The Making of Victorian Sexuality

The Making of Victorian Sexuality

The Making of Victorian Sexuality

The Making of Victorian Sexuality

Synopsis

We tend to think of the Victorians as the personification of prudery and puritanism, a people whose sexual attitudes, practices, and knowledge differed greatly from our own, to their detriment. Indeed, even in the midst of the AIDS crisis and our growing concern about safe sex, the Victorians hardly seem an appealing role model of sexual behavior. But is this image really very accurate? What did the Victorians really think about sex? What were their sex lives like? And what wider concepts--biological, political, religious--shaped their sexuality? The Making of Victorian Sexuality directly confronts one of the most persistent cliches of modern times. Drawing on a wealth of sources from medical and scientific texts, to popular fiction, evangelical writing, and the work of radicals such as Godwin and Mill, Michael Mason shows how much of our perception of nineteenth-century sexual culture is simply wrong. Covering such topics as premarital sex, marriage, prostitution, women's sexuality, and male masturbation, Mason shows that, far from being a license for prudery and hypocrisy, Victorian sexuality was guided by a humane and progressive vision of society's future. Mason reveals that the average Victorian man was not necessarily the church-going, tyrannical, secretly lecherous, bourgeois pater familias of modern-day legend, but often an agnostic, radical-minded, sexually continent citizen, with a deliberately restricted number of children. He paints a society in which husbands and wives knew full well about female orgasm and women's sexuality; where if some specialists believed that nervous disorders in women, ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia, were due to masturbation, most experts emphatically denied the connection; and where the extensive use of birth control devices first began (pioneered oddly enough by the bottom of the middle class: shop-owners, hotel-keepers, and other nonmanual but nonprofessional and nonmanagerial workers). Furthermore, he points out that Victorians were the first to concern themselves about sex education for children, the quality of urban nightlife, commuter marriages, the competing claims of pleasure and procreation in married sex, and the rationale of divorce. Persuasively arguing that there is much in Victorian sexual moralism of interest to the late twentieth century, this lively and fascinating study offers a radical challenge to one of the most enduring myths of our age.

Excerpt

The main reason for this book about the past is a fact about the present. In our culture the Victorian age has a special place: more than any other era it awakens in us our capacities to feel hostile towards a past way of life, to perceive the past as alien, unenlightened, and silly. This is by no means the only feeling we have about the Victorians, but in attracting certain other feelings--including the positive ones of nostalgia, sense of affinity, and even admiration--the Victorian period is like any historical era. What makes it distinctive is the hostility included in the mix of attitudes we have about it.

If we had to identify a point at which the past becomes unequivocally the past most of us would probably locate it near the latter end of Victoria's reign, around 1900. Though we live in the final decade of the twentieth century we are still remarkably capable of feeling united with all the generations back to 1900; after the turn of the last century everyone, so to speak, is family; before the turn of the century lies the other, the irrecoverable, the strange--human beings who are not like us and who are sundered from us by the power of historical processes. 'Twentieth century' still means something like 'modern' in our present usage.

The fact that the Victorians are the first historical people is surely . . .

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