E.B. White’s Romance Tips From The 1920s Are Awfully Similar To Today’s Sex Advice

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Is Sex Necessary?, a peculiar book written in the 1920s by E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web) and James Thurber (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and myriad New Yorker cartoons), defines love as a “pleasant confusion which we know exists.” Loving someone, then, is analogous with confusing them.

Described by its publisher as “a masterpiece of drollery,” the book is full of perplexing aphorisms, witty rants, facetious case studies and advice about how to survive a romantic encounter. The best part, though, is that although it was written in 1929, it reads like a work of modern-day snark. Below are a few of White and Thurber’s thoughts on dating, as relevant now as ever. 

 

Monogamy is tough to find.

In a widely shared article titled “The Real Reason Women Freeze Their Eggs,” Jillian Dunham wrote about a visit to a fertility doctor. The doctor, stunned by the increasing number of eligible bachelorettes coming to see him, remarked, “There’s something wrong with the men in your generation. They won’t grow up.” It’s a succinct thesis to a great article, but according to the authors of Is Sex Necessary?, unwillingness to commit is nothing new. The pair cheekily remark:

In order to contemplate marriage, it was necessary for a man to decide on One Particular Woman. This he found next to impossible, for the reason that he has unconsciously set up so many mental barriers and hazards.

 Such barriers include a refusal to date a potential SO who regularly commits heinous grammar crimes, a conviction that there’s always something better around the corner and the wayward notion that women are mystical beings rather than humans.

 

But #NotAllMen are scumbags.

Although Thurber and White might as well be telling female readers to abandon all hope and take up spinsterhood (heaven forbid!), they assert that men, too, can be feminists.

“Isn’t that just like a man?” is an all-too-glib and common expression. It implies that one can virtually ascribe to all men the simple reactions which, in a number of men, inexpertly observed, have proved likely to take place. (The italics are mine.)

 Self-deprecating but still asserting the value of their own emotional lives, the authors imply that our tendency to idealize the inner lives of women, ignoring the inner lives of men, contributes to the problem of female fetishization. 

 

Sex isn’t everything.

A few studies published this year showed that Millenials have fewer sexual partners than people in earlier generations — and might even be happier for it. And, those who are coupled up are slightly happier and more desirous of each other when they have sex less frequently. That said, libido is a spectrum, and no two people are the same, as White and Thurber wryly wrote in 1929.

Sex is by no means everything. It varies, as a matter of fact, from only as high as 78 percent of everything to as low as 3.10 percent. The norm, in any sane, healthy person, should be between 18 and 24 percent. In these hectic days, however, it is not unusual to hear even intelligent persons say, or imply, that sex is everything. 

They snarkily allude to the importance of similar attachment styles (the claustrophobia-prone and the stage-five clingers), exaggerating and therefore ridiculing the gender stereotypes we assign to them. In other words, if you need a lot of space, you should find a partner who does, too. 

 

Marriage is a weird institution.

The authors frame marriage as a viable option for many couples that should be thought of as functional rather than dream-fulfilling. They joke:

Marriage, as an instrument, is a well-nigh perfect thing. The trouble is that it cannot be successfully applied to the present-day emotional relationships of men and women. It could much more easily be applied to something else, probably professional tennis.

 

So it may be better to just focus on your career for a while.

People are getting married later than ever, especially in states with big cities. Overall, this could be good thing — statistically speaking, people who get married between the ages of 25 and 32 tend to stay married longer. New Yorkers get married later than residents of any other state, if at all. City-dwellers are much more likely to enjoy attachment-free sex, so as to funnel their energies into a successful work life, a trend White and Thurber good-humoredly acknowledge.

New York became the capital of the sexual revolution. It was conveniently located, had a magnificent harbor, a high mortality rate, and some of the queerest-shaped apartments to be found anywhere. There are apartments in New York in which one must step across an open bathtub in going from the kitchen to the bedroom; any unusual layout like that arouses sexual desire and brings people pouring into New York from other cities.


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