Saturday, September 28, 2019

Were respectable Victorians any more concerned about sex than their great grandparents had been?

Before one can answer the question above, two key terms need to be explained: ‘respectable' and ‘sex'. The Victorian climate was such that the term respectable is usually applied only to those members of society with sufficient status to be marked out as noticeable in a rural/urban setting. To this extent, it is perhaps more correct to realise that the question is aiming towards those Victorians of middle to high status than those of the middle and upper classes. More to the point, respectable may mean either those people of status, or those men of high status. Sex' is a term that carries two main connotations, intercourse and gender. Gender itself is a pretty wide ranging issue, covering the role of women in both social life and in the home, as well as increasing political activity from females. In effect, the question is somewhat multi-faceted, and requires a three-sided response: how far were men more aware of women's need and rights in the nineteenth century than in the eighteenth; how did the role of the female change between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and, how did general attitudes towards intercourse and women change in a broader sense? This final question invites a response on how sex was taught, or indeed practised, in the Victorian period. One can see a change in the nineteenth century towards a society that was more concerned with some aspects of sex, especially those carnal. As Michael Mason puts it, the sexual practices of the early nineteenth century experienced a ‘crisis of confidence'. Yet by mid-century, trends of concubinage and commitment meant that traditional (male) practices of prostitution were considerably displaced. As the attitudes of men changed towards a family environment, so did the role of women. Women became not only homemakers but also socially active people, rather than their traditional role of sitting in the background and looking pretty. Trends in literature towards such feminist authors as the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, as well as strong feminist trends in some of Dickens' literature, were representative of a society considering the roles of women and bringing their rights to the fore. Trends also changed from the passive acceptance of wife beating towards an admittedly passive non-acceptance of such practices. In effect, there were many significant changes towards a society that accepted sex in all its forms far more than a century before, albeit in a more austere fashion. Firstly the question of the awareness of women needs to be addressed more fully. As trends of marriage changed towards a more family based atmosphere, so did the attitudes towards the Victorian woman. A female Queen, for whom the country held a significant respect, precipitated an almost passive acceptance of the female import in society. The Victorian man was, unlike his great grandparents, frowned upon for un- gentlemanly behaviour in the home. A change toward this acceptance of the female role was precursor to the increased role of the male in family life. As L Davidoff has claimed, men spent much more time at work but were also ‘in and out of the house place†¦ helping with the children†¦ taking part in the endless rounds of tea drinking and dropping in of relatives' By the 50s, men were leaving active business to spend more time with family and to allow younger family members to take over the day to day running of affairs, often women being allowed to do this. Men were effectively becoming absorbed into what was previously, and exclusively, the female way of life. Alongside this change was the acceptance of women into such societies as the Rainbow Circle, with some such as the Primrose League being set up for women alone. Thus women were not only allowed a political voice, but were actively taking one also. The ideas of station in the family may not have changed, but they were certainly evened out. As urbanisation increased, so did the acceptance of female by men. In eighteenth century rural England, the middle classes were small, and the sense of community amongst them sparse, with urbanisation came middle class community, which had the effect of introducing a social code by which everyone was socially obligated to abide. Certain trends towards females did not change however, domestics and governesses were still female, yet the number of affairs between the head of the household and his servants decreased rapidly, yet this may be representative more of the austere privacy of the Victorian household which would be reluctant to admit such activities than an actual fall in such indiscretions. In effect, the attitudes towards women changed. They changed in both the way women were treated, and in the assumption of traditional female roles in the household of men. Yet the Victorian woman was equally different from her eighteenth century counterpart. The Victorian woman was a changing force in society. Such occurrences as the Custody of Infants Act of 1839, and the later trend for educating girls at schools (both precipitated women) give evidence to the changing female character. The Custody of Infants Act in particular is representative of the power able to be exercised by Victorian women over their husbands. This Act, which crystallised after the legal battle fought by Caroline Norton to keep her children after separation from a violent husband. This not only shows that the female had a right to her children in equal capacity to her husband, but also that there was an ability for a woman to challenge a man in a court- a legal power not previously seen. It also is indicative of the new emphasis on motherhood, or more to the point, its importance over and above the importance of the male figure. F M L Thompson, maybe over enthusiastically, terms this change in early Victorian female culture a precursor to ‘female rebellion'. He doses have a point however, at the time many thinkers both on the left and right such as Peter Gaskell and Richard Oastler felt that the family and consequently the moral fabric of society was about to collapse due to an increased female role. Changing the emergence of the politically interested female of all classes and statuses complemented this emancipation. Organisations such as the Primrose League were representative of not only a new working/middle class political voice, but also of a female voice. In addition to the having a voice in the political world, and in society, as well as legal rights, the right to divorce was also important. The Divorce Act of 1857 allowed wives for the first time to divorce their violent husbands, which was an important factor in the beginning of women's rights, which became codified legally over the ensuing century. It also had the effect of reducing the number of ambiguous separations, which were against the fabric of the Victorian family life. In effect, the change in the role of women was not huge, but it was significant. Rights within the family increased, as did station in society. Changing attitudes towards intercourse are also important. Marriage is important in this sphere also, as well as family life. One of the most striking features of Victorian England was the relative decline in prostitution compared with the increase of towns and cities. This may be attributed to the transformation towards a family atmosphere, and the importance of sexual relations in the home. This may be attributed towards the Victorian culture of evangelicalism and nonconformity both of which preached ideas of temperance, and the consequent decline in alcohol consumption amongst respectable people. Alongside this came a new awareness of sexual diseases, with many people feeling sufficiently more comfortable with themselves to request treatment. Sex as an act was more considered in the medical sphere also. Books were written detailing every aspect of sexuality, from academic books on ‘the orgasmic theory of ovulation' to Dr Becklard's self-help book ‘Becklard's physiology'. It is true however, that by the end of the Victorian period, bipolar attitudes towards sex, meant that women were portrayed in nature as either frigid or insatiable, and men absolved from blame as servants to their katabolic needs. In effect, although women experienced a change in their roles and their perception, as sexual objects, their portrayal was quite regressive. To this extent sex in terms of the portrayal of men and women was both progressive in terms of thinking and theory (although most often mistaken) yet also regressive in its portrayals of each sex and its consequent categorisations of the sexes, which not until Freud were reversed. In addition to this, for the first time, sex education was taught on a very primitive level at school, and carnal sex was mentioned at a very understated level at home. In effect, trends of sex education were just breaking through, but nonetheless they were there. In conclusion, the Victorians were more aware of sex, both categorical and carnal. Trends towards traditional sexual roles were changed as men frequently took over roles at home, and women often took over their husbands businesses after death. Family trends revolutionised the position of the male at home, along with a willingness to consider women's rights by allowing the Custody and Divorce Acts to be passed through parliament. Moreover, the Victorian female was able to push for such reform as she found a new social and political voice not before experience. This is not to say that suddenly the female was the central character in society, far from it. Husband continued to beat wives, and the Divorce Act didn't precipitate a mass rush for every abused female to divorce their husbands. The female role was still very much subordinate to the male, but it was significantly improved on the position of the eighteenth century female. Trends towards intercourse complemented this as trends in marriage changed the way Victorian men sought sex. Prostitution declined and the social/medical considerations of sex changed in a way not seen in the eighteenth century. Although the austere male dominated society still excused the male from any blame of carnal desire, as compared with the female who was pushed to extremes of frigidity or insatiability. In effect, awareness of sex was increased, or at least more openly discussed.

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