We are continuing our romp through the ages with sex in Victorian times!
Throughout the month of April I’ve wanted to look at how sex was seen at different periods in history, so that we could figure out how we got where we are now–and so that we could see that our views of sex can be heavily influenced by our culture.
I do want to say that “Victorian” is perhaps an unfair word. From what I know about Queen Victoria, she certainly really loved her Albert, and they had a ton of kids. So I don’t think she was nearly as uptight as she seems to be, given that we named an uptight era after her. I think she just simply happened to live an awfully long time, so she was in the unfortunate position that all cultural change, good or bad, was named after her.
I asked Connor to take a look at the history books and come up with ten interesting tidbits about the Victorians, and here you go!
(Again, this is totally not exhaustive, and there’s so much more we could say about different church movements and how that affected their own subculture’s view of sex. But we’ll keep that as general as possible!)
1. There were some funny and strange superstitions about sex and pregnancy
For example, if you had sex on stairs, you baby would be born with a crooked back. Or if you were not really present or invested in the sexual encounter that led to conception, your child would be ugly and spiritless. Oh, and not to mention, the child’s gender would match whoever had the better orgasm during sex.
2. Legitimate rape couldn’t get you pregnant
This outlandish belief was more toxic. The medical theory was that the cervix was way to tight for anything to get through, unless it was actually desiring and thus used uterine suction to gather up the semen. This led to many a female victim of sexual assault being accused of impropriety or adultery, or just being ignored. Because if they got pregnant, they must have been a willing participant.
“The mouth of the uterus, be it known, is very narrow, so narrow in fact, that the fecundating principle would not enter it, but that it craves it, and inhales it by real suction — a proof, by the way, that a rape can never be productive of real offspring” (Eugene Becklard. Becklard’s Physiology. 1845).
3. Feeling horny? Try being corny
It was believed that another effective way to combat sexual desire was to stick to bland foods, avoiding anything that excited the senses or that might warm one’s nethers with tantalizing spices. John Harvey Kellogg, was partially inspired by this theory to advocate for a blander American diet, including his famous breakfast cereal, Cornflakes.
4. Masturbation was mostly just a concern for the guys.
In this era, many teachers, scholars, and writers seriously downplayed the role of female sexuality, creating a culture in which women were not assumed to really have a sex drive. One of the most prominent authors of the time on the topic of sexual education claimed that females had a “low, almost nonexistent sex drive, so only truly deranged females would succumb to the temptations of masturbation” (Henry Hanchett. Sexual Health: A Plain and Practical Guide for the People on All Matters Concerning the Organs of Reproduction in Both Sexes and All Ages. 1889).
5. Women became the gatekeepers of sex
We can really see in the Victorian era, this idea that men were going to want sex all the time. But lest society and marriage fall to sexual depravity, women needed to be the gatekeepers, since they themselves were practically asexual (It was commonly believed that a woman’s only desire from sex came from the desire to be a mother). If women were flirtatious, they might send men into the arms of prostitutes for relief, contributing to the spread of disease.
Even within marriage, women were often given advice such as Ruth Smythers’: “GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.”
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6. Women trained in avoiding sex with their husbands, or to at the very least make it as sad and unfulfilling as possible
Women were advised to escape sexual advances from their husbands by faking illness and headaches, and to always do it in the dark, so the sight of the wife’s body did nothing for him, and he may injure himself in his blind fumbling, thereby removing sex from the table.
My favorite, though, was the advice to verbally cut a husband down with nagging and criticism about an hour before the time in the evening when he would typically make his advances so he is too broken in spirit to pursue sex. Or the advice to begin nagging him with a list of his failures from that day and a long list of trivial tasks for the next day so that the husband never gets to enjoy that moment of post-sex bliss.
7. Women needed to know their place
At the same time as receiving the advice from the previous point, wives were also taught they shouldn’t nag too much, or criticize their husbands even when there was cause, because their husband’s authority over them “is the consequence of the sin of your own [female] sex” (William Jay).
A woman was expected to downplay any competencies she had outside of the home, because to work would shame the husband, implying he could not care for his family. A woman was to be clean and tidy, but not so much as to make others comfortable. A woman was to be fashionable, but not so much as to strain her husbands finances, and she was to be pretty, but not to use makeup or to be too pretty, lest she shame her husband by looking easy. If your husband cheated, it was improper to let anyone know. A wife was expected not to address it because “that’s just how men are.”
“It’s in a man’s nature to go searching for a new version of the girl you used to be before you bore him seven children and made the comforts of his home the envy of the neighborhood” (Therese Oneill. Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. 2016)
8. Women’s sex education was intentionally sparse
People believed that women should at least have a rudimentary understanding of the basic mechanics of sex, and the general names of their own reproductive organs. But their education should not be specific enough that women would develop curiosity and investigate themselves, resulting in “irritation.”
“She should know the scientific names of her organs, not because there are many vulgar names as in the case of boys, but because dignified names help attitude. Ovaries, uterus (womb), vagina, Fallopian tubes, and vulva will be sufficient. Detailed description of the external organs (vulva) might arouse curiosity that leads to exploration and irritation.” (Maurice Bigelow. Sex-education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life. 1916).
9. A proper woman was supposed to be ashamed of her body
Ignorance and shame were desirable traits in unmarried women. They weren’t supposed to understand what they were getting into, and were supposed to be reluctant and uncomfortable with the whole affair when the knowledge was sprung on them on or slightly before the wedding night. If they didn’t exhibit this shame, it was an indictment of their character.
“There is, indeed, another kind of shame. It is that delicate shyness which the virgin feels when she is to step beyond the boundary of virginity, as well as that feminine reserve which strives to hide or to guard her charms. This “shame” is…a natural consequence of an emotional affection upon entering a new life…it has nothing to do with the consciousness or the fear of seeing something improper disclosed, is an ornament to every woman, and its absence is a proof of dullness and coarseness” (Karl Heinzen. The Rights of Women and Their Sexual Relations. 1981).
Some even taught that this ignorance and modesty was a more important test of a woman’s virginity than the presence of a hymen.
10. If a woman expected to have autonomy over her body after marriage, she needed to speak up beforehand
As the idea of women’s bodily autonomy began to gain traction, men were quick to point out that women who took this controversial stance should be upfront with prospective husbands. Women being in charge of their own bodies was not how things were normally done, so if you wanted bodily autonomy in your marriage, you needed to disclose that before getting engaged. Otherwise that would basically be considered false advertising and your husband would still be reasonably entitled to what he believed he was signing up for.
“With the development of the idea of personal freedom has come the feeling, on the part of many women, that they should have the right of ownership of their own bodies — in other words, that they should have the privilege of choosing whether or not they will acquiesce in their husband’s desire for entering into the physical relationship of marriage.
Since, however, it has been for so long a time an accepted idea that the husband’s right over the wife’s body was inherent, it is advisable for any young woman who takes the other point of view to make her attitude thoroughly understood by her future husband before she definitely takes upon herself the obligations of the marriage state” (Bernarr Macfadden. Womanhood and Marriage. 1918).
See what’s missing again?
Any reference to sex being beautiful and intimate between two people. This intimate aspect of sex is such a fundamental thing in the way that God made it, and yet it is constantly downplayed in the way our culture talks about sex.
I suppose, in the Victorian era, that’s because control and shame became so central. How can something which has to be controlled and which brings shame also bring closeness?
But with so much sex advice focused on how women could make men not want sex (since too much sex was considered bad for everyone, and dampening people’s libidos was considered good), then how could sex be seen as intimate?
I think it was in the Victorian era that prostitution began to be seen as something really bad.
Marriage between one woman and one man was seriously supposed to be just between two people, so using prostitutes was frowned upon (even though it had been quite widespread in other eras). The emphasis instead became upon cooling everyone’s sex drive, which was seen as something dangerous and could cause people to abandon their families.
Connor had a good time reading some old Victorian and Edwardian marriage manuals for this! Anything else you’ve heard or want to comment on?
What stands out to you? See any holdovers to what we believe today? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sex Throughout the Ages Series
- 8 Weird Facts about Sex in Roman Times (April 6)
- The Significance of 1 Corinthians 6-7 in light of Roman culture (April 7)
- A Romp Through Medieval Times and Sex (April 13)
- 10 Weird Pieces of Victorian Sex Advice (April 14)
- 10 Weird Things to Know about the Kinsey Report (April 19)
- 10 Pieces of Advice from a 1970s Sex Manual (April 20)
- 10 Ways the Christian 1970s Culture Tried to Be Sex Positive–While Also Fighting Back against the Sexual Revolution (April 21)
- 5 Ways Millennials Grew up More Conservative than Generation X in the Church (aka Purity Culture!) (April 26)
- The Contagion Theory of Sexuality–and How to Change It (April 27)
- A Liturgy of Lament for What We Taught our Kids (April 28)
- A Liturgy of Lament for the Teaching We Received about Sex and a Prayer for Healing (April 30)
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum