Sexuality - University of Warwick

Victorian attitudes
Masturbation fears
• Increasingly informed by ‘queer theory’ , a theoretical
approach which emanates from literary and critical
• Move away from the reclamation school which sought
to recover the stories of (usually) male homosexuals
for the historical record
• Queer theorists argue that sexual identity
constructions are arbitrary
• Other markers of identity such as race and class should
be used
• Emerged from radical AIDS activism in the US in the
Nameless Offences
• Harry Cocks uses theory as an
analytical framework for
mapping homosexual desire in
the period.
• Argues cultural oppression
fostered a language of the
• In law homosexuality was
often nameless and this
created a space of impunity
• He argues this existed long
before the so called watershed
of the 1880s and 1890s
Victorian attitudes
• Many attitudes emerged in 18th century:
– Fears of the dire effects of masturbation
– Hospitals for sufferers of sexual transmitted
– Campaigns against prostitution
– ‘Vice’ societies
– Ideologies of male and female behaviour
Symptoms of the
tertiary phase of
syphillis, 19th
century. A patient
afflicted with sores
and ulcers to the
neck and face,
including one which
has destroyed part of
the nasal cartilage.
Estimated that 10%
of population had
syphilis by 1860s
Sex and identity
• Victorians embraced view that an individual's
sex and sexuality form the most basic core of
their identity
Towards the beginning of the eighteenth
century, there emerged a political, economic,
and technical incitement to talk about sex
Changing attitudes
• Shift in attitudes and behaviour from around
• Population began to decline
• Opposition to Contagious Diseases Acts led to
movement for repeal
• Rise of feminism and focus on women’s rights
• Application of science to study of sex
Control of male ‘urges’
• Victorian social moralists proposed socio-medical
discourse based on masculine self-control in support of
the bourgeois ideal of domestic life.
• Idea of the body as a closed system of energy so male
sexual 'expenditure' and especially 'excess'
(spermatorrhea) were said to cause enfeeblement.
• Men counselled to conserve vital health by avoiding
fornication, masturbation and nocturnal emissions and
by rationing sex within marriage.
• That insanity arises from masturbation is now beyond
a doubt
Anti-masturbation devices
Control of female sexual behaviour
• Ailments afflicting adolescent girls said to signify
abnormal sexual excitation.
• Some doctors used clitoridectomy to prevent
sexual pleasure
• Dr Isaac Baker Brown advocated clitoridectomy to
eradicate female self-abuse
• But was considered assault on British
womanhood to argue that they practised selfabuse
• Was distaste at ‘mutilation’
• Later nineteenth century witnessed visible
increase in homosexuality
• Term ‘homosexual’ was invented in 1869,
becoming part of normal usage by the 1880s
• Lesbian was a term largely unknown until the
• Sodomy was a capital offence until 1861 and
between 1800 and 1835 80 men were hanged for
this crime against nature.
• Women were exempted from the legal sanctions
that applied to men
Anne Lister, Shibden Hall, Halifax wrote her diary in code to keep her
affections for other women secret
Vera Holme’s diaries, photographs and papers document her bohemian life - as a
cross-dressing actress, suffragette chauffeur to the Pankhursts and servicewoman
overseas during the First World War – and her romantic relationships with women.
Emergence of gay subculture
• Decadence movement include the promotion
of 'Greek' or Platonic relationships by some
university dons
• Allure to the forbidden and deviant
• Rise of aesthetic movement
• Exposure of male brothel in the Cleveland
Street scandal in 1889
• Trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895
Sketch of Charles Hammond operator of male brothel in
Clevland St. He escaped prosecution
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred
• Questions of sexual identity subject to speculative and
would-be scientific investigation, dubbed sexology (1902).
• In A Problem in Greek Ethics and A Problem in Modern
Ethics John Addington Symonds suggested that man-boy
love had been encouraged by the ancient Greeks
• Havelock Ellis attempted a detailed classification of 'normal'
and 'perverse' sexual practices. Identified 'third' or
'intermediate' sex, for which Ellis used the term 'sexual
• Edward Carpenter in, The Intermediate Sex challenged
Victorian sexual ideology and viewed comradeship
between men as an essential ingredient of socialist society
• Lesbian and Sapphic came into use as terms for female
• Sex and sexuality in Victorian period in state of
transition and flux
• Changing attitudes to ‘sexual deviance’
• Application of ‘science’ to study of sexuality
• Stereotypical views of attitudes to sex need to
be challenged