Sex ‘efficiency’: 1930s exercises for women
Sex efficiency through exercises: special physical culture for women is a book written by Theodore van de Velde, and published by the noted publishers W. Heinemann in 1933. It was donated to the RCP heritage library in late 2019 and has recently been catalogued and formally added to the collection.
The book describes a range of gymnastic exercises similar to modern yoga or pilates. It advises women to practise these exercises to gain strength and control in their abdominal and pelvic muscles, in order to enable them to participate more actively in sexual intercourse, to improve their gynaecological health, and to assist with childbirth and recovery from labour.
The word ‘efficiency’ in the title is used in a now-archaic sense to mean ‘power to accomplish something’, rather than the common modern sense of ‘achieving maximum effect for minimum effort’.
In the author’s own words, the book is intended to improve both health and enjoyment. He is scathing about the information otherwise available to women, and in their ability to participate in sex or childbirth without his advice:
‘[This book] aims at providing a guide for women and those who help them […] in the full evolution and utilisation of the feminine sexual capacities and faculties. These capacities and faculties are generally quite inadequate in practice; they should include both appropriately active participation in the act of sexual congress and appropriate voluntary muscular action which assists the act of birth. At present, women generally suffer both of these great genital experiences passively and to their great disadvantage, they do not know how to regulate and modulate by sharing them; for to do so requires a muscular mastery and harmony which is very rare. So this mastery and harmony of muscular action must be taught to women … These exercises are means to an end. And this end and aim is the recognition of the dignity and value of sex, its value mentally and emotionally as well as physically. … I hope that this book will give women the key to complete erotic satisfaction.’
This outright acknowledgement and encouragement of women’s active engagement with, and enjoyment of, sex might come as a surprise given the era in which it was published. Van de Velde is clear that women shouldn’t simply ‘lie back and think of England’, but he’s also clear that the sexual activity would all be taking place in the context of heterosexual marriage couples.
Aside from the subject matter, the most distinctive feature of this book is the inclusion of the ‘480 cinematographic illustrations’, as advertised on the title page. These take the form of a separate section of flipbook-style images after the end of the main text. There are twelve flipbooks of forty frames, each showing a short film of a woman performing one of the exercises described in the text. The woman is performing on the shores of a lake, with mountains in the background, or sometimes in a studio in front of a dark curtain. She wears a leotard, a bra and knickers, or – for those exercises filmed from behind – nothing at all. As the viewer flicks through the pages of the film, the model springs to life and demonstrates the moves required for the exercise. We have re-animated two of these films to give you a flavour of the book.
This example is film number 1: ‘leg rotation in hands-and-knees attitude’. If performed carefully, with particularly attention to the circular motion of the leg, van de Velde assures that it will ‘give control of pelvic movement, and increase its range’. The aim should be to develop and strengthen the muscles whilst retaining their flexibility, without creating an ‘excessive solidity of muscle’ which would hinder childbirth.
Film 7 – ‘forward pelvic motion while walking’ – requires the pelvis to move in a complete circular motion while transferring weight from the right left to the left leg and back again. Van de Velde warns that the exercises aren’t easy to learn or carry out. Beginners are instructed just to try three exercises at first, and not to rush headlong into more than that. Breathing and relaxation exercises are also to be included as part of the practice.
Theodore van de Velde (1873–1937) was a Dutch obstetrician and gynaecologist who in retirement wrote several successful books about sex and marriage for the general public. Van de Velde studied medicine in Leiden and Amsterdam and became head of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at the St Elisabeth Hospital, Haarlem. Later he retired to the Swiss town of Minusio, on the shore of Lake Maggiore on the Italian border and took up writing.
Van de Velde’s most famous and successful book was Ideal marriage (originally published in Dutch in 1926 as Het volkomen huwelijk). That was the first in a trilogy of books about sex and marriage, the following two titles being Sex hostility in marriage (1931) and Fertility and sterility in marriage (1931). Ideal marriage was primarily addressed to men, but Sex efficiency through exercises (1933) was a book directed squarely at women.
The woman performing the various exercises for the camera is not explicitly credited in the book. However, van de Velde acknowledges that his system of exercises was devised ‘in consultation and co-operation with the gymnastic instructress, Mrs Lisa Mar, of Baden Baden’ and he thanks her for her help ‘which was as efficient as it was indefatigable.’ He described Mar as ‘as talented a lecturer as she is an able gymnast’.
Lisa Mar was herself the author of a great number of health and fitness books for women in German, with titles such as Körperschönheit trotz Mutterschaft (‘Physical beauty despite motherhood’) and Hausarbeit als Gymnastik (‘Housework as gymnastics’). The illustrative photographs in some of these books, such as Gesundheitsgymnastik für Mädchen und Frauen (‘Health gymnastics for women and girls’) are extremely similar, if not identical, to those in van de Velde’s Sex efficiency through exercises, and it would seem that Mar herself was the model pictured in them all.
Van de Velde’s Ideal marriage was a huge success, appearing in many editions and translated into several languages. Sex efficiency through exercises didn’t reach the same heights, and appears to have been issued in just one English edition. This copy was given to the RCP library in 2019 as part of a small donation of early 20th century medical books.
Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian
We accept donations to the RCP archives, heritage library and museum according to our collection development and donations policies. Please contact us if you would like to offer anything to add to our collections.