mid-1600s. This fertility rate statistic marks a turning point in our written history as we start to get more straightforward evidence of condom use in reliable documents as well as the first surviving examples of early condoms.

One of these finds is an entirely intact condom found in Lund, Sweden. It is made of pig intestine and is estimated to date back to around 1640. Found along with the condom was an instruction manual written in Latin, also intact. Astonishingly, a translation of the text reveals it recommends washing the condom in warm milk to prevent disease. I’m not exactly sure how warm milk prevents STIs, perhaps it lulls the bacteria to sleep. Early condoms would often be soaked in some sort of preventative solution then dried, but I couldn’t find milk used anywhere else in my research. Not sure why this particular manual decided to recommend it. While milk does have some healing properties, I can’t see how warm milk could be a preventative measure against disease. Early condoms had to be soaked first, usually in water, to make them pliable for use. This instruction sounds like it is supposed to be applied after use when cleaning rather than soaking in it before use.

Another archeological find was at Dudley Castle near Birmingham England. During excavation, the fragments of 10 fish and mammal intestine condoms were found in a cesspit. They were deposited there after being discarded in the garderobe. A garderobe is a medieval latrine that was often also used as a closet since the resulting gasses from being used ostensibly as an indoor outhouse was thought to keep fleas, moths, and other pests away from the garments. These fragments were found after sifting through the remains in the cesspit. They date to about 1642, a time during the English civil war when Dudley castle was often under siege. After repeated attacks by Cromwell’s forces, it was surrendered in 1646 and partially demolished sealing the cesspit. This provided the perfect environment to preserve the condoms. It is thought the condoms were used by the soldiers guarding the castle. Of the ten condoms found, five of them were found layered inside the other.

The struggle for both disease protection and contraception would continue for centuries. From the time of these earliest surviving examples, advancements would be slow. Who used these earliest surviving examples is unknown. It’s often thought that only the rich or the aristocratic could afford to purchase condoms. What about the social station and pocket money of a castle guard? Were fish bladder and animal skin condoms readily available and affordable to everyone? It’s possible that the butchers had enough left over intestines to create new condoms easily. You only need some lye or sulfur to loosen up the intestines. The fact that they were often reused may have made them seem more affordable. There’s not enough written evidence yet to know. We have to look into the next century to get a better idea of how condom use is reflected in the masses.

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Greeks Bearing Gifts: Anal Sex in Ancient Greece

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When I was a teenager, I remember going to my dance teacher’s house to pick up some items we needed for an upcoming recital. While we were gabbing and getting things ready, she made a joke about her soon to be husband being Greek. She alluded that the Greek were into “that stuff” but she hoped that didn’t suddenly become a thing for him after they were married. I laughed and nodded but inside my head I was trying to figure out what she was talking about. I was a somewhat worldly teenager. Well, worldly in knowledge, not deeds. I may not have done everything I knew about, but I knew far more about sex than most of my friends did. Thankfully another girl with us just came out and said, “What stuff?” prompting a “doin’ it in the butt” whispered explanation.

Ah, “That stuff” was “Butt stuff.” My teenage brain wondered, “Were the Greeks really known for that?”

Over the years the idea of “Greek Love” or “Greek Style” has been mostly a punchline, and in truth, something that is rarely ever mentioned much less joked about. I forgot about it until I was doing research on anal sex and it popped up in a few places. It’s not entirely an urban myth but it’s also not a proven fact. It seems to stem from the oft-confused knowledge we have about Grecian attitudes about sex. Did they prefer anal sex as much as people think they did? Were the ancient Greeks more accepting of male on male sex? Yes, and no, and maybe. When you delve deeper into the history of Ancient Greece you get a less than clear picture. There is little substantial written evidence of a proclivity towards anal sex, but there is a fair bit of it in the art. Vase paintings make it seem as though it was as common as vaginal sex but it may not be representing exactly what was preferred or even acceptable.

Things we do know about the ancient Greeks are that women had no rights, were not allowed to be educated, and their only purpose was to procreate. Men had all the rights and power in their society. Men also had very close relationships with other men. Some writings even suggest that men preferred the company of other men rather than with women. Wives were poorly educated and considered property, only limited time was spent with them. Well, unless the woman was a prostitute. Apparently, prostitutes were a short step higher in society than a wife and had considerably more influence and power. Girls were married off early in exchange for a dowry. They spent their lives taking care of the household and having children. Men only had other men as their intellectual equals so I can see why they preferred same sex company. Some Greek men had very close and loving relationships with other men, but the more common occurrence was a close relationship with a young man or boy. And here the waters get murky again.

Here’s the thing. Sex between grown men was not acceptable mainly because it “feminized” the recipient. It was shameful to be feminized in a society that thought of women as lowly property. Most likely for that reason it was considered acceptable to have a relationship with a young man between the age of consent, about 14-16, the age girls were expected to marry. Once you were fully matured and could grow a full beard, you were expected to get married and start a family of your own. Pedastery, a sexual relationship between older (erastes) and younger males (eromenos) or more accurately the Greek term Paiderastia, is thought to have been common in Greek society. Relationships with adolescent boys seemed to be the thing with Grecian wives often playing second fiddle to their husband’s young male lover. While it’s safe to say that anal sex was probably happening somewhere in these same-sex relationships, it is thought that most of these were sexual but not in a penetrative way. Intercrural sex, where the penis to put between the receiver’s thighs, may have been more popular as anal sex was considered to be demeaning to the receiver. Some relationships may not have been sexual at all but more of an intimate friendship or mentoring a young man as he grows to adulthood.

Greek Love really isn’t shorthand for being into anal sex since even the Greeks were either not very interested in it or where secretive about it due to the ancient populace’s worry that it might turn a young man into a woman. Although the concept of sexuality being separated into hetero and homosexuality was not prevalent, one did not need to have a preference for a single sex. The lowly state of the female in Greek society meant the penetrative anal sex was more likely in heterosexual relationships or only with someone equally low rank like a slave. It may have even been an effective form of birth control. With aristocratic young Grecian men leaving home for military or athletic training at the same age as women were going off with their much older husbands in arranged marriages, the relationship between the young man and his older mentor had a less sordid connotation.

This practice was also found in ancient Crete and Sparta, often associated with military training and the bond of comrades in arms. It existed in ancient Rome but usually limited to a nonsexual mentorship with Roman youth since sex with them was not permitted, that was only appropriate with slaves or those who were not Roman citizens. The depiction of same-sex older men and youths in various ranges of intimacy can be found in ancient art. It also exists in Greek myths with stories like Ganymede who was abducted by Zeus to be the cupbearer of the gods. It’s thought that Zeus could not resist Ganymede’s beauty so he made him immortal and placed him by his side on Mt. Olympus. Hera may have been none too pleased by this competition for Zeus’ affection. There is even mention in Greek literature by writers such as Plato and Socrates.

We have been making assumptions when referring to “Greek Love” as a term for anal sex. It is more akin to a bromance than butt stuff when you look further into the culture and practices of ancient Greek society.

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Victoria Woodhull: Free Love and Feminism (Part 2)

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Read Part 1 here.

Victoria moved with her second husband, her children from her first marriage, her first husband who had become so ill and destitute they took him in, along with her sister to New York City in 1869. Victoria and Tennessee’s clairvoyance skills secured them a friendship with Commodore Vanderbilt. In exchange for their stock market prediction that landed him millions, he gave them a sum of money with which they opened their own brokerage firm on Wall Street. The firm did quite well despite having to deal with blatant discrimination. They also started a newspaper, The Woodhull & Claflin Weekly, which continued publishing a variety of subversive and radical ideas for six years. The journal even published Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” along with articles by Colonel Blood and Stephen Pearle Andrews. Victoria, Blood, Tennessee, and their family moved to a mansion in Murray Hill. Victoria was supporting her household yet again but this time not as an abused child or desperate wife with a dissolute husband but as a powerful independent woman.

Victoria had become a strong advocate for women’s rights. She wrote a letter to the congressional committee and secured an invitation to read it to the House Judiciary Committee thanks to her friendship with Benjamin Butler. There Victoria argued that women already have the right to vote because the 14th amendment which grants citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the US and the 15th amendment in which states the government cannot deny a citizen the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude. She argued that women were citizens and could not be deprived of the right to vote just like the recently emancipated slaves. She likened a wife’s obligations to sexual servitude and involuntary motherhood to slavery. In her opinion, a prostitute is a free woman compared to a wife.

Victoria’s speech got the attention of other suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They invited her to the National Women’s Suffrage Convention. Her petition to the Judiciary committee was voted down and her request to speak on the floor of the House of Representatives was denied. Prior to her speaking in DC, Victoria had announced her intent to run for president by publishing it in the New York Herald in 1870. By 1872, the Equal Rights Party officially nominated her for the presidency. They even chose her running mate, Frederick Douglass, without him even being present. It’s unknown if he denied it or was even aware of his nomination as vice president. Victoria spoke publicly during her campaign not only about women’s rights and feminism, but free love, sex education, and even birth control. These subversive ideas made some women in the suffragist movement uncomfortable. While the usual election mudslinging was even more fiercely thrown at Victoria, public opinion began to turn.

In response to criticism about her free love ideals, Victoria published a tell-all story accusing Harry Ward Beecher, a renowned preacher and brother of suffragist Harriet Beecher Stow, of cheating on his wife. Victoria knew Beecher was having an affair with Theodore Tilton’s wife, Elizabeth. She hated the idea that he was “preaching morality in public while practicing adultery in private.” Anthony Comstock himself arrange for her arrest with the charge of “publishing an obscene paper” according to the Comstock Law. The Beecher cheating story cited as the obscene paper. She and her sister were held in the Ludlow Street Jail, usually reserved for more harsh offenses, for six months. Victoria missed Election Day and couldn’t even vote for herself. In the end, she didn’t get a single electoral vote, although her actual vote count is unknown. She couldn’t have been elected anyway as her inauguration would have been several months before her 35th birthday.

In response to her accusation of Harry Ward Beecher, she was accused of adultery with Theodore Tilton, a close friend of hers who even wrote her biography. It was most likely in retaliation by Beecher’s sister Harriet. The suffragists decided to distance themselves from Victoria’s radical free love feminism. Thomas Nast even characterized her as “Mrs. Satan” in Harper’s Weekly. Victoria and Tennessee dealt with several arrests, lengthy and expensive trials, and Beecher’s refusal to admit his betrayal. They found their brokerage firm closed, and their newspaper shut down. There were accusations of prostitution and infidelity. They lost everything. Victoria and her family were evicted and couldn’t find a single person willing to rent to them.

Commodore Vanderbilt died in 1877 and his children quibbled over his estate. It’s rumored that to ensure that Victoria and Tennessee did not testify the Commodore’s son William paid them off. The year before Victoria and Colonel Blood had divorced and gone their separate ways. I don’t know how they got divorced since they were never legally married in the first place. Victoria and her sister took the Vanderbilt money and moved to England. I can’t tell if they were asked by William Vanderbilt to leave the country or they just took the money and left to start anew. The tumultuous post-nomination years left them in shambles. In England, Victoria met and married banker John Biddulph Martin of the Martin Bank family. Now known as Victoria Woodhull Martin, Victoria entertained the upper class of London. She started a magazine with her daughter Zula Maud called “The Humanitarian” that ran from 1892-1901. Tennesse would marry Sir Francis Cook, Viscount of Monserrate, who would later become a 1st baronet making her Lady Cook. After Victoria’s third husband died in 1901, Victoria retired from society and lived a quiet life in the English countryside until she died of heart failure in her sleep in 1927.

Victoria was an irrepressible force in her lifetime. She sought to nominate herself for president two more times, in 1883 and 1893, but she couldn’t escape her reputation. Victoria was quite an enigmatic speaker and continued to lecture until 1893. You can find some of Victoria Woodhull’s speeches online. In her own words, she was “… too many years ahead of this age.” Still, she managed to do amazing things in a time where women had no rights and were treated like property. She fought for the right to be able to exercise free will. When it came to relationships, Victoria felt she had “… an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please.” Her ideas of free love, sexual freedom, sex workers rights and the rights of the individual are as important today as they were 150 years ago.

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Victoria Woodhull: Free Love and Feminism (Part 1)

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While attending OpenSF 2012 as a fledgling sex educator, I sat in a hotel hospitality suite listening to Nina Hartley talk about the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. I was excited to hear about their mission to affirm sexual freedom as a fundamental human right. Nina talked about how they worked towards changing or creating new legislation and policies that would ensure the freedom of sexual expression without political or social interference. Woodhull defines sexual freedom as the fundamental human right of all individuals to develop and express their unique sexuality. At the time of the conference, the Alliance had already been around for nearly a decade as a champion of human rights and the freedom of sexual expression. Four years later the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit is an event everyone I know looks forward to attending. I decided to write an article about their namesake, Victoria Woodhull, in honor of upcoming summit.

Victoria was born Victoria California Claflin on September 23, 1838, in Homer, Ohio. I found contradicting sources in regards to whether she was the 6th or 7th of 10 children. The confusion may stem from some of her siblings dying young. Her father, Reuben Buckman Claflin, known as Buck or One Eyed Buck, was known as a swindler and con man with a long list of jobs including postmaster, raftsman, farmer, and lawyer. Her mother, Roxanna Hummel Claflin, was a religious zealot. Victoria’s childhood was filled with abuse and neglect. She didn’t start school until she was eight then dropped out at 11 when her family abruptly moved out of Homer. The townsfolk accused Buck of burning down the family gristmill to take advantage of the hefty insurance he had taken on it. He was run out of town for alleged arson and insurance fraud, and the family was forced to follow sometime after, although some sources say he wasn’t even in town when the mill burnt down. A fundraiser was held to get Annie Claflin and her children a horse drawn carriage and some food so they could join Buck. Buck Claflin has been described as everything from a genius to a thief. He did wind up being quite a snake oil salesman and used his kids to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in spiritualism.

Spiritualism was all the rage by the time the Claflins left Homer. Victoria believed she had the ability to communicate with the dead, including the spirits of her dead siblings. She was also known as a child preacher who used to read scripture, and Indian stories when her youthful audience got bored, on a mound just outside of town. She enjoyed being the center of attention. She was purported to have visions, have contact with spirits of the dead, and was a magnetic healer. She even claimed to have been visited by her spirit guide Demosthenes, who was a famous orator in ancient Greece. He told her she would live a life in a land filled with ships and be the ruler of many people.

Buck put both Victoria and her younger sister Tennessee to work in a traveling medicine show. Victoria would use her skills to tell fortunes, and Tennessee would cure the sick. They would also sell a concoction called Miss Tennessee’s Magnetic Life Elixir recommended for a variety of illnesses. They spent some years wandering the Midwest making a living using magnetic healing and communing with the spirits of the dead. At one point they settled in Ottawa, IL where they took over a floor of the Fox River House, a local hotel, and set up a cancer hospital. Tennessee couldn’t follow through on healing the cancer-stricken. When one of her “patients” died, they hightailed it out of town before she could be charged with manslaughter.

The girls would work about 12 hours a day. Between the long hours and the constant moving from town to town, Victoria became very ill. She experienced fever and rheumatism for about two years. Dr. Canning Woodhull attended to her health and after she recovered she accompanied him on a 4th of July picnic. Canning presented himself as a gentleman from a prestigious background in which Victoria saw a way out of the madness of the Claflin Clan. Unfortunately, during the short four months of courting, Victoria did not see her husband for who he truly was until after their marriage. Canning was a drunkard who was also prone to infidelity. Three days after their wedding he abandoned his new wife for the night. In a time when marriage was nothing more than servitude, Victoria was now stuck in a loveless marriage where her husband spent more time drinking and spending the night with women of ill repute than he was working and providing for his family.

About a year later, while they were living in Chicago, Victoria gave birth to their first child. I’ve found conflicting details about Byron Woodhull. Some say that he was born with either brain damage or intellectual disability. Some say he was dropped or injured as a toddler, which lead to brain damage. Either way, Victoria blamed Canning’s alcoholism for her son’s mental disability. Byron was uncommunicative and needed someone to care for him his entire life. After having to pull her husband out of many a mistress’s embrace while she and her son froze and starved in their small Chicago farmhouse, Victoria decided to try a new life in California. She took her husband and son to San Francisco in the hopes that Canning would be inspired to be the good husband he had so far failed to be. Instead, it was more of the same.

In San Francisco, just as in Chicago, Victoria worked to keep her family alive. Looking for a way to make money led to a stint on the stage as an actress. She was apparently quite good at it. Her acting career didn’t last for long as one night while performing on stage Victoria had a vision. In her vision, she heard a voice say “Victoria, come home” and saw her sister Tennessee beaconing to her. She immediately left the theater, packed her bags along with husband and child, and returned to Ohio. Victoria fell back into spiritualism and worked as a medium and healer while moving from town to town.

Victoria had a second child seven years after the birth of her son. Zula Maude was born while the family lived in New York. Canning was so inebriated that he botched his daughter’s birth, either due to imprecisely cutting the cord or tying it off poorly, which nearly caused her to bleed to death. She had to rely on the kindness of a neighbor for help since she was abandoned yet again by her husband while recovering from childbirth. This was the last straw. Victoria no longer felt she could stay with her husband and left. Victoria continued to work as a medium, which led her to St. Louis, Missouri. There Victoria met Colonel James Harvey Blood when he sought Victoria’s healing expertise. When she met Col. Blood, she immediately had a vision. While in a trance, the spirits told her their “futures were linked” and they were now betrothed to each other. Blood, still married at the time, had to divorce his current wife first. Victoria filed for divorce and in an age where divorce was extremely rare, she won.

Blood was a radical who was quite an influence on Victoria. One of the radical ideas they both agreed upon was free love. Free love in the 19th century was not about sex, per se, but about marriage. Free love advocates wanted to keep the government out of the bedroom and many thought of marriage as a type of slavery. No law or societal rule should tell someone with whom, when or how often to love. A relationship was private, extremely unusual thinking at the time. It’s thought that Blood and Victoria divorced a year later (although their marital paperwork was incomplete and never filed, so they were most likely not ever legally married anyway) so they could base their relationship on free love.

To be continued later this week. Victoria set up a brokerage and a newspaper in New York then sets her sights on the presidency.

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