‘The Victorians weren’t as prudish as people thought.’
In Victorian times, sex was a precarious business. The danger of catching syphilis from a partner or a prostitute was exceptionally high. Even intimacy within marriage wasn’t safe. With the lack of dependable contraceptives, its small wonder people were warned of having intimate relations except for breeding. But does that mean that the Victorians were as repressed and prudish as they are often presented as? Certainly not.
The Victorians overturned 600-year-old laws of consent, proof that they were ready to have open debates on intimacy. In 1848 alone, some 2,700 girls aged between 11 and 16 were hospitalised for venereal diseases in London. The vast majority of these girls had been working as prostitutes. And this was almost certainly the tip of the iceberg. Many thousands more teenage girls went untreated. Victorian lawmakers, and Church officials, took an enlightened approach and introduced the Age of Consent. Adults could legally have intimate relations with a child over 12 since 1285. It was only the Victorians, 600 years later, who saw this as abuse. At first, they increased the age of consent to 13 in 1875. However, ten years later, it was increased to 16–and it remains 16 to this day.
Queen Victoria herself was no prude–in fact, she openly spoke of the passionate love life with her beloved Prince Albert. Victoria married her German first cousin when she was 20. Almost certainly, she was a virgin on her wedding day. But, as her writings reveal, the Queen made up for lost time. In letters to close friends, she went into detail about her married life. This explains why, over the next 15 years, the couple would have nine children.
Wives may have been expected to behave like ladies, but there was no shortage of naughty books to keep them titillated. Even if they enjoyed a healthy and adventurous life in the bedroom with their husbands, they were discouraged from talking about their sex lives in polite society. Even among close friends, the subject of sex was strictly off-limits. Any woman caught reading erotica or looking at pornography would be the subject of scandalous gossip and could expect to be socially shunned.
Victorian attitudes to male homosexuality were quite complex. Victorian Britain wasn’t an easy time to be a homosexual. In the latter decades of the 19th century, laws were passed outlawing relations between men. 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. The same legislation would also be used decades later to force the Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing to undergo hormone therapy.
Although ladies were discouraged from talking about their intimate relationships, there was still pressure on them to look attractive to men, especially if they were looking for a husband. And like today, there was no shortage of tips for making themselves appealing to Batchelor’s. So common were early push-up bras, gentlemen were warned against assuming that a potential partner had a heaving bosom. By the 1880s, high heels had come into fashion, allowing women to make their legs look longer. Dresses became daring too, with plunging necklines becoming commonplace.
It was during the Victorian era that business travel began. Men were forced to spend weeks away from home. Most times, such men would employ the services of prostitutes. However, there’s also evidence to suggest that frustrated gentlemen had another option in the shape of early blow-up dolls.
Parts of Victorian society we’re preoccupied with the ‘moral threat’ of homosexuality. However, this was almost wholly focused on male homosexuality. In comparison, lesbianism was largely overlooked. Rather than being tolerated, it was often ignored, with female lovers seen mainly as ‘good friends.’
In London, there were prostitutes to suit every taste, kink and budget. According to estimates, there may have been 80,000 prostitutes working London by the1890s. This was partly to the Industrial Revolution. As machines took over unskilled labourers’ jobs and pushed wages down, it made large numbers of women destitute–and they had little option but to sell their bodies to survive.
Despite introducing the Obscene Publications Act, the pornography industry boomed during Victorian times. In 1857, concerned by the booming trade indecent images, the 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. 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.
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 aroused by the sight of curves and notches. As we’ve seen, this was far from the case.
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