Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century

Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century

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 Historically, it appeared that the licentious behavior and attitudes of the Regency period had been replaced by a new order of puritan control and repression – personified by the censorious figure of Mrs Grundy – which was imposed by the newly dominant bourgeoisie,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

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 counseled 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 cauterization and clitoridectomy.

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