Tight corsets cause nymphomania, orgasms can kill and wasps are a turn-on. John Naish looks at the top sex tips over the ages

Mating. Reproduction. Nothing is more crucial to humanity’s survival, so it would be logical to expect us to have got it sussed early in our evolution. But since the start of civilisation, the fundamentals of human sex — where to put it, how and when — have been absurdly confused by a parade of moralists, pundits and visionaries all claiming to know the magic secrets and only too happy to pass them on at a very reasonable price.

Just as every generation thinks that it invented sex, we also think we invented lovemaking manuals, or at least based them on a few prototypes such as the Kamasutra and Marie Stopes’s 1918 Married Love. But today’s maelstrom of books, videos and DVDs has a far richer, more twisted heritage than that.

The tradition of bestselling love guides goes back to the Ancient Chinese. Our earliest known manuals were first written in 300BC and buried in a family tomb at Mawangdui, in Hunan province. Recent translation reveals the timeless nature of the subjects they tackled.

Written as Cosmo coverlines, they would look like this: Four Seasons of Sex — and Why Autumn is Hot, Hot, Hot; Wild New Positions; Tiger Roving, Gibbon Grabbing and Fish Gobbling; Aphrodisiacs to Keep You Up All Night!Plus Exclusive! Your Love Route to Immortality.

As ever, it was all nonsense: home-made Viagra recipes involved ingredients such as beetle larvae, wasps and dried snails. The books also promised that any man who had sex with a different virgin every night for 100 nights without ejaculating would live for ever (albeit rather uncomfortably).

These odd beginnings set a trend: weird tips from strange authors, many of whom became manual martyrs. Ovid, the Roman poet, advised women on the best positions to suit their bodies in his poem Ars Amatoria. For example: “If you are short, go on top/If you’re conspicuously tall, kneel with your head turned slightly sideways.” The prudish Emperor Augustus banished poor Ovid to a chilly outpost of empire (a small town on the Black Sea in modern Romania).

Medieval European sex advice followed the strait-laced trend: most of it said “don’t”. Pleasure paved Hell’s roads and misogynistic manuals such as De Secretis Mulierum (The Secrets of Women) claimed that females used sex to drain men of their power and that some hid sharp shards of iron inside themselves to injure innocent lovers.

A technological breakthrough in the Renaissance put us back on our lascivious tracks. The printing press enabled publishers to churn out dodgy books faster than the Church authorities could ban them. Readers were treated to gems such as Mrs Isabella Cortes’s handy hint from 1561 that a mixture of quail testicles, large-winged ants, musk and amber was perfect for straightening bent penises. The era also brought us the earliest recorded recommendation of slippers as a sex aid (“Cold feet are a powerful hindrance to coition,” warned Giovanni Sinibaldi in his 1658 book Rare Verities.) But to find history’s oddest advisers, we must look to the Victorians and Edwardians. William Chidley, for example, believed that he could best promote his ideas by walking around in a toga. Chidley, an Australian, advised readers in his 1911 pamphlet The Answer that heavy clothing caused erections, which would lead to sexual overexcitement, illness and death, as well as being “ugly things” of which “we are all ashamed”.

He urged people to live on fruit and nuts and to practise a method of flaccid intercourse apparently based on horses’ sex lives. Yet it wasn’t his ideas that got him repeatedly arrested, but his silk toga, which the authorities thought indecent. After his death, supporters continued propounding his theories into the 1920s.

For the ultimate proof that you don’t need relevant qualifications to become a world expert, we turn to Marie Stopes. She was married and in her late thirties when she wrote one of Britain’s most enduring sex guides, Married Love. But she was also a virgin.

Stopes was inspired by her betrothal to Reginald “Ruggles” Gates, who, she told a divorce court, had failed ever to become “effectively rigid”. When Married Love hit the shelves early in 1918 it outsold the bestselling contemporary novels by a huge margin. By 1925, sales had passed the half-million mark.

Stopes was a fan of Hitler’s eugenics and arrogant enough to offer Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw advice on writing. Her main sex-manual innovation was a theory that women have a “sex tide” of passion that ebbs and flows on a fortnightly basis — and woe betide the man who didn’t understand this. In case her second husband, the manufacturing magnate Humphrey Verdon Roe, got it wrong, she made him sign a contract releasing her to have sex with other men.

So that’s our sexual forebears, a weird lot with funny ideas. Compared with them we might appear at the zenith of sexual enlightenment. Our age is remarkable for the sheer volume of sex advice being consumed: one woman in four now owns a sex manual, says a survey by the publishers Dorling Kindersley. Everyone from porn stars to the car-manual firm Haynes has one out. Well, I wonder. In 50 years’ time, I foresee the students at a university faculty of s exual semiotics studying the early Twenty-Ohs with the same mirth, incredulity and horror that shake us when we consider our ancestors’ obsessions. Perhaps they will wonder why we bought so many manuals, videos and DVDs but seemed to have so little time or energy left for sex. Maybe they will link our obsession with orgasms to our endless need to go shopping. They might also connect our avid consumption of sex advice to our growing terror of personal embarrassment and “getting it wrong”. They may even have a name for us; perhaps the erotic neurotics.

Put What Where? Over 2,000 Years of Bizarre Sex Advice, by John Naish (HarperElement £9.99), is available from Times Books First at £9.49 p&p free. Call 0870 1608080 or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Wisdom of the ancients

How to pull
“Pick the woman’s worst feature and then make it appear desirable. Tell an older woman that she looks young. Tell an ugly woman that she looks ‘fascinating’.” Philaenis, papyrus sex manual (2BC)

Go blondes!
“All women are lascivious but auburn blondes the most. A little straight forehead denotes an unbridled appetite in lust.” Giovanni Sinibaldi, Rare Verities: the Cabinet of Venus Unlock’d (1658)

Buns and corsets cause nymphomania
“Constricting the waist by corsets prevents the return of blood to the heart, overloads sexual organs and causes unnatural excitement of the sexual system. The majority of women follow the goddess Fashion and so also wear their hair in a heavy knot. This great pressure on their small brains produces great heat and chronic inflammation of their sexual organs. It is almost impossible that such women should lead other than a life of sexual excess.” Dr John Cowan, The Science of a New Life (1888)

On the other hand . . .
“The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind.” Dr William Acton, Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1858)

Indian enlargement
“Rub your penis with the bristles of certain insects that live in trees, and then, after rubbing it for ten nights with oils, rub it with the bristles as before. Swelling will be gradually produced. Then lie on a hammock with a hole in it and hang the penis through the hole. Take away the pain from the swelling by using cool concoctions. The swelling lasts for life.” Kamasutra, translated by Sir Richard Burton and F. F. “Bunny” Arbuthnot (1883)

Climaxes can kill
“Fainting, vomiting, involuntary urination, epilepsy and defecation have occurred in young men after first coitus. Lesions of various organs have taken place. In men of mature age the arteries have been unable to resist the high blood pressure and cerebral haemorrhage with paralysis has occurred. In elderly men the excitement of intercourse with young wives or prostitutes has caused death.” Havelock Ellis, Psychology of Sex: a Manual for Students (1933)

How often?
“The ordinary man can safely indulge about four times a month. More than that would be excess for a large majority of civilised men and women.” Lyman B. Sperry, Confidential Talks with Husband and Wife: a Book of Information and Advice for the Married and Marriageable (1900)

Single-handed signs
“Look at the habitual masturbator! See how thin, pale and haggard he appears; how his eyes are sunken; how long and cadaverous is his cast of countenance; how irritable he is and how sluggish, mentally and physically; how afraid he is to meet the eye of his fellow, feel his damp and chilling hand, so characteristic of great vital exhaustion.” Dr Henry Guernsey, Plain Talks on Avoided Subjects (1882)

Never marry these women
“Redheads. Any girl named after a mountain, a tree, a river or a bird. Ones with rough hands or feet. Ones who sigh, laugh or cry at meals. Any girl with inverted nipples, a beard, uneven breasts, flap ears, spindle legs or who is scrawny. Girls whose big toes are disproportionately small. Girls who make the ground shake when they walk past.” Koka Shastra, The Indian Scripture of Koka (12th century)

And, if you can’t find it, don’t worry
“The clitoris, while important, is not nearly as important as many of us have been taught or led to believe.” Edward Podolsky, Sex Technique for Husband and Wife (1947)

But whatever you do ...
“Never fool around sexually with a vacuum cleaner.” Dr Alex Comfort, The Joy of Sex (1972)