Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century

Wilhelm von Gloeden, 'Two Seated Sicilian Youths', about 1900. Museum no. 2815-1952. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Wilhelm von Gloeden, 'Two Seated Sicilian Youths', about 1900. Museum no. 2815-1952. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Male anxieties in relation to both physical and mental health in the Victorian era often seem to have concentrated on the supposedly baleful effects of masturbation, which was alleged to cause a wide range of physical and mental disorders, and on venereal diseases, especially syphilis. This brings us neatly into the subject of Victorian sexuality, which has been a continuing topic of debate and fascination.

According to their own testimonies, many people born in the Victorian age were both factually uninformed and emotionally frigid about sexual matters. Historically, it appeared that the licentious behaviour and attitudes of the Regency period had been replaced by a new order of puritan control and repression - personified by the censorious figure of Mrs Grundy - which was imposed by the newly dominant bourgeoisie, steadily permeated all classes, and lasted well into the 20th century. Then a hypocritical 'shadow side' to this public denial was glimpsed, in the 'secret world' of Victorian prostitution and pornography, and more openly in the 'naughty nineties'. These perspectives were contested by the French scholar Michel Foucault (reminding us that Victorian attitudes were not confined to Britain), who argued that sex was not censored but subject to obsessive discussion as a central discourse of power, bent on regulation rather than suppression. This helps explain why sexuality looms so large in art and medicine, for example, as well as in studies of the Victorian age.

Lately, evidence has shown that Victorian sex was not polarised between female distaste ('Lie back and think of England', as one mother is famously said to have counselled her anxious, newly married daughter) and extra-marital male indulgence. Instead many couples seem to have enjoyed mutual pleasure in what is now seen as a normal, modern manner. The picture is occluded however by the variety of attitudes that exist at any given time, and by individuals' undoubted reticence, so that information on actual experience is often inferred from demographic and divorce court records. Certainly, the 1860s were briefly as 'permissive' as the same decade in the 20th century, while the 1890s saw an explosion of differing and conflicting positions. Throughout, however, the public discussion of sexual matters was characterised by absence of plain speaking, with consequent ignorance, embarrassment and fear.

By mid-century the Victorian conjunction of moralism and scientific investigation produced ideas of orthodox human sexuality based on a combination of social and biological ideas. Popularly expressed, this amounted to 'Hogamus higamus, men are polygamous/Higamus hogamus, women are monogamous', with the added detail that 'the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally.'

Male anti-masturbation device, 1880-1920. © Science Museum, London

Male anti-masturbation device, 1880-1920. © Science Museum, London

In order to curb men's habitual urges, and in response to Malthusian predictions that population increase would inevitably outstrip food resources, early Victorian social moralists proposed and to some extent imposed a socio-medical discourse based on masculine self-control in support of the bourgeois ideal of domestic life. 'A patriarchal culture which prizes eternal self-vigilance as the key to manliness, moral worth and material success' then projected its sexual anxieties on to its subordinates:' women, children, the lower classes and other nations.' In line with the physiological idea of the body as a closed system of energy, male sexual 'expenditure' and especially 'excess' (spermatorrhea) were said to cause enfeeblement. Thus it was seriously held, for example, that sexual appetite was incompatible with mental distinction and that procreation impaired artistic genius. Men were vigorously counselled to conserve vital health by avoiding fornication, masturbation and nocturnal emissions (for which a variety of devices were invented) and by rationing sex within marriage. Even when other causes were present, sickness and debility were frequently ascribed to masturbation - the great erotic subject described as vigorously as it was denounced. 'That insanity arises from masturbation is now beyond a doubt', declared one widely read authority, who also claimed that 'masturbators' became withdrawn, flabby, pale, self-mutilating and consumptive. Ailments afflicting adolescent girls were similarly said to signify abnormal sexual excitation. With punitive therapy in mind, some doctors erased sexual pleasure through barbaric practices such as penile cauterisation and clitorodectomy.

For the same reasons, 'irregular' sexual activity was condemned. There is ample evidence that many working-class couples anticipated marriage (or rather married once a baby was on the way). But the ratio of illegitimate births was relatively low, albeit a constant topic of drama in poetry, painting and fiction - notable examples being the outcast single mothers depicted in paintings by Richard Redgrave and Fred Walker, and in fiction by George Eliot's Hetty Sorrel and Thomas Hardy's Fanny Robin. In real life, social censure was so grave that many single mothers handed their babies to the Foundling Hospital or in desperation committed infanticide.

Changing views of prostitution

Prostitution remained a major topic of social concern. The early, time-honoured view that, like the poor, prostitutes were a fact of life was replaced in the 1840s by a social morality that anathematised sexual licence and especially its public manifestations. Gathering intensity as the urban population rose, and with it the 'circulating harlotry' in the streets, theatres and pleasure gardens, moral panic over prostitution was at its height in the 1850s and early 1860s. In part, this was because it betokened visible female freedom from social control. As daughters, employees or servants, young women were subject to male authority; as whores they enjoyed economic and personal independence. The response was a sustained cultural campaign, in sermons, newspapers, literary and visual art, to intimidate, shame and eventually drive 'fallen women' from the streets by representing them as a depraved and dangerous element in society, doomed to disease and death. Refuges were opened and men like future Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone patrolled at night to persuade girls to leave their life of 'vice'. In actuality, the seldom-voiced truth was that in comparison to other occupations, prostitution was a leisured and profitable trade, by which women improved their circumstances, helped to educate siblings and often saved enough to open a shop or lodging house.

The introduction of the Contagious Diseases Acts whereby prostitute women were medically examined and detained if deemed to suffer from venereal disease (in order to protect their sexual partners, mainly soldiers and sailors) - gave rise to one of the era's most successful and characteristic reform campaigns. The anti-contagious diseases (CD) movement, led by Josephine Butler, argued that CD examinations effectively encouraged prostitution; that women should not be thus scapegoated or deprived of civil liberty; and that male lust was to blame for public vice. These were important issues; in addition, the emergence of 'polite' women speaking on topics hitherto deemed improper for them to discuss underlined the changing roles of the Victorian period.

By the 1870s and 1880s, evolutionary ideas of male sexuality as a biological imperative, which added fuel to many male writings on gender, were countered by those who argued that 'civilisation' enabled humans to transcend animal instincts. This view acquired a public voice through the Social Purity campaign against the sexual 'double standard', and for male as well as female continence outside marriage. Though female Purity campaigners were often ridiculed as 'new puritans' who had failed to attract a spouse, the movement did succeed in raising public concern over brothels, indecent theatrical displays and images of naked women in art - the reason why Victorian female nudes are idealised and air-brushed.

Private sexual behaviour is hard to assess, though there are many hints that 'considerate' husbands, who did not insist on intercourse, were admired, not least because of the high maternal mortality rate. But there is plain evidence that the early Victorian family of six to eight or more children was on its way out by 1901: from the 1870s couples in all classes were choosing to limit and plan family size 'by a variety of methods within a culture of abstinence'. This took place despite the fact that contraceptive knowledge and methods were not publicly available, as the famous obscenity trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh for publishing a sixpenny book on the subject in 1877 made clear.

Family limitation was accompanied by challenges to prevailing attitudes to sexual relations from the New Woman and her male supporters. 'But men are different, Florence; you can't refuse a husband, you might cause him to commit sin', replies one fictional character when daughter argues against 'conjugal rights'. 'Bosh,' retorts Florence, 'he is responsible for his own sins, we are not bound to dry-nurse his morality.' The New Woman was hard on men, it explained, in order to 'banish the beast' in him.

Visible homosexuality

Although heterosexuality was held to be both normal and natural throughout the period, the later years also witnessed a visible increase in homosexuality, mainly in men and especially but not exclusively in the intelligentsia. While largely clandestine owing to laws prohibiting 'indecency' in public (the artist Simeon Solomon was one of those so prosecuted), private male homosexual acts were not explicitly and severely legislated against until 1885, when gay sex behind closed doors was made a criminal offence. This led, most notoriously, to the imprisonment in 1896 of Oscar Wilde, playwright and poseur.

Reasons for the emergence of a distinctly gay subculture within 1890s' Decadence movement include the promotion of 'Greek' or Platonic relationships by some university dons; the extended bachelorhood that resulted from prescriptions of financial prudence and sexual continence; and a counter-cultural defiance of orthodox moral teaching, which gave added allure to the forbidden and deviant. The supremely Decadent drawings of Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) vividly evoke the atmosphere of this moment.

At the very end of the century, questions of sexual identity were also subject to speculative and would-be scientific investigation, dubbed sexology (1902). Writers such as Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) attempted a detailed classification of 'normal' and 'perverse' sexual practices. This led to the identification of a 'third' or 'intermediate' sex, for which Ellis used the term 'sexual inversion'. Writer and social reformer Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), who lived with a younger male partner, adapted the word 'Uranian' (1899) to denote male and female homosexuality, and around the same time, Lesbian and Sapphic came into use as terms for female relationships. Apocryphally, these were also due to be criminalised in the 1885 legislation, until Queen Victoria declared them impossible, whereupon the clause was omitted - a joke that serves to underline a common, and commonly welcomed, ignorance, at a time when lurid, fictionalised lesbianism was often figured as an especially repulsive/seductive French vice.

Today, the best-known lesbian relationship in Victorian Britain has become that of Anne Lister of Shibden in west Yorkshire and her partner, with its distinctly erotic as well as romantic elements. Other couples include poets Katherine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper, who wrote collaboratively from the 1880s under the name Michael Field, and the Irish writers Edith Somerville and Violet Martin. In the Victorian period itself, American actress Charlotte Cushman and French painter Rosa Bonheur were well known for their openly 'masculine' independence and demeanour.

In the fields of gender, health, medicine and sexuality, the Victorians seldom lived up to their stereotypes. As with so many other areas of their ideas and practices, they grappled with complex, dramatically developing fields, always influenced by a wider global view.

Jan Marsh

Jan Marsh is the author of The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (1985) and biographies of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti. She has written widely on gender and society in the 19th century. She is currently a visiting professor at the Humanities Research Centre of the University of Sussex and is working on Victorian representations of ethnicity.

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