When Pleasure Was Against the Law: The Life of Pioneer Eroticist Ida Craddock
Did you know, Dear Reader, that if you were writing erotica a hundred years ago, you could be sent to prison for sharing information about female sexual pleasure?
Of course, many still try to denigrate and silence our efforts in the twenty-first century, but we are, at least for the moment, allowed to practice our craft without immediate threat of arrest.
My historical research has introduced me to a woman who helped to make this freedom possible: Ida Craddock, a writer who dedicated her life to educating others about mutually satisfying marital relations. Since February is the month our culture has dedicated to romantic love–or at least lots of candy sales—it seems a fitting time to celebrate Ms. Craddock’s life and work.
Ida Craddock was born in Philadelphia in 1857 and raised in a strict, Christian fundamentalist household. According to her biographer, Vere Chappell, author of Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock, Ms. Craddock rebelled against her upbringing first by advocating for higher education for women and then teaching and writing a textbook on stenography, the one profession in which young women could earn decent pay. In her thirties, she became interested in the occult and theosophy. She also became sexually involved with two men. Both relationships occurred outside of marriage, a very radical act in the late 1880s and early 1890s.
Her first lover was younger man who took the “normal,” male-centered approach to intimate relations. Ms. Craddock might not have found her calling had she married this man. However, her second lover was older and so devoted to female pleasure, he trained himself in the art of delayed ejaculation. This man changed her world forever. Ms. Craddock’s discovery of the joy of sex inspired her to help women whose partners ignored their sensual needs. She felt that the general ignorance of human sexuality led to great pain and suffering and set out to share her knowledge with others. She toured the great cities of the United States giving lectures and produced pamphlets to reach a wider audience, specifically those constrained from attending a public event by modesty.
Ms. Craddock’s work came to my attention when I was researching early twentieth-century sex advice resources that the husband in my novel might consult in order to prepare himself for the defloration of his virgin bride. Being a considerate fellow, he procured a copy of Ms. Craddock’s pamphlet “The Wedding Night,” which provides advice that surely benefits my heroine:
“The very first thing for you to bear in mind is that, inasmuch as Nature has so arranged sex that the man is always ready (as a rule) for intercourse, whereas the woman is not, it is most unwise for the man to precipitate matters by exhibiting desire for genital contact when the woman is not yet aroused. You should remember that that organ of which you are, justly, so proud, is not possessed by a woman, and that she is utterly ignorant of its functions, practically, until she has experienced sexual contact; and that it is, to her who is not desirous of such contact, something of a monstrosity. Even when a woman has already had pleasurable experience of genital contact, she requires each time to be aroused amorously, before that organ, in its state of activity, can become attractive. For a man to exhibit, to even an experienced wife, his organ ready for action when she herself is not amorously aroused, is, as a rule, not sexually attractive to her; on the contrary, it is often sexually repulsive, and at times out and out disgusting to her. Every woman of experience knows that, when she is ready, she can cause the man to become sexually active fast enough.”
There is not one word that rings false to me in this excerpt, although it was written in the 1890s. Granted, each of us has her own sexual preferences, and some women may adore immediate penetration without foreplay and dick pics from men they don’t know (not any with whom I’ve spoken, but it’s a big world out there). Still, there are a lot of men today who could learn a few things from “The Wedding Night.”
Alas, a villain enters our story. A crusading U.S. Postal Inspector named Anthony Comstock decided Ms. Craddock was a menace to society after she publicly defended the belly dance show at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago as an art by which married women could improve their sex lives. Comstock almost single-handedly restricted access to “obscene” information in America beginning with the eponymous laws passed in 1873. The Comstock Laws enabled him to prosecute offenders for sending their products through the mail. “Obscene” material included not just pornography but pamphlets on birth control and sexual advice for married couples.
Comstock brought Ms. Craddock to trial in 1902 for sending copies of “The Wedding Night” through the mail. The judge refused to allow the jury to read the pamphlet upon which they would be passing judgment because it was so offensive to morals. Without leaving the courtroom, the jury—all men of course–found her guilty. She was sentenced to the workhouse, a place that invariably ruined the health of its inmates with its cold, damp quarters and rotten food. Ms. Craddock refused an offer to escape the prison term by pleading insanity. She did not consider herself insane (and knew the madhouse was surely little better than prison).
Instead of serving her sentence, Ida Craddock committed suicide.
Her final note was meant for the public to read: “I am taking my life because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has declared me guilty of a crime I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature. Perhaps it may be that in my death, more than in my life, the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs which permits that unctuous sexual hypocrite Anthony Comstock to wax fat and arrogant and to trample upon the liberties of the people, invading, in my own case, both my right to freedom of religion and to freedom of the press.” In a long note to her mother, she wrote: “I maintain my right to die as I have lived, a free woman, not cowed into silence by any other human being.”
Comstock’s methods of entrapment and shrill dramatics had been privately losing him support for years. After Ms. Craddock’s death, he received a great deal of negative publicity. Biographer Vere Chappell saw this moment as a turning point for Comstock’s influence, although he lived on to torment other sexual progressives like Margaret Sanger. Few mourned his passing in 1915. The Comstock Laws were rescinded after World War I.
In 2018, Ms. Craddock’s goal of educating the public about pleasurable sexual relations has not progressed as much as one would hope. Speaking honestly about our sexual experiences—good and bad and from the perspective of any gender—still deeply threatens those in power. Our work as erotica writers still requires courage.
With that in mind, the next time you sit down to write a steamy story that will inspire and educate readers about this repressed, but vitally important aspect of our humanity, remember Ida Craddock. We walk in her shadow.