Taking into account the recent furore surrounding the ubiquitous ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, one could be forgiven for thinking sexual freedom and experimentation were the latest new thing on the block. The author of the ‘Fifty Shades’ Trilogies (E L James) would appear to be a fully emancipated, adventurous soul who has brightened many a dull night for females gripped with boredom mid-recession. However, as health expert Susan Dutton-Fruend observes, the trend to over-saturate the public domain with trashy, disposable attitudes to sex can only lead to ultimate sexual destruction in any eventuality. She says :
“ It seems that we, as a society, are increasingly adopting a clinical view of sex that reduces it to a mere bodily urge to be satisfied … like eating……however [sic].. a merely physical act can’t even come close to the joy of intimacy in this kind of union. Casual sex is like using a beautiful, hand-crafted golden bowl to store the rock salt you use for melting ice on the front steps. It may be functional in that capacity, but the use is not in- keeping with its intrinsic value and risks damaging something very precious”.
However, the fundamental fact remains that free, wild sex is all around us in society, media and ethnicities and is nothing new… it’s just that we give it far more openly accepted discussion than in ‘the old days’.
One wonders then, what a previous age such as that of the Victorian’s would have made of it all….
In Western civilisation we are duly accustomed to the historical representation of prudish, sexually-repressed Victorians, who cautiously guarded themselves against any temptation, no matter how slight. Critics and readers over the last 200 years have largely and successfully questioned this idea and of latter decades dissected the inaccuracies of such beliefs. During this period, even in seeking any man or woman’s ultimate goal for achieving the apparently conservative happy ending of marriage, Victorians were inevitably led to the consummation of their love and the creation one’s own home and family. Sex and sexuality, then, were unavoidable issues for the Victorians within the home, no matter how starchy their outwardly public approach.
On a scientific level since the early 1900’s scientists connected sex chromosomes to sex-linked characteristics and associated this with the workings of hormones — “we [begin] to see why for some forty years the exact nature of sex-differentiation and its psychic accompaniment was a subject of intense, though inconclusive debate.”
Even more fundamental in the ‘sciencey bit’;- the exact differentials between men and women coupled with why the species evolved into the two sexes, temporarily confounded Victorian theorists such Herbert Spencer and Patrick Geddes. Thus, they and other specialists constructed a stereotypical dyadic model. Other than the different sex organs and physical differences, men were considered the active participants, who expended energy while women were considered sedentary beings, storing and conserving energy. Victorian theories of evolution believed that these feminine and masculine attributes traced back to the lowest forms of life. A dichotomy of temperaments defined feminine and masculine: an anabolic nature (female) which nurtured versus a katabolic nature (male) which released energy respectively.
Such dichotomy set the foundation of belief for separate genetic spheres between men and women. According to the model, since men only concerned themselves with fertilization, they would also be mighty enough to spend energies in other arenas, allowing as Spencer says “the male capacity for abstract reason… along with an attachment to the idea of abstract justice…[which] was a sign of highly-evolved life.” On the other hand, woman’s heavy role in pregnancy, menstruation (considered a time of illness, debilitation, and temporary insanity (!!!)), plus child-rearing left very little energy left for other pursuits. As a result, women’s position in society became understood as a naturally progressive role from biological evolution — she had to stay at home in order to conserve her energy, while the man could and needed to go out and hunt or forage.
Significantly also for the time, this evolutionary reasoning provided justification for the emotional and mental differences between men and women. Conway shows how the logic led Geddes to believe that:
“Male intelligence was greater than female, men had greater independence and courage than women, and men were able to expend energy in sustained bursts of physical or cerebral activity… Women on the other hand… were superior to men in constancy of affection and sympathetic imagination… [they had] ‘greater patience, more open-mindedness, greater appreciation of subtle details, and consequently what we call more rapid intuition.”
The roles of men and women understood as thus, the Victorians still had to deal with the actual sexual act, wherein the bipolar model still held. Earlier on in the century, women were considered the weaker, more innocent sex. She was considered as having little to no sexual appetite, often capturing all the sympathy and none of the blame over any indiscretions (as though her weaker gender deemed her automatically incapable of anything other than naivity) . Men represented the fallen, sinful, and lustful creatures, wrongfully taking advantage of the fragility of women. However, this situation switched in the latter half of the period, following a series of published analysiis and therefore raising public awareness somewhat. One intrinsically controversial survey was conducted by early feminist Dr Clelia Duel Mosher, who asked 45 mostly middle-class Victorian women to answer intimate questions about sex, marriage and contraception.
Describing her attitude towards sex, one participant born in 1862 wrote, ‘The highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us.’
Another, born in 1863, wrote: ‘It seems to me to be a natural and physical sign of a spiritual union, a renewal of the marriage vows.’
Slightly more than half of women surveyed claimed to have known nothing of sex prior to marriage; some even claimed they had taught themselves about sex from ‘watching farm animals.’
Of the 45 women questioned, 35 said they desired sex, while 34 said they were aware of and had experienced orgasms. Meanwhile over half felt that pleasure for both sexes was a reason for intercourse; about three-quarters of them engaging in activity at least once a week. At this point however, all empirical evidence included a somewhat romanticised idea of male versus female sexuality and vastly frowned upon female ‘self-satisfaction’ of any description.. even to the point where women were discouraged from riding horses or bikes or squatting to pick up the laundry should it turn a nice girl naughty. It all occurred behind closed doors, but was never referred to.
Nevertheless, during 2010, a leading museum in San Francisco caused a huge buzz with its collection of sex toys from the 1800’s,including all early forms of male and female ‘assistance’ devices…. Which goes to show, there’s actually little point in us being overly indulgent in debauchery or re-inventing the wheel and making it into a rabbit…. as we’ve all been there before ( and then some).
©Tess Egerton 2012