Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century
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 Historically, it appeared that the licentious behavior and attitudes of the Regency period had been replaced by a new order of puritan control and repression – personified by the censorious figure of Mrs Grundy – which was imposed by the newly dominant bourgeoisie,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 counseled 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 characterized by the 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.’
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