An Unlikely Sex Education Pioneer. – maude Skip to content

An unlikely sex education pioneer.

An Unlikely Sex Education Pioneer.

How an affair with an angel led to subversive sex education.

Some people are born educators. Some do it because it makes sense to them as a career path, and some do it because the angels they are having a passionate sexual affair with suggest they do. Well, maybe not ‘some’. One, though: Ida Craddock, a pioneering sex educator who was treated abysmally by a world that would rather sex went undiscussed and ignorance prevailed. 

Craddock was born in Philadelphia in 1857, and grew up as a Quaker. She made a living as a stenography teacher, until her growing interest in the occult sent her down a different path. She was an early American adopter of yoga, and became increasingly interested in the combination of the mystic and the erotic.

At some point around this time, she began claiming that she was in a passionate marriage with an angel called Soph, and that they often had sex so loudly that the neighbors complained. After her mother tried to have her placed in an asylum, she moved to Chicago and began counseling couples in the ‘mystic’ sexual arts. 

1893 saw the Columbian Expo arrive in Chicago, bringing with it a performer named Fahreda Mahzar, who went by the professional name Little Egypt. Her routine drew huge crowds as well as massive controversy—while her act was promoted as a "danse du ventre", or belly dance, it was dismissed in the press as obscene.

This prompted Craddock to begin her writing career, publishing a lengthy article in defense of Little Egypt and her act (while she didn’t mention this in the article, she later claimed to have integrated several of Mahzar’s moves into her sex life with Soph). This unfortunately drew her to the attention of Anthony Comstock, an enthusiastic censor and puritan.

Anthony Comstock was, famously, one of the least fun Americans to ever live. He was convinced that, essentially, the majority of human behavior was against the will of God, and styled himself as a "weeder in God's garden", committed to stop anything and everything. Among the many things he abhorred were swearing, pornography, sex education, contraception education, abortion education and gambling. As far as he was concerned, educating people about their own bodies was a vile abomination, and had to be shut down. He had over 15 tons of books burned, claiming, "Books are feeders for brothels".

In Comstock’s opinion, Craddock’s pamphlet defending Little Egypt was in itself pornography and, as the Post Office’s special agent in charge of maintaining decency, he deemed it unmailable. Nothing he considered obscene, which included educational materials and private letters, was allowed to pass through the mail.

As Craddock’s business grew, she began offering a mail-order service for people who wanted to avoid the awkwardness of visiting in person. She published pamphlets containing what to modern eyes reads as incredibly conservative sex advice. She was against masturbation, contraception and abortion, and thought sex should only take place within a marriage. However, she was very much in favor of such subjects being discussed, and decisions around them being made in an educated manner. She saw her goal as “preventing sexual evils and sufferings”. She wrote, “I need make no plea for the propriety of my subject, but what concerns us all is eminently fit for discussion by all, and too much light cannot be thrown upon it."

In the eyes of Anthony Comstock, any light being thrown upon it was too much light, and he had Craddock arrested. During her trial, jurors were told her publication—Right Marital Living—was so disgusting and lascivious that they couldn’t see it to judge for themselves, and could only hear extracts. She ended up pleading guilty, receiving a suspended sentence. After another few arrests, and a spell in an asylum, Craddock moved to New York, where she immediately began her business again.

Her tracts, including Heavenly Bridegrooms, Psychic Wedlock, Spiritual Joys, Letter To A Prospective Bride and The Wedding Night got her an unlikely fan in the form of Aleister Crowley, cult leader and the self-proclaimed “wickedest man alive”, who said “no Magick library was complete” without at least a copy of Heavenly Bridegrooms. That book begins “It has been my high privilege to have some practical experience as the earthly wife of an angel from the unseen world” and explains how she had to share her story because otherwise people would otherwise assume that, as Miss Ida Craddock, she was a virgin, but once they knew about Soph, her sex advice carried more weight.

Comstock targeted her straight away, and in a sting operation, purchased her book The Wedding Night—a sex manual which, among other things, pushed the idea of foreplay—before having her arrested again. This time, the jury weren’t even shown extracts just assured that the whole thing was unthinkably grotesque and obscene. When released, she was promptly re-arrested under the newly expanded Comstock Act, and took her own life in jail.

Comstock had plenty of blood on his hands, but the amount of damage his laws did is incalculable. Treating contraception and sex education materials as obscene, and forbidding access to them, both directly and indirectly impacted millions of lives for the worse. A recent biography of Comstock had the very apt title The Man Who Hated Women.

Ida Craddock was clearly a deeply unusual individual, but dedicated her life to what she felt was the best way of reducing the suffering she saw in the world. However odd she may have been, she taught people about their bodies and how to take control of them. However you look at it, an eccentric angel-banger is vastly better for the world than a misogynistic book-burner.

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