The popular image of the Victorians is one of straight-laced prudery. A society obsessed with sex as the unspoken vice, an evil that debased the individual, corrupted his soul, and weakened the public morality. As such, sex was a subject that was strictly taboo and overt displays of affection frowned upon. Yet the Victorians enjoyed sex just as much as any other generation but even so it remained a society that closely guarded against any form of temptation. It was the thick moral blanket that covered a multitude of sins.
The Victorians recognised four great evils – prostitution, masturbation, homosexuality, and drunkenness. Though these may have been issues rarely spoken about in polite circles they remained determined to stamp out.
Victorian Britain was a society of extremes, great wealth sat uncomfortably alongside absolute poverty and it has been estimated that at some time or other one woman in six had turned to prostitution to fend either for herself or her family. In 1887, the medical journal The Lancet stated that there were 80,000 working prostitutes in London alone or 3% of the city’s population.
For a society that held very firm views as to what a woman was, a creature of graceful and feminine beauty, gentle, loyal and obedient, and of her status and role in society to sell one’s body for the sexual gratification of others was to quite literally fall from Grace with God.
In the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign it was believed that women had no sexual appetite of their own. That they only had sex to satisfy the needs of their husband or for reasons of procreation. As such they were innocent and chaste, by nature. They were the Angel in the House and had to be protected from the corrupting ways of predatory men.
This view of women was to change dramatically over the coming decades and by the 1880’s women were still considered to be the weaker sex but not for reasons of their innocence but because they were unable to control their emotions and their sexual desires.
They were vulnerable to temptation and in some cases their appetite for sexual gratification was insatiable. Indeed, there were only two kinds of women, the sexual and the frigid. Even female menstruation was believed to bring on a temporary insanity. Despite, and maybe because of this, they would be judged according to their chastity.
In 1848 the future four times Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone founded the Church Penitentiary Association for the Redemption of Fallen Women and not long after began to meet prostitutes on the streets some of whom he took to his home to convince them, so he said including in a controversial court case, to mend their wicked ways. It was something he was to continue to do even when he was the resident of No 10 Downing Street.
Despite the best efforts of people like Gladstone and other High-Anglicans the image of the fallen woman remained a toxic one in Victorian society, and it was widely held that once led astray the woman could not be redeemed.
It was still believed however that a woman’s descent into sexual depravity could be prevented. The signs were there and unmistakable.
A woman displayed the maddening effects of unrelieved sexual desire in moments of hysteria or on those frequent occasions when she was emotionally overwrought.
In Elizabethan times it had been believed that the accumulation of female sperm known as “Green Sickness” drove women insane. This view had not changed in the three hundred years since and the hysteria, or insanity, could be relieved by operating on the clitoris or by forced masturbation. Such operations were indeed carried out but remained a secret as knowledge of such would reduce the woman’s value in the marriage bed.
In 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Act criminalised acts of gross indecency between men, but there was no provision made in the law for women committing a similar offence. It is believed that Queen Victoria herself struck out the clause referring to women refusing to believe that such a thing existed. Lesbianism then was a myth. Two overtly lesbian women in a relationship would be referred to as “companions.”
There might be much sniggering behind handkerchiefs but the fact that they might enjoy having sex with one another remained if not unthinkable then unmentionable.
Homosexual relations between men remained very different however, and was not only considered an abomination but an overt threat to society. Indeed, prior to 1861 its practice had been a capital offence with the last men executed for committing a homosexual offence being as recent as 1830.
There were to be a number of high-profile homosexual scandals during the Victorian era. One in particular was to strike at the very heart of the British Establishment.
On 6 July 1890 Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline, who had earlier been prominent in the Jack the Ripper case, arrived at number 19 Cleveland Street with a warrant for the arrest of the owner of what was believed to be a homosexual brothel. The subject of the warrant was not at home but a search of the premises uncovered the brothels client list. The police were shocked to discover some of the names that were on it which included Lord Arthur Somerset, equerry to the Prince of Wales, Henry Fitzroy, the Earl of Euston, and a number of high-ranking military officers. Even Price Albert Victor, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and heir presumptive to the throne, was implicated.
Though there were prosecutions in the case none of the brothels high-profile clients was ever charged in what was widely perceived to have been an establishment cover-up.
An even more sensational case was to occur just a few years later in early 1895 when the famous and flamboyant playwright Oscar Wilde brought a case for libel against the Marquess of Queensberry.
On 18 February, the Marquess believing that Wilde had seduced and was having an affair with his son paid him a visit at his club, the Albermarle. Finding that Wilde was not present he left a calling card inscribed with the words, “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.”
Wilde was one of the most celebrated men of his age and the accusation of sodomy was not just damaging to his career but also a stain on his character. He was convinced by his lover and against the advice of others who urged caution, to bring a case of libel.
The Trial began on 3 April and was a personal disaster for Wilde.
The Defence was not only able to prove that the Marquess of Queensberry’s accusations were in general accurate but that by behaving as he did Wilde was a sexual deviant who regularly transgressed the law both criminal and moral.
The case collapsed and on 26 April, Wilde was arrested in turn and charged under the anti-homosexuality clause of the Criminal Law Amendment Act.
He was found guilty on 25 May and sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour, the maximum sentence allowed.
Just three years after his release, his career in tatters and his life in ruins, he died in exile in Paris.
He was aged just 46.
The atmosphere surrounding the Trial had often been bordering on the hysterical and its reporting in the emerging tabloid press lurid and sensationalist. London according to them was a den of iniquity awash with pimps, prostitutes, and prancing sodomites.
London did indeed have a thriving homosexual community centred on the areas of Soho and Covent Garden, but it was a secret world that had to be found by those seeking it. They even adopted and adapted polari, the language of the criminal underworld to shield their activities from the Authorities.
Such was the hysteria surrounding the dangers of homosexuality which was considered a degenerative disease that when the psychologist Henry Havelock Ellis published his study “Sexual Inversion” which concluded that homosexuality was neither a disease nor a crime the book was pulped and declared obscene, the bookseller jailed, and the author received death threats.
The Victorians were also obsessed with the evils of masturbation, the so-called ‘solitary vice.’
Whereas it was the retention of sperm in women that cause insanity it was the release of sperm outside of intercourse that caused the same in men and those who indulged in masturbation were considered amoral and weak. If it was not checked this amorality would spread throughout the Empire and ultimately bring it to its knees. Those adults who masturbated were so diseased they could not be redeemed. The solitary vice had to be stamped out in childhood.
Any indication of emerging sexuality in a child had to be eradicated and those children who were suspected of having a sexual nature were often put under surveillance. If they were found to be masturbating on a regular basis then metal cases could be attached to the penis that prevented the boy from touching his private parts whilst still allowing him to urinate. One doctor even invented a device that could deliver an electric shock to a sleeping boy’s penis at the first sign of an erection.
Despite the fact that for much of the Victorian era Britain was dominated by an evangelical religious revival that demanded strict rules of behaviour be maintained and enforced it was also a time when religious certainties were being challenged and with the accepted rules of behaviour being ever more honoured in the breach pornography and erotica flourished.
One of the most popular poets of his day was Algernon Charles Swinburne, a man of whom it was said had abused his penis to such an extent it resembled a teapot.
In 1887, he published The Flogging Block, a book of twelve poems that were his nostalgic reminiscence of the ritual flogging he experienced at Eton School under the name of Rufus Rodworthy, annotated by Barebum Birchingly and with such loving titles as the Song of the Whip and Lashed into Lust.
Despite the requirement of under the counter transactions it sold well and the following year he published a similar volume entitled The Whippingham Papers.
It was a fact that spanking, flagellation, and images of sado-masochistic sex dominated Victorian pornography. More than 50% of all pornographic books published in the Victorian era had a flogging theme, perhaps reflecting the Public School background of many of its authors who would have been subjected to regular canings, beatings, and ritual humiliations as small boys.
This theme was continued in the illustrations of the young Aubrey Beardsley who portrayed young women their bare buttocks prominent on their knees cowering at the feet of Victorian gentlemen with a riding crop in their hands or in bare breasted chastisement of one another.
But it was the obsession with buttocks that reflected the equal obsession with anal intercourse, the so-called English vice.
Books such as My Secret Life by Henry Spencer Ashbee and The Lustful Turk published anonymously, told graphic tales of abduction, sexual enslavement, anal rape, and castration, and could be easily purchased by those in the know. As also could the erotic periodical The Pearl, published between July 1879 and December 1880 when it was closed down.
Its publisher William Lazenby however simply went on to publish two others, The Oyster and The Boudoir. It was also easy to come by postcards and photographs of naked young women in provocative poses.
The thick moral blanket that cloaked so much of life in Victorian Britain most affected the middle and upper classes. The working class were always able to life their lives with a greater freedom, or at least as much freedom as a life of often extreme poverty would allow, though the stigma attached to sexual misdemeanour remained.
Even so, it was never difficult to find sex for sale on the streets of London. Cruising was common and the city’s parks were notorious as places to procure sex, and there were any number of “Park Whores” both male and female available at a price for illicit sex in the dead of night.
Cross-dressing was considered particularly outrageous in a society that demanded moral rectitude and expected people to adhere to strict codes of behaviour. The case of the male prostitute John Challis and the respectable lawyer George Campbell who were arrested at the Druids Hall in Lambeth in full drag posing as women to solicit sex made a great many headlines.
Throughout the Victorian period Britain was a country driven by a deep sense of mission that was in large part fuelled by an acute sense of moral outrage that demanded strict rules of behaviour and compliance. But like all societies that administer the strictures of stigma and admonishment it will in the end manifest itself only as hypocrisy and corrode that it was created to protect and preserve for regardless of the law and the fear of public humiliation and disgrace there remain certain basic human instincts that can never be suppressed.