The Victorian Era: Sexuality and the Family

I.   The Rise of the Bourgeois Work Ethic

The Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition of 1851, was the first World Fair where Britain showed its industrial might and astute culture.

The Victorian Era was a strange time of mystic sexual morality, distinct fashion, industrialization, and — above all — imperial conquest. It was Britain’s century, their colonialist high-point, and they likewise influenced lands far beyond their waterlocked country. The “Victorian morality” was a strange development in the emergence of bourgeois society. It was hypocritical as much as it was limiting; the mantra was to better the human condition, while, at the same time, turning a blind eye to the plight of the child worker and the general laborer (There were exceptions, of course. A spare few were in fact unsettled by the plight of these poor folk, one of them being Karl Marx).

With the rise of industrialization in the British mainland came a downplaying of hedonism. Pleasure was seen as seemingly antithetical to the ideal Victorian, where hard-work was cherished as a means to religious salvation [1]. Max Weber spoke of this in his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argues that the rise of Protestantism gave headway to this new laborious expectations and pushed for further divisions of labor. In the Calvinist view, Martin Luther’s, and others of the Reformation, it was not enough to be devoted to supernatural salvation; one had to also be devoted to earthly labor and his craft. Because of the inability of individuals to influence God’s grace, given the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, they struggled to find signs of their destiny — which was either eternal damnation or salvation. A rigorous work ethic was preached as being a sign of “God’s grace,” and it became the epitome of the Calvinist tradition. Although only Scotland of Great Britain was largely Calvinist, due to the teachings of John Knox, the rest of the industrializing island also exemplified a similar outlook on labor. Religious individualism was crucial in any Protestant tradition that broke from the Catholic Church, even in the Anglican Church of England. In contrast, places such as Ireland (predominately Catholic), according to Weber, lacked this attitude due to the authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church and its overreaching doctrine, which limited individualism [2]. Coupled with the fact that “sloth” was considered a deadly sin in Christian doctrine, the development of bourgeois society fall hand-in-hand with the development of this new robust industrial individualism and the facilitation of Protestantism.

II.    Demonizing Lust 

Because of the development of a new work ethic, sexuality became an impediment to such ends. Such relations were relegated to private rooms, away from public sight. The majority of children, even of working class families, were sent to Sunday school, where they were inculcated in a belief that one must abstain from sexual perversion, since it is an obstacle to God’s grace (let us not forget, “lust” is yet another deadly sin) [3]. Pleasure, as told by religious dogma, was merely a test of faith and should not be responded in kind. In part by this, sexuality become externalized — it became part of the object, rather than the self — and became regarded, seemingly, as a necessary evil.

Poet Hans Christian Andersen helped to popularize the age-old fable of the white stork.

Sexuality become a construct of public attention and scrutiny even in common language. It became impolite to bring up such topics in company and euphemisms emerged to describe them, need it be brought up [4]. Nearly every part of the body had a corresponding euphemism, with even the term “leg” being impolite and being replaced with “limb.’ The entire concept of procreation was made into fables that were nicely-worded to be avoided with children; such as the famous story of the “white stork” being the harbinger of small children that became popularized with the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Storks [5].  Equally absurd, genitalia were seen as too explicit to be shown in any context, even in artistry, during Victorian times. Expurgation, the censorship of the “offensive,” become common. Perhaps the best known example is one of the “fig-leaf,” where Queen Victoria, as the story goes, was repulsed to see the genitalia of Michelangelo’s statue David. A proportional fig leaf was constructed to cover the obscenity, so the figure could be tolerated [6]. Even classical literature was was found guilty of obscenity — Dr. Thomas Bowdler omitted and rewrote Shakespearean plays to make it more “accessible to children and wives.” Called The Family Shakespeare,  minor expletives were omitted and death was made gentler, among other things. With the gentry holding morality of society by the handles, these such moral impositions pervaded all facets of British life, from the top down. Consequently, these norms were brought to all dominions of British rule and, given its vast empire, its sexually-repressive influence was vast and lasting.

III.   The Patriarchal Family

The standard Victorian family had many children.

Perhaps most striking, in contrast with late developments of the family, is the role of the woman in society. The structure was overtly patriarchal. In Victorian society, the woman was servile and sexually docile. She was bound to her domestic life, despite having some political and civil autonomy, and was given the unspoken task of functioning as the moral instruction for servants and children. Women were expected to give birth to many children and the standard was set by the Queen Victoria and her husband — i.e. the “Royal Family” — who, in total, had nine children. Standards of femininity were established in the higher rungs of Victorian society and were expressed actively in the arts. The great Victorian poet Lord Alfred Tennyson espoused such repressive virtues in his poem The Princess: 

Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey;
All else confusion [6].

One of the reasons for this gender polarity and rigidity is the development of the bourgeois middle-class during the Victorian era. The average Victorian male worked, unlike the gentry, and was able to afford at least three servants [7]. The household became a symbol of the male’s moral character and was regarded as a reflection of social class.. Thereby, it did not matter if the working man had to face obscene conditions and do monotonous labor to earn his living; as long as he had a respectable house to come back to, his social class was maintained. The paradox of experiencing a inferiority in the workplace induced a need to establish a superiority in the household, ultimately giving rise to patriarchal sentiments and female submission. This dynamic would establish two separate spheres of control in Victorian society — the private and the public, the workplace and the home, and the domestic and the business.

IV.   Sexuality as an Object

The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction by Michel Foucault

In 1976, philosopher Michael Foucault published one of the first volumes to a three-volume series that would come to be known as one of his seminal works. His book, The History of Sexuality, analyzed the role of human sexuality in the Western world and its development. It aimed at questioning the presupposed “repression hypothesis” — that the current repressive elements of sexuality are a symptom of the Victorian era, which is when rigid restrictive norms were put in place. Although Foucault does not outright reject repressive Victorian morality as a major factor in the rise of modern Western sexuality, he turns the mainstream thesis on its head in arguing that sexuality was more discussed than ever before during the Victorian era.

The long rule of Queen Victoria has been characterized by sexual repression, censorship of the obscene, and domestication of the female; however, is there more to Victorian culture than merely superficial restrictions on discourse? Although there was relative silence on the topic between child and parent, teacher and pupil, or even master and house servant — was there not also, perhaps, a growing fascination with sexuality as a human condition? In 1841, the British state, for the first time, became instituting a full census of their population. This expansionary measure would include statistics on marriage, birth rates, and death rates [8]. The family was promoted as the building block of British life and marriage was superimposed as a guiding force in establishing such social harmony. Prostitution became an epidemic  as poor female laborers struggled to find an income and were economically coerced to sell their bodies to usually wealthy upper-class gentry [9].  Priests became more interested in “confessions on the flesh” during the Christian practice of Penance, where individuals would confess to the priest their supposed “impurities.” Foucault writes:

But while language may have been refined, the scope of the confession — the confession of the flesh — continually increased. This was partly because the Counter Reformation busied itself with stepping up the rhythm of the yearly confession in the Catholic countries, and because it tried to impose meticulous rules of self-examination; but above all, because it attributed more and more importance in penance — and perhaps at the expense of other since — to all insinuations of flesh: thoughts, desire, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and soul; henceforth, all this had to enter, in detail, into the process of confession and guidance [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

He goes on to argue how the establishment of Penance in Protestant (and Catholic) nations began deviating from actual confession of sins and became obsessed with the smallest of pleasures.

According to the new pastoral, sex must not be named imprudently, but all its aspects, its correlations, and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications: a shadow in a daydream, an image too slowly dispelled, a badly exorcised complicity between the body’s mechanics and the mind’s complacency: everything had to be told [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

Likewise, the Victorian era and the few decades prior to its development set a standard: Now, not only did one need to confess to acts that were against the law, they also had to tell all their pleasures and desires in church discourse, under the watchful eyes of the priest or minister. This set a new tone to sexuality in the Western world previously unheard of — it gave rise to innumerable euphemisms to describe acts or body parts previously taken as merely “being,” in an effort to describe this new sexual fascination. Sexuality was now externalized, treated as undesirable pleasure, and was to be repressed in public. And henceforth, the repression in Western culture took on a two-faced form; on the one hand, sexuality was to be beaten down from the public eye, but, on the other hand, was to be properly dissected under the guise of an authority that demands it.

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of "Psychopathia Sexualis" (1886).

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1886).

In academia, sexuality began to be added to the scientific lexicon. The Oxford English Dictionary began to add specific terms to their newly-printed releases;  “sexual intercourse” (1799), “sexual function” (1803), “sexual organs” (1828), “sexual desire” (1836), “sexual instinct” (1861), “sexual impulse” (1863), “sexual act” (1888), and “sexual immorality” (1911). Moreover, sexual behavior became robustly studied as a field worthy of attention [10]. Sexuality was seen, in scientific circles, as a proper way to assess one’s personality and behavior. Who you slept with became, peculiarly, also an identity in the Western mindset. This became especially prevalent in psychiatry, before the Freudian revolution of thought, where sexual deviancy was seen as particularly problematic. And this phenomenon was present far beyond the bounds of Victorian England, since talks on sexuality were rising in the confession booths all across Christian Europe. Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing published his work Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886 in which he outlined four sexual categories of, what he considered to be, symptoms of neurosis. They were titled: paradoxia (sexual desire at the wrong time), anesthesia (not enough sexual desire), hyperesthesia (too much sexual desire), and paraesthesia (sexual deviancy, i.e. queer and fetishism). He goes on to discuss the sexual “impassivity” of the female compared to the male, describing the male as having a “stronger sexual appetite” — only reaffirming the hypocritical sexual expectations of the male and female which is pervasive in Western culture to this very day.

V. Modern Victorian Sexuality 

The ramifications of such repression, and private sexual objectification, has reared its ugly face even in contemporary society. The hysteria over discussion on sexuality is still pervasive and shied away in any public discourse. Archaic conceptions of sexual “immorality” are still being tossed around in the public arena and are commonly told to children. Rigid notions of femininity and masculinity are institutionally enforced and kept in check by popular disapproval once one steps outside the preconceived bounds. Perhaps, what is seen more vividly, is the persistent caricature that one’s sexuality is an indicator of one’s personality. The marginalization of sexuality continues to plague the Western mindset, always thrown to the backburner of our minds, too frightening to be discussed. Such are the chains that have to be properly broken if we wish to actually articulate real “sexual liberation’ or any humanization of what, should be considered, natural human urges. To put it most bluntly, perhaps it is time to bring, first and foremost, such topics of sexuality to light. And all the while, let us give those that decry its discussion the proper response — ignore and pressure them to change their repressive ideas of sexuality, which have been shamefully penning individuals in a sexually-normative box ever since its adoption as a Western moral imperative. It is about time the discussion has been opened, rather than perpetually closed.

***

- The Victorians: Gender and Sexuality 

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