Victorian Sensibilities

The Victorian Era is sometimes considered to have been a more ace-friendly era, what with its apparent presumption that women were all asexual, and the prevalence of romantic friendships. A lot of discourse goes on about how the Victorians were so repressed and prudish, and we shouldn’t at all want to be like them. Michel Foucault was right to question the repression hypothesis; what seems to have gone on in the Victorian Era was in fact much more complex than the white-washed version that it is so popular to decry.

Enter Clelia Mosher, a Stanford professor who conducted the earliest known sex survey from 1892 to 1920, which you can read about here. Quote:

Indeed, many of the surveyed women were decidedly unshrinking. One, born in 1844, called sex “a normal desire” and observed that “a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier.” Offered another, born in 1862, “The highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us.”

Does this sound like an asexual perspective to anyone? It’s a far cry from what people like to assert was typical of the era, sounding much more like something you’d hear people say about sex today. And it makes me wonder… if people knew that sex tends to keep people healthier even back in the 19th century, do we really need so many news articles that say so today? What’s the point of them? How is it news?

So if not all Victorian women scorned sex, why do we think of them as prudish? First, says Freedman, the notion of passionlessness wasn’t universal, it was a class privilege, a way for wealthier women to claim respectability that more sexually vulnerable slave, immigrant and working-class women couldn’t. “To some extent it’s a protection of women from the sense of availability, and in other ways it’s a limitation on them and denying their sexuality,” Freedman says. Virtue was also a way for women to demonstrate good citizenship—men expressed this in the public sphere, and women in the home.

Also, some historical sources are misleading. As Degler pointed out in his 1974 article, until the Mosher Survey, much information about Victorian sex lives came from health advice books, like those of Dr. William Acton, who wrote in 1865: “The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally.” But these books, wrote Degler, designed to urge temperance to young women, were prescriptive rather than de-scriptive: “The so-called Victorian conception of women’s sexuality was more that of an ideology seeking to be established than the prevalent view or practice of even middle-class women.”

So essentially, people are taking what would amount to today’s most propagandistic abstinence-only sexual education course materials and assuming that what they say is the norm for everyone. Also, how could a man know whether or not women are “troubled with” sexual feelings?

What’s really interesting to me here is the class privilege dynamic, which seems as if it may still be preserved to a reduced extent today. Not that sex is seen as something particularly common (in the derogatory sense of belonging to the lower class, not prevalence), or that it’s a social taboo to enjoy it… but to some extent it seems it is still a social taboo to admit doing it publicly, and talk about it freely. People still attempt to control women’s sexual choices by engaging in slut-shaming and the like. And in the asexual community, sex is often seen as negative because it is gross (well, it is, but so are most bodily functions), and some asexuals portray themselves as being above it. What is this snootiness about? On the other hand, there are people who seem to think reveling in their sexuality puts them somehow above asexuals or anyone else they perceive as “repressed,” as they seem to feel they are in a position to offer pity.

True to my blog title, I think it’s all a lot more complex and shaded than all that. And people should really look into things more before making statements like that.

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5 thoughts on “Victorian Sensibilities

  1. I see what you mean about the class dynamic. Only yesterday, I heard the phrase “The bigger the hoop, the bigger the ho”, about hoop earrings. It seems like anything working-class is seen as slutty, and then judged, while the upper-class woman can often wear much more revealing clothes and be seen as demure.

    And, yes, it’s not just annoying but completely baffling when people seriously seem to think that all victorian women were asexual. Seriously? I guess those people have never heard of peer pressure or lying.

    It’s particularly disturbing when you think a judgemental asexual is probably thinking “Let’s go back to the good old days, when I was normal,” forgetting the 99% of women who’d be vilified for their feelings.

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  2. Interesting! I think the story of Mosher’s life speaks to the fact that the Victorian era wasn’t all that friendly, period, especially if you were an unconventional woman. I would assume that era would be worse for aces because there was much more pressure to get married, and obviously sex was expected in marriage. And as a woman who doesn’t want to have biological children…I’d be in a tough spot, probably. I think romantic friendships are due for a revival, though :-)

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  3. I’ve always thought that as an aromantic sex-repulsed asexual, the Victorian expectation that a young woman should marry and submit sexually to her partner would have been absolutely terrible for me.

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