The 19th Century Sexual Adviser: How Often Should You Have Sex?

1867 Advice On How Often and When You Should Have Sex According to a Prominent New York Doctor

In Woody Allen’s masterpiece Annie Hall (1977), there is a split screen scene in which Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) and Woody Allen (Alvy Singer) are each separately talking to their respective therapists. The questions and answers overlap one another setting up the following exchange.

Alvy’s Therapist: How often do you sleep together?

Annie’s Therapist: Do you have sex often?

Alvy Singer: Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.

Annie Hall: Constantly. I’d say three times a week.

Too much or too little sex is really in the mind of the beholder.

Dr RT TrallSo what did one leading 19th century doctor feel was the right amount of sex? Apparently very little according to a book entitled Sexual Physiology A Scientific and Popular Exposition of the Fundamental Problems in Sociology by Russell Thacher Trall M.D,  published by Miller, Wood and Co. 1867, .

Doctor Trall (1812-1877), the author of the book, was a man well ahead of his time in many aspects, not so much in others; in 1853 he wrote a 118 page diatribe on the dangers of the “disease of masturbation,” which is a hoot to read. Trall who was religious but not a fanatic, maintained that drugs harmed the body; was a proponent of vegetarianism; vehement in his opposition to tobacco and alcohol; and in 1852 founded New York Hygieo-Therapeutic College, the first medical school to admit women on equal terms with men. In his Sexual Physiology book, Dr. Trall is quite frank about many topics; explaining the facts of life; divulging how the sexual organs work; and  he even includes a very forward thinking chapter regarding women’s sexual rights.

What caught my attention was the chapter on sexual intercourse. Dr. Trall writes with an almost shocked tone that he knows of people who have “indulged in sexual intercourse as often as once in twenty-four hours, and some who have indulged still oftener. ”

Frequency of Sexual Intercourse

For those who live riotously ; who are constantly goading their sexual passions into abnormal intensity by means of gross food, stimulating viands, and obscene associations, no better rule can be given than the less indulgence the better.

sexual physiology trallThe majority of young persons unite in matrimony with no education whatever on this subject; and habits, right or wrong, are soon formed which are apt to be continued through life. I have had patients who had for years indulged in sexual intercourse as often as once in twenty-four hours, and some who have indulged still oftener. Of course the result was premature decay, and often permanent invalidism. It was not because these persons were inordinately sensual, or unusually developed in the cerebellum, that they damaged themselves in this way. It was simply because they knew no better. Many a man who would have been a good husband if he had only known how, and who would not for his life, much less for the momentary pleasure it afforded, have endangered the health, or hazarded the happiness of a well beloved wife, has destroyed her health, happiness and life (some men several wives successively) by excessive sexual indulgence.

So with that introduction you should not be surprised by Dr. Trall’s opinion regarding the proper amount of sex for a married couple, which he finally gets to:

…The frequency with which sexual intercourse can be indulged without serious damage to one or both parties, depends, of course, on a variety of circumstances — constitutional stamina, temperament, habits of exercise, occupation, etc. I am of the opinion that few can exceed the limit of once a week without serious detriment to health and a premature old age ; while many can not safely indulge oftener than once a month. But as temperance is always the safer rule of conduct, if there must be any deviation from the strictest law of physiology, let the error be on that side.

Finally, Dr. Trall has specific advice on when you should engage in sex:

…Sexual intercourse should never, under any circumstances, be indulged when either party is in a condition of great mental excitement or depression, nor when in a condition of great bodily fatigue, nor soon after a full meal, nor when tho mind is intensely preoccupied ; but always when the whole system is in its best condition, and most free from all disturbing influences.

Time for Sexual Intercourse. — The time chosen is usually when darkness reigns over the earth, as though the act was one to be ashamed of (which is true in too many cases), and the part of the night the evening, when, generally, both parties are in their worst bodily and mental conditions. A hard day’s work, an indigestible supper, and sexual intercourse, afford the rationale of a multitude of diseases and infirmities on the part of parents, and of deformities, eccentricities and monstrosities innumerable on the part of offspring.

…the sexual embrace should be had in the light of day. It is only then that the magnetic forces and the nervous system are in their highest condition of functional activity, and the body, refreshed by sleep, in its most vigorous condition. But it should not be the hurried act of the early morning, like a hasty meal before a day’s work. It is better that it should never be indulged, either early in the morning or late in the evening, but that the time be selected and appropriated for the purpose.

…Indeed, it is impossible to name any function for the proper performance of which more elaborate preparation should be made. Yet it is almost the only one for which no preparation is usually made. Surely, if sexual intercourse is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well.

While Dr. Trall’s recommended frequency of sex might seem off base today, his final point in the chapter is still right on.

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