History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: 19th Century Society

Sexuality click here for audioGirls in Underwear

We must not here lose sight of the fact that the desire for sexual intercourse is strongly felt by the male on attaining puberty, and continues through his life an ever-present, sensible want; it is most necessary to keep this in view, for, true though it be, it is constantly lost sight of, and erroneous theories, producing on the one hand coercive legislation, on the other neglect of obvious evils, are the result. This desire of the male is the want that produces the demand, of which prostitution is a result, and which is, in fact, the artificial supply of a natural demand, taking the place of the natural supply through the failure of the latter, or the vitiated character of the demand. It is impossible to exaggerate the force of sexual desire.
-- William Acton, Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects 2nd edition 1870

The general idea was that the male had base instincts beyond his control. But you probably got that.

married life

The ignorance women had of their own bodies must have made marriage difficult. Subject to a repressive upbringing, women were taught to be embarrassed by their bodily functions, from menstruation to orgasm. Even if not utterly revolted by sexual contact, most virgins were terrified on their wedding night. Men were expected to be exceedingly gentle, a task made easier by previous experience. It was expected that men would not "impose" on their wives more than necessary to beget children.


Under such circumstances, prostitution, as you can see in the quote above, was a necessity as a way for men to vent the "baser" instincts. Even doctors agreed that sex with a prostitute could be needed to maintain male health. Combined with Victorian respectability, this sinful necessity created a hot underground throughout Europe and America, leading to a thriving community of prostitutes (male and female) in cities like Vienna, New Orleans, and London.

fallen women

The Outcast: woman with baby being shut out by father as sister pleads on her knees
Richard Redgrave, The Outcast (1851)

Female prostitutes were often "fallen" women, who had turned to prostitution out of desperation. The "fallen" idea was that a woman who had a sexual lapse (such as being seduced/raped by her employer) was "ruined" and no longer marriageable. Poor girls, industrial workers far from the control of their village, domestic servants often became fallen women. Sometimes no one would know until they got pregnant. See this picture, where the father is shutting out his daughter and her child.

Many female prostitutes were professionals, raised in brothels. In 1820s Vienna, there were 20,000 registered prostitutes for a population of 400,000, one girl for every 7 men! Similar statistics exist for New York, London, Atlantic CIty. Some were high-level courtesans, others street-walkers who rented rooms by the hour. Brothels advertised in the "Gentlemen's Guides" in major cities, a book no gentleman would ever leave in his coat pocket.

venereal disease and a craze for virgins

Need I say that in this environment VD was a problem? There was no cure for syphilis until 1909, and even then it was derived from arsenic. Syphilis, as you know from the lecture on the 18th century, was blood-borne and caused sterility and insanity. The result was a high demand for first-time prostitutes. Only a virgin could be guaranteed to be free of disease. Brothels marketed girls as young as 12 to the highest bidder, and many helped their prostitutes become born-again virgins by using techniques such as vinegar (for its astringent properties), a sponge soaked in pig blood (to similate the bleeding hymen) or sewing up the vaginal opening to make it tighter.

homosexuality (male)

In some ways, gay men were tolerated in Victorian times, so long as they maintained public respectability. Two men with their arms around each other were assumed to be out on the town looking for women. If a person were liked, respected, and fit in with society, his private life was considered his business. But should he be disliked, sodomy laws were still on the books, and a sodomy charge could ruin a career or a life.

Male prostitution was a thriving business, and many young men who needed money sold their bodies in the cities. There have been many studies of this underworld, including some that claim a "sexual imperialism" of upper-class men taking lower-class prostitutes as an assertion of status.

The Case of Oscar Wilde

Oscar WildeA good way to get to the heart of the issues surrounding Victorian sex and society is to look at the case of playwright Oscar Wilde, whose domestic comedies took London by storm in the 1890s. He married Constance Lloyd and they had two sons together shortly before his fame began. Wilde was a maverick, disliked by some because of his biting wit. Some examples:

"Women's styles may change but their designs remain the same."
"Charity creates a multitude of sins."
“Vulgarity is the conduct of others.”
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”
"Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." (his last words as he lay dying)

During his most productive period, he had an affair with an aristocratic young man, Lord Alfred Douglas (reverse sexual imperialism?). Lord Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensbury, publicly accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde's friends (?) persuaded him to sue the Marquess for libel. Though he withdrew the case, Wilde was arrested and his whole sex life came out at the trial. The result was the loss of his lover, the departure of his wife and children, and two years hard labor in prison, which almost killed him.

At his trial, Wilde referred to one of Douglas' own poems, which had called homosexuality "the Lord Alfred Douglas love that dare not speak its name":

“The Love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.... It is in this century misunderstood ... and on account of it I am placed where I am now.

The "Scientific Humanitarian Committee"

Formed in Germany in 1897, this was the first political organization of gay men and women. It was led by Magnus Hirschfeld, M.D., a physician who founded the Institute for Sexual Science in 1918. They focused on legal revisions to the penal code of the German empire, trying to get prohibitions against "coitus-like acts" between men removed, first in 1898 and again during the 1920s. Their argument was that homosexuality was a natural disposition, and thus involuntary and not a crime.

Sexual "deviancy" and crime

Diverse forms of sexuality, including sado-masochism and fetishes of all kinds, flourished in the publicly repressive sexual environment of Victorian Europe. Pornographic photos, art, and books were very popular. Even today, Victorian images and items of sexuality are popular; just visit a Victoria's Secret store.

It was also an age of "sex crimes". In 1888 London, Jack the Ripper murdered and mutilated six prostitutes in a period of 4 months, and was never caught. He didn't just kill them. He excised their nipples and reproductive organs and arranged them in designs on their bodies, like happy faces. (This detail was kept out of the newspapers to prevent copycat murders.) It has long been thought that the precision of his technique was the mark of a medical doctor.

While I may hesitate to put crimes of violence on a page about sex, the Victorians wouldn't have. In particular, the crimes of killers like Jack the Ripper seemed to mark the extremes to which sexual immorality could go.

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