What were the principle features of Victorian views of sex and
sexuality? Were the Victorians sexual prudes?
For a long period, people have been made to believe that theVictorians were sexual prudes who could resist any sexual temptationat whatever cost. Men are said to have cold marriages since there wasno emotional connection between the married parties on sexualmatters. The Victorians comprise of the people who lived in theUnited Kingdom in the reign of Queen Victorian between the years 1837and 1901 (Miller, 2007). The Victorians viewed sex sexuality asimmoral and it is even evident that today there are concepts such asthe Victorian morality, which is used to mean sexual restraint andextremely strict social codes of conduct. The topic on the Victoriansexuality has been a critical subject of debate over the years.Whereas the Victorians have been regarded as people who were sexuallyrepressive, there are accusations that pornography and prostitutionwere rife during his period. In addition, it is also argue that therepressiveness and the resistance for sexual urge could have beenfabricated. This is for the sole and adequate reason that theVictorians continued to bear children, which is as a result of sexualinteraction (Oulton, 2007).
The views that the Victorians had in regard to sex and sexualitywere based on the fact they had no factual information regarding sexand their emotional states were frigid in regard to sex andsexuality. During the Victorian era, sexual matters were neverdiscussed in public loudly. The topic on sex and sexuality was viewedas very private and secretive. People in the Victorian era manifesttotal ignorance on matters sexuality and would feel extremelyembarrassed or fearful while speaking on sex and sexuality (Oulton,2007). Whereas the Victorians confess that they were suppressed bothphysically and emotionally related to sex and sexuality, readers andcritics have argued that this was as a result of control rather thansuppression.
The Victorians were divided in terms of gender on the matters of sexand sexuality. Women were regarded as having no sexual feelings whilemen’s sexual feelings and urge were seen as habitual (Porter andHall, 1995). The Victorians did not want the sexual feeling and urgein men to be the source of population increase, which was believed tomore than what the food supply would support. The Victoriansassociated sex and sexuality to artistic genius. The Victorians heldthat procreation would impaired rational thinking and that it wasvital that sexual acts be avoided in order to enhance artistic geniusamongst the people. Men were advised to avoid any sexual acts such asfornication or masturbation. It was argued that by men suppressingtheir sexual urge, they would have conserved vital energy for mentalhealth (Oulton, 2007).
Sexual excitation and pleasure was also associated with ailments bythe Victorians. Whereas some ailments could be associated with otherdifferent causes, the Victorians chose to ascribe some ailments tothe sexual act of masturbation. It also apparent that the Victoriansassociated body weaknesses or what is referred as debility tomasturbation. To the common person, it is a fact that debility iscaused by old age and other causes. In addition, the Victorians’view on sex and sexuality asserted that ailments affecting youngadolescent girls were associated or were as a result of abnormalsexual urges or excitations. As a consequence of these beliefs,medics during the Victorian era resorted to what has been regarded asbarbaric practices, in a bid to contain or control the sexualpleasures, urges or excitations (Oulton, 2007). Such barbaricpractices included clitorodectomy and penile cauterization.
There is ample evidence from research that irregular and unnecessarysexual acts were largely condemned in the Victorian era. There wereextremely few children who were born out of wedlock. A majority ofthe couples in that era were married when they learn there was achild on the way or else the lady was expectant. The topic ofsexuality was so socially censored that single mothers were almostnon-existent. Research indicate that there were numerous cases ofinfanticide committed by single mothers who could not withstand therebuke and condemnation from the authorities (Miller, 2007). Duringthat era, single mothers would hand over their children to thefounding hospital rather than rear the child. The Victorians alsobelieved that sex should be the rationale for marriage and that itshould be avoided in order to enhance artistic genius especiallyamongst the men.
During the Victorian era, prostitution was ridiculed and wasdeclared as an evil act that is out to destroy and kill the society.Women of the Victorian era was by large controlled by men. However,prostitution was seen as a way through which women would emancipatethemselves from the social control by men (Gay, 1984). Prostituteswere regarded as having social and financial independence. Historiansand researchers point out that prostitution is a fact in any society,just as poverty is. However, in this Victorian society, prostitutionwas never allowed since it was regarded as public display of sexualbehavior, which was almost like a taboo in the era (Foucault, 1990).The issue of prostitution was seen as a major social problem in theVictorian era. The issue of prostitution was argued to be as a resultof sexual lust and desire by men who would be served by theprostitutes. It is critical to remember that women were seen ashaving no sexual urges or desires in the Victorian era.
The issue of prostitution in the Victorian era led to numerouscampaigns in sermons and newspapers, which were aimed at driving theprostitute girls out of the streets. The prostitutes were referred toas the fallen women and they were rebuked and ashamed for theiractions. The “fallen women” were declared as a danger to thesociety and the campaigns were aimed at driving all the prostitutesout of the street (Gay, 1984). It is evident that there were effortseven by people going around the streets at night to convince theprostitute girls to leave the streets. One such person was futurePrime Minister W. E. Gladstone. Prostitution was regarded as a vicethat was a critical social problem. It is imperative to point outthat there were even campaigns carried out where prostitute womenwere medically tested for venereal diseases. This was aimed atprotecting the sexual partners who slept with the prostitute girls.These medical tests on prostitute girls were carried out after theintroduction of the Contagious Diseases Act. This is a clearindication of the features that were apparent amongst the Victoriansin regard to sex and sexuality. There were immense measures by thestate and by the people, to maintain the characteristic sexualmorality amongst the Victorians (Miller, 2007).
When acknowledging the fact that private sexual affair is a hardthing to evaluate, it is clear from evidence that the Victorians wereless involved in sexual behaviors. Prior to the Victorian era, a vastmajority of families in the region were defined by the six or morechildren. This was an indication of a sexually active society whichbrought forth the children. However, the number of children perfamily had decreased drastically in the beginning of the 19thcentury (Porter and Hall, 1995). This can only be interpreted as areduction of sexual activity in a society that abhorred sexuality. Asresearch would evidently indicate, there were few or no other birthcontrol methods that were available at the moment and the smallnumber of children were only attributed to reduced sexual activity(Foucault, 1990). A vast majority of the couples were said to bepracticing sexual abstinence. Single women were also cautious withsexual activities since they never wanted to get children out ofmarriage.
Homosexuality in the Victorian era was not eminent untilthe later years nearing the 19th century. It is criticalto point out that there were legislations in place before 1885 thatwere against homosexuality. This saw an increase in gay relationshipsin the 1980s. Throughout the Victorian era, heterosexuality wasregarded as the normal and the naturally acceptable for of sexualorientation. The increase in homosexuality attracted a legislation in1885 that criminalized gay activities even in crossed doors (Miller,2007). Gay practices were being practiced in crossed doors prior tothe 1885 legislation prohibiting them. It is imperative to note thatany form of public display of sexual behavior was unheard of in theentire Victorian era. Therefore, whether gay relationships wereapproved or disapproved prior to the 1885 legislation served littleto change social censorship of sexuality. Any person who was accusedof a gay sexual relationship was subject to a criminal activity. Forinstance, Oscar Wilde, playwright and poseur, was arrested and jailedfor practicing gay sexual relationship in crossed doors in 1896.Lesbianism was also abhorred in the Victorian era.
During the Victorian era, sex and sexuality were critical factorsthat were said to determine the identity of individuals, theirpotentiality, freedom, as well as political and social standings. Thesociety in the Victorian era viewed sex and sexuality as a source ofpower. The society was polarized sexually with each sexualorientation being viewed as having specific instincts (Marcus, 2009).Since heterosexuals were regarded as the right people naturally, anyother form of sexual orientation such as masturbators, homosexualsand prostitutes were regarded as a main threat to the social order,heterosexual reproduction and morality.
Masturbation in the Victorian era was also abhorred just asprostitution and homosexuality was ridiculed. This vice wasespecially common amongst children and was said to be a growingmodern sexualization. There were numerous campaigns against this formof sexuality amongst the children. There were alerts issued toparents, doctors and other caregivers to monitor their children’ssex behaviors. Any child caught masturbating was to be subjected totough punitive measures (Foucault, 1990). There were ridiculousmethods that were developed to control and detect children who wouldmasturbate. Anti-masturbation devices were developed such as thenineteenth century device that would detect electric shocks from anerected penis in children during sleep. Any form of sexuality thatwas not in line with heterosexuality was viewed as a threat tomorality and reproduction.
Were the Victorians sexual prudes?
Sexuality amongst the Victorians has been a controversial topic overthe decades. It is almost impossible to believe that the Victorianswould repress their sexual urges. It is clear from the various factsand events in the era that the Victorians that they were not sexualprudes. The Victorians were sexually active just like other people.The period prior to the Victorian era was characterized by highpopulation growth and increased sexual activities (Gay, 1984). It wastherefore an impossibility to assume that the same populace wouldhave changed their sexual behaviors all over sudden and become shy insexual matters.
Critics suggest that the sexual repressiveness amongst theVictorians was as result of rules and laws prohibiting public displayof sexual behaviors and was not a personal choice. The increase ofprostitution in the 1850s and the 1860s was a clear indication thatthe Victorians were extremely sexually active (Foucault, 1990). Thenotion that the Victorian women had no sexual desires and urges was alie and it is ridiculous. The numerous prostitutes in the streets ofLondon in the 1850-1860s indicated the sexual desires that women had.The Lancet medical journal asserts that there were approximately80,000 prostitutes in London by 1887 against a population of 2.3million people (Miller, 2007). This is a clear indication that theVictorians were never sexual prudes. There is sufficient evidencealso that single women would get children but would commitinfanticide due to the fear of criticism and ridicule from theauthorities. This is an indication that these women were sexuallyactive and could not shy away from sexual matters.
There is also enough evidence indicating that the Victoriansfamilies had more than six children in a vast majority of thefamilies. This is a clear reflection of the numerous sexualactivities that were going on in the society. It has largely beensuggested that the Victorians were hypocritical on their sexualityand that their sexual urges were more or less similar to those of theother common people (Marcus, 2009). The Victorians viewed sexualactivities as a social immorality. There was a social belief that itwas morally wrong even to discuss sexual matters in public. As itcame to be realized in the years approaching the 19thcentury, sexual activities were rampant amongst the Victorians thatthey even explored different forms of sex such as gay sexrelationships. Laws and legislations had to be devised to controlpublic display of these sexual behaviors (Foucault, 1990). It isclear that were it not for the legislations, the Victorians werenever sexually prude. It can be seen that Victorians were exhibitingrefraction from sexual matters while in a group, but were sexuallyindustrious at individual levels.
It is therefore clearly evident that the Victorians were sexuallyactive and were just using the Victorian morality as way ofpresenting their society as moral to the rest of the world. Sexualpleasure and sexual urges are a universal feeling to every personregardless of region or race. Although, there were reduction in thenumber of children amongst the people in the Victorian era, thiscannot be solely attributed to reduction in sexual activities. Othermethods of birth control were starting to manifest themselves andalso child mortality was eminent.
Miller, Andrew H. 2007. Sexualities in Victorian Britain.Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press
Foucault, Michel. 1990. The history of sexuality. Volume 1, Volume1. New York
Oulton, Carolyn. 2007. Romantic friendship in Victorianliterature. Aldershot, England: Ashgate
Marcus, Steven. 2009. The other Victorians: a study of sexualityand pornography in mid- nineteenth-century England. New Brunswick[N.J.]: Transaction Publishers
Gay, P. 1984.The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud, Vol.1,Education of the Senses. New York and Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress. http://www.une.edu.au/ereserve/?biblioID=R21794Porter,R and Hall, L. 1995. The Facts of Life: The creation of sexualknowledge in Britain 1650-1950. New Haven and London: YaleUniversity Press Chapter 6. `The Victorian Polyphony, 1850-85`http://www.une.edu.au/ereserve/?biblioID=R14314