18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren't as Prudish as People Thought
18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought

D.G. Hewitt - February 19, 2019

In the 19th century, intercourse was a dangerous business. For starters, venereal diseases were rife. The risk of catching syphilis from a partner, or above all, from a prostitute, was extremely high. Even intimacy within marriage wasn’t exactly safe if you think about the lack of reliable contraceptives and the number of women who died in childbirth. Small wonder, then, that throughout the Victorian era, people were warned off having intimate relations except for the sole purposes of procreation. But does that really mean that the Victorians were as repressed and as prudish as they are often presented as? Certainly not.

Sure, compared to contemporary attitudes to sensual behaviors, the 19th century was far from enlightened. At the same time, however, it was progressive in many ways. Indeed, it was a sexual society. Prostitutes were everywhere, especially on the streets of big cities like London. Similarly, pornography was widely-available, and there was a booming industry in erotic literature and even toys designed for “pleasure”. Seen this way, it’s clear that the Victorians don’t deserve their reputation for being emotionally and physically cold.

So, here we have 18 compelling reasons why we need to rethink how we remember the Victorians and their attitudes to intimacy:

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Queen Victoria adored her husband Prince Albert – including in the royal bedchamber. BBC.

18. Queen Victoria herself was no prude – in fact, she openly spoke of the passionate love life she shared with her beloved Prince Albert

Perhaps the strongest argument against all Victorians being ‘prudes’ is that the woman who gave the era its name was far from prudish herself. In fact, Queen Victoria was, contrary to popular beliefs, quite the passionate lady. Or at least she was for a short while, during her loving marriage to Prince Albert. Victoria married her German first cousin when she was just 20. Almost certainly, she was a virgin on her wedding day. But, as her own writings reveal, the Queen made up for lost time. What’s more, in letters to close friends and relatives, she went into quite some detail about her wedded life.

Writing about her wedding night, Victoria told her friend, the former Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, : “It was a gratifying and bewildering experience. I never, never spent such an evening. His excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness. He clasped me in his arms and we kissed each other again and again.” For the next few days, the letters show, the newlyweds couldn’t keep their hands off each other. This explains why, over the next 15 years, the couple would have 9 children!

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Married couples were advised that only passionate, loving intercourse could produce healthy children. Pinterest.

17. Married couples were encouraged to have regular, passionate intercourse – even if it was only to produce happy, healthy children

In Britain at least, married couples were supposed to follow the example of their Queen and see marital relations in the bedroom not just as a chore but as a source of pleasure. Indeed, regular, joyful intimacy was actively encouraged – within the institution of marriage that is. As one of the best-read relationship experts of the Victorian era noted: “There must be no private reserves on the wedding night, and each one must allow their soul to be as open as their arms.” Notably, the onus wasn’t just on women to make themselves available to their husbands – men were also regularly advised of their duties to their wives.

There was a reason why married couples were supposed to be enthusiastic in bed, as the best-selling An Infallible Guidebook for Married and Single Persons, In Matters of The Utmost Importance To The Human Race makes clear. The Victorian’s written guide on conjugal relations warned that lazy, unenthusiastic or unloving fornication would most likely produce weak, sickly children. Conversely, loving, vigorous acts enjoyed by two eager partners would produce physically robust and intellectually curious offspring. Even with the advances in reproductive health and science in general from the 1870s onward, this belief persisted right until the end of the century.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Women were just as interested in intimate relations as men, and helpful manuals kept them informed and entertained. Pinterest

16. Wives may have been expected to behave like ladies, but there was no shortage of naughty books to keep them informed and titillated

For the entirety of the Victorian era, women – or at least middle and upper-class women – were supposed to act and behave like ‘ladies’. This meant that, even if they did enjoy a healthy and adventurous lives in the bedroom with their husbands, they were strongly discouraged from talking about this part of their lives in polite society. Even among close friends, the subject of carnal knowledge was strictly taboo. Needless to say, then, that any woman caught reading erotica or looking at pornography would have been the subject of scandalous gossip and could expect to be socially shunned.

However, there were ways around this. From the mid-19th century onward, a certain type of book started appearing on the bookshelves of literate, upper-class ladies. With titles such as Advice For The Maiden Wife And Mother or The Godly Marriage, these were not always as pure and innocent as the titles suggested. Some contained graphic ‘how-to’ guides, along with tips on giving and receiving pleasure. Some even contained suggestive, or even graphic, illustrations. This allowed women to enjoy the titillation of pornography without the risk of being shamed by society. Needless to say, many such publications sold very well, especially in London.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Oscar Wilde (left) was the most famous victim of the late-Victorian morality police. Wikpedia.
  1. Victorian attitudes to male homosexuality were actually quite complex, especially during the first decades of the era

Victorian Britain wasn’t exactly an easy time to be a homosexual male. Indeed, in the latter decades of the 19th century, a number of laws were passed criminalizing relations between men. Most notably, the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made “gross indecency” a criminal offence in the UK. The most famous victim of the act was the playwright Oscar Wilde, while the same legislation would also be used several decades later to force the Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing to undergo hormone therapy. However, for large parts of the Victorian era, attitudes towards male homosexuality were far more nuanced.

According to one study into homosexuality and the law in Victorian England, while thousands of men were arrested for supposed ‘gross indecency’, only a relative few were hauled before the courts, and fewer still found themselves behind bars. Indeed, one scholarly estimate puts the number of full prosecutions for homosexual acts at fewer than 5 a year between 1850 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. At the same time, however, the official records show that upper-class gentlemen caught in compromising positions with other men were almost always treated more leniently than working men charged with similar offences.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
‘Sexy’ clothes are by no means a modern invention, even Victorians dressed to entice. Pinterest.

14. Women were encouraged to make themselves alluring, with corsets and even padded bras popular ways of catching the eyes of eligible bachelors

While ladies were actively discouraged from talking about intimate relations, there was still a huge societal pressure on them to look attractive to men, especially if they were looking for a husband or were still a few years into marriage. And, just as today, there was no shortage of hints and tips for making yourself appealing to the bachelors. Make-up was, of course, essential, as was perfume, though this was largely to mask them horrible smells of the city. But alongside these, women would routinely spice up their outfits, with corsets and even push-up bras everyday essentials for young ladies.

So common were early push-up bras by the 1860s that gentlemen were warned against assuming that a potential partner really did have a heaving bosom (a sign of healthiness and desirability at the time). By the 1880s, high heels had come into fashion, allowing women to make their legs look longer and slenderer. Ball dresses became more daring too, with plunging necklines commonplace at society balls. And all the while, women were supposed to make an effort to remove all body hair and so resemble the smooth marble statues of Antiquity – all for the viewing pleasure of men, of course.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
An infamous advert for a portable toy for gentlemen. Vice and Virtue Blog.

13. Traveling businessmen could even buy portable dolls and other tools for easing their frustration when away from their wives

It was during the Victorian era that the age of business travel really began. This meant that many men were forced to spend long times away from home – and from their wives. In many cases, such men would employ the services of the many prostitutes working in cities across Europe, and in the trade hubs and ports of the British Empire. However, there’s also some scintillating evidence to suggest that frustrated gentlemen also had another option in the shape of early blow-up dolls or aids. The most infamous such tool was the ‘Femme de Voyage’ (or ‘Travel Lady’).

In one eye-catching advertisement unearthed by historians, the Femme de Voyage is marketed at ‘gentlemen on their travels’. According to the ad, the aid could be placed inside a hat and then, when needed, blown up to resemble “the essential part [of a woman] wanted by a man”. The price tag was very high indeed, suggesting that this was just a toy for the very wealthy travelling businessmen, or even that the advert was actually a spoof. However, given that aids for women were widely-available during the Victorian era – and given that blow-up dolls have been around for centuries – it seems likely that this was a genuine product.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
So-called ‘Boston Marriages’ between two women were largely accepted 150 years ago. The Frisky.

12. Lesbian relations between women were largely overlooked, even if they were often dismissed as close friendships rather than romantic unions

Large parts of Victorian society were preoccupied with the ‘moral threat’ of homosexuality. However, this preoccupation was almost entirely focused on male homosexuality. In comparison, lesbianism was largely overlooked. Rather than being tolerated, it was often ignored, with female lovers largely seen as ‘good friends’. Indeed, in many cases, it was simply assumed that two women lived together since they needed to support each other financially – after all, neither of them had been lucky enough to find a husband to support them!

So-called ‘Boston Marriages’ (a term coined by the novelist Henry James in 1886) were relatively commonplace. Moreover, several high-profile women were in lesbian relationships, many of which were almost certainly sexual in nature. The popular American actress Charlotte Cushman, for example, lived openly with her partner, the French painter Rosa Bonheur, and the couple were known for their ‘masculine’ independence and general demeanor. Similarly, the English poet Katherine Bradley teamed up with her niece Edith Cooper to publish novels under the pen-name Michael Field. The pair moved in together and, when they weren’t publishing novels, they were busy writing dozens of passionate love letters to each other.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Campaigners won popular support for the age of consent to be raised. Pinterest.

11. The Victorians overturned 600-year-old laws on consent, proof that they were ready to have open, sometimes difficult, debates on intimacy

In 1848 alone, some 2,700 girls aged between 11 and 16 were hospitalized for venereal diseases. The vast majority of these had been working as prostitutes in the city. And, moreover, this was almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg. Many thousands more teenage girls – and, probably, girls younger than 11 – simply went untreated. Far from ignoring this, Victorian lawmakers, as well as Church officials and philanthropists took an enlightened approach to these matters and introduced the Age of Consent.

In Britain, adults had been legally allowed to engage in intimate relations with a child over the age of 12 ever since 1285. It was only the Victorians, some 600 years later, who saw that this was leaving children open to abuse. At first, the age of consent was increased only slightly to 13 in 1875. However, just a decade later, it was increased to 16 – and it remains 16 to this day in the UK. Even if many impoverished children still felt they had little option but to sell themselves, the law meant that men buying services from underage prostitutes could be, and indeed were, prosecuted. Contrary to the stereotypes of the Victorians being prudish and ignoring matters of intimate relationships, this was one area where politicians openly debated an issue and won the public’s support.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Prostitutes are shown here working the streets of Victorian London. Pinterest.

10. In Victorian Britain, prostitution was almost everywhere, and in London, there were women to suit every taste, kink – and budget

Prostitution wasn’t just hidden on the edges of society in Victorian England. It was almost everywhere, especially in London and other big cities. According to some estimates, there might have been as many as 80,000 prostitutes working in the city of London alone by the late-1890s. This was partly thanks to the Industrial Revolution. As machines took over the jobs of unskilled laborers and pushed wages down, large numbers of women were made destitute – and they had little option but to sell their bodies in order to survive.

Another contributing factor was the Church’s teaching on fornication. Quite simply, it wasn’t supposed to be enjoyable. That meant many men went looking for women who could fulfill their desires and were willing to pay for it. Richer men could afford high-end mistresses and enjoy discreet liaisons in townhouses. However, most men would simply solicit the services of so-called ‘park whores’. As their name suggests, these impoverished women would offer their services for low prices, with brief liaisons taking place in public parks, usually after dark. Again, this meant that prostitution seemed to be everywhere in the cities and nobody could be blind to its prevalence.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
A self-portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, artist and friend to prostitutes. Pinterest.

9. Some artists didn’t just stop at sleeping with prostitutes but courted controversy by living with them

Many gentlemen made use of the services of the many prostitutes lining the streets of Victorian England. In most cases, they kept such liaisons discreet, especially if they were married or of a certain social standing. A select few men, however, liked to be open about their friendships with ‘women of the night’. As the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti believed, simply sleeping with a prostitute was commonplace and far from scandalous. Befriending such a lady, however, was definitely taboo-breaking and so, for artists such as himself, the perfect way of gaining popular notoriety and attention.

At the same time, many arty, creative types believed that making friends with prostitutes was socially transgressive and an effective, albeit a radical, means of breaking down the stifling class divisions of the Victorian era. Few artists and poets went as far as Rosetti and invited prostitutes to live with them. However, even William Gladstone, the three-time Prime Minister, invited prostitutes back to his house. The political titan was convinced he could ‘save’ these ‘fallen women’ from a life of sin and would preach to them and pray with them. According to some biographers, however, Gladstone might have got a kick out of being so close to prostitutes and from resisting temptation.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
The pornography industry boomed during the Victorian era, and every taste was catered for. Daily Express.

  1. Despite the introduction of the Obscene Publications Act (or perhaps because of it) the pornography industry boomed during Victorian times

In 1857, concerned by the booming trade indecent images, the British government passed the Obscene Publications Act. The law made pornography illegal, and anyone caught producing and selling it could face a lengthy prison sentence. Far from making porn disappear, however, the law just pushed it underground. And, from the 1860s onward, it flourished, especially in the big cities. In London, for instance, Holywell Street, just off the Strand, became the place to go for dirty pictures, so long as you knew what to ask for. And, quite simply, if you asked for something, it was probably available, with all tastes and kinks, from the everyday to the extreme, catered for.

Given the risk of arrest and prostitution, pornography producers tended to make only a few copies of pictures or magazines. These would be purchased ‘under the counter’, almost always by a man with some disposable income, and then discreetly passed around his circle of friends. Even if a porn merchant was arrested and forced out of business, another one would simply take their place. By the 1880s, more and more material was being produced, with the bookshops of Holywell Street struggling to keep up with demand.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Just one of the many erotic books you could have found in backstreet London bookshops. Pinterest.

7. For men and women more turned on by words than by pictures, numerous erotic books and journals could be purchased – if you knew where to look and who to ask

The Victorians didn’t just produce and consume large amounts of pornographic pictures and magazines. The age also heralded a boom in the trade of erotic journals, magazines and books. Just like the ‘manuals’ aimed at housewives, these publications would often appear to be wholesome on the outside. Inside the covers, however, they could be everything from mildly titillating to completely obscene. And, just as today, such erotic publications were often just as popular with women as they were with men.

One key title from the time was The Romance of Lust. Telling the story of Charlie Roberts, from his personal awakenings as a young boy, through to his kinky adult ways, it was published in four parts, with each one eagerly-anticipated by the British public. Other books, such as The Nunnery Tales or The Sins of the Cities of the Plain dealt with ‘taboo’ subjects such as homosexuality or poked fun at the Church. Indeed, priests and nuns featured heavily in Victorian-ere erotica and such works were hugely popular with readers tired of the strict moralizing of the Church of England. Similarly, the perversions of teachers and headteachers was also a common, and popular, theme.

6. Strict adherence to traditional gender roles meant many men indulged their submissive sides in London’s many ‘flagellation clubs’

Street prostitutes weren’t the only Victorian “workers” to benefit from the era’s views on intimate relations. According to societal norms, men were supposed to be the dominant force in a marriage, with their wives always quiet, submissive and obedient. This led to many gentlemen visiting dominatrices on the side. These men needed an outlet for their urges to be submissive, and London had no shortage of ‘flagellation houses’ ready to take their money in exchange for special services. The most infamous of these, a Hallam Street brother run by the notorious “governess” Theresa Berkley, closed just one year after Queen Victoria came to the throne. But many more sprang up to take its place.

Such clubs were often fitted out with special BDSM equipment. Ms Berkley herself had invented an apparatus for flogging paying customers. The so-called Berkley Horse was hugely popular, with men as well as with women. In most cases, gentlemen would pay high prices, not just for the services of a dominatrix but, more importantly, for discretion. Madams and other brothel owners who guaranteed to protect a customer’s privacy could earn a premium, and most won business through subtle adverts in gentlemen’s journals or simply through word-of-mouth recommendations.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Victorian condoms would often come with a user manual – but no guarantee. The Atlantic.

5. The philandering gentleman could go to specialist condom vendors – even if these early condoms were expensive, tricky and pretty gross

Victorians weren’t exactly okay with casual relations. But smart entrepreneurs realized that many men would have multiple partners, whether they be mistresses or simply prostitutes. That’s why there was a strong trade in condoms. Indeed, from the start of the 19th century, there were several specialist condom shops in London. These early versions were made out of sheep guts and had to be soaked for a couple of hours before use in order to soften them up. They would also have to be tied at the bottom with a ribbon. In fact, these early condoms were so complex and fiddly that many came with their own user manuals!

Rather than guarding against unwanted pregnancies, these condoms were designed primarily to protect the male use from venereal diseases, above all from syphilis. However, since they were costly to make and required some preparation, they were usually only used by wealthier gentlemen, in particular those with regular mistresses or who hired high-end prostitutes. Quick, cheap encounters with street prostitutes were almost always carried out without protection. In 1885, however, Goodyear launched its first rubber condom, the first step towards bringing safe fornication to the masses.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
A Victorian illustration of a woman treating herself for hysteria, England, 19th century. Clipart Extra

4. The Victorian era saw the emergence of the first mass-market toys, though there’s no evidence to suggest they were invented by worn-out women’s doctors

The urban legend that Victorian doctors invented vibrators as they were tired of ‘manually’ treating women for ‘hysteria’ is just that – a legend. Whatever Hollywood movies or popular anecdotes say, there’s no evidence to suggest that physicians suffering from cramps from stimulating stressed female patients for hours at a time were behind the emergence of mechanical and then electronic toys. However, it is certainly true that the women of the Victorian era did indeed benefit from a surge in personal toys coming onto the market – and many of these had been invented as massaging tools, many of them originally aimed at men.

As historian Dr. Kate Lister, who specializes in historical fornication practices, has shown, it didn’t take long for such innocent medical aids to be transformed into toys for pleasuring ones self. That said, however, while aids were certainly featured in Victorian-era pornography, they were almost universally old-fashioned dildos rather than vibrators. Moreover, outside of erotica, orgasms were seen to be potentially dangerous for women. While they might help with conception, as a rule, they were frowned upon and regarded as a potential cause of hysteria rather than a cure for it. So, while sex toys were common, there’s no evidence that they were encouraged by medical professionals!

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
A landmark work on sexuality by one of the Victorian era experts. The Cummings Center Blog.

3. The final few decades of the Victorian era saw the emergence of sexology as a serious subject, with new genders and sexualities identified

Far from ignoring matters of intimacy, towards the end of the Victorian era, such subjects were becoming the focus of academic scholarship and serious debate. To some degree, such debates served to reinforce traditional, patriarchal concepts of copulation. For instance, the emergence of Darwinism supported the belief that men had ‘natural’ urges and were far more randy than women. Biologists and anthropologists used the latest scientific breakthroughs to support the idea that men were ‘programmed’ to be promiscuous – and, as such, a good, understanding wife should turn a blind eye to her husband’s liaisons with prostitutes.

On the other hand, however, this much discussion about reproductive habits was positively progressive. For example, the sexologists – a profession that emerged around the 1880s – Richard von Kraft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis created the terms “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” as well as “nymphomaniac”. They started analyzing personal intimate preference and started to realize that there was a ‘scale’ rather than simply assuming sexuality to be a binary matter, though they also argued that there were both ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ tastes and practices. Moreover, Ellis theorized that there was a ‘third sex’ between male and female.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Victorian women – and men – were nothing like as prudish as they are often portrayed. Georgetown Commons.

2. Victorians weren’t easily-shocked or overly-prudish – in fact, we have 20th century writers to blame for this unfair stereotype

According to one popular myth, the Victorians were so repressed that table legs were often covered up to prevent men from becoming around by the sight of curves and notches. As we’ve seen, this was far from the case. So, where did this unfair reputation for prudishness come from? According to some scholars, it most likely emerged in the opening decades of the 20th century. The so-called authors and poets of the Modernist movement, most notably Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, were eager to present themselves as forward-thinking, liberated and progressive – and so, naturally, they presented the generation that came before them as the exact opposite of this.

It was only really in the 1970s that this idea of the Victorians being repressed started to be questioned and effectively challenged. The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, published The History of Sexuality in 1976. In it, he effectively argued that it was the Victorians who began taking matters of intimate relations seriously. He credited them with passing a series of progressive laws and overseeing the emergence of sexology as a serious academic subject. Despite this and numerous other academic studies, the Victorians have struggled to shake off their reputation for prudishness.

18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought
Aubrey Beardsley’s 1890s works were often distinctly homoerotic in nature. Wikimedia Commons.

1. “The naughty nineties” were the 19th century version of the Swinging Sixties, as Victorian men and women launched a promiscuous counter-culture

The Victorian era came to an end with the death of the Queen in 1901. Victoria’s death came at the end of the most sexually progressive decade of the era. Not for nothing were they known as the ‘Naughty Nineties’. Far from being kept hidden, intimacy came to the forefront of popular culture. The artist Aubrey Beardsley, for instance, gained fame and notoriety, thanks in no small part to the suggestiveness and eroticism of his drawings. His art reflected the atmosphere of 1890s London, where decadence was on the rise.

It’s believed that the Naughty Nineties were a direct response to the moralizing of the preceding decades. Tired of keeping their desires secret, many men became more open about their lives and practices. Even prosecution didn’t deter the gay men of London from frequenting the growing number of gay clubs and cafes. Moreover, gentlemen who had earned financial independence as a result of the Industrial Revolution were keen to use their money for pleasure, driving the growth of a counter-culture, the likes of which would not be seen again until the 1920s and then again in the 1960s.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Queen Victoria’s wedding night: ‘I have never spent such an evening.” Sydney Morning Herald, October 2016.

“The Victorians’ surprisingly liberal attitude towards gay men.” History Extra.

“Gladstone’s Prostitutes.” The New York Review of Books, October 1996.

“The Victorian Condom: A Very Short Book Excerpt.” The Atlantic, December 2014.

“Buzzkill: Vibrators and the Victorians.” Whore of Yore.

“Victorian Sexualities.” The British Library.

“Sex and Sexuality in the 19th Century.” The Victoria & Albert Museum.

“Sex Secrets of the Victorian age: EXPOSED.” The Daily Express, October 2016.

“The Victorian Joy of Sex: Prudish? Far From It!” Daily Mail, April 2014.

“The Making of Victorian Sexuality.” Oxford Scholarship.

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