To what extent do you find the statement convincing that Victorian sexuality was shaped by a “contest between expression and repression”?


The Victorians are renowned for their prudery and hypocrisy surrounding the topic of sexual relations.[1]During the 19th Century Western countries viewed sex as a controllable force to be contained within the boundary of marriage.[2] Sexual activities conducted outside of this window (that were drawn to public attention) were therefore under the scrutiny of the rest of society within an era of political reformism and social conformism.[3] This attitude extended to the Working Class as their respectability outside of the workplace increased as a result of the New Police, hygienic clothing, and a higher awareness of their full potential within society due to advancements in education.[4] Whilst the Victorian culture desired to keep their personal lives private, through the analysis of prostitution records and birth certificates and the reading of diary accounts, historians became aware of this prudery being a public façade to mask sexually transgressive acts, particularly in the cities where one was better able to stay anonymous.[5] With a focus on heterosexuality in Britain (unless otherwise stated), this essay aims to explore sexual repression through discussing both Taboo subjects and the popular gossiping of scandals, whilst also looking at the development of birth control which takes the side of expression. Prostitution’s position in the argument will be evaluated as this can be both an expression of male sexuality at the expense of female repression in relation to social hierarchies. These conflicts justify Foucault’s statement (as quoted by Garton) that Victorian sexuality was shaped by a ‘contest between expression and repression’.[6]

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A degree of ignorance is evident with regards to Victorians and understanding their sexuality, largely due to verbal delicacy and the inadequate conversations surrounding topics of intercourse and puberty.[7] For this, the family is at fault, as this stable unit was considered the main force of moral training.[8] Teenage girls relied upon their mothers to inform them and prepare them for the onset of menstruation; however, this was often approached rather clumsily and included too many euphemisms which prevented the biological message from actually getting across to the naïve daughter. Dr Helen P Kennedy found from her sample of American girls, that less than half of them were willing to talk to their mothers about these feminine issues, despite being a natural process.[9] Given that the Victorians struggled to talk about menstruation, we can assume that they found giving talks about intercourse equally as challenging to both deliver and receive to a high standard, due to the high taboo around the subject. Sadly, this often meant the bride entered a marriage uninformed about her duties in the bedroom, and, unless she had older married sisters, was ignorant too on methods of birth control.[10] The inability to speak frankly about discovering sexuality implies that the Victorians were in denial about their children reaching the age of maturity and hoped to dim their understanding so as not to encourage immoral behaviour. Whilst perhaps just a result of embarrassment, this signals a sexually repressive society as they believed it inappropriate to discuss biological functions of the body and share knowledge between mother and daughter. On the other hand, whilst some historians believe that middle class wives were deprived of pleasure due to their moralistic ignorance about female sexual responses, women who were not finding sexual gratification within their marriage, were in fact seeking doctors to discuss their issues.[11] This suggests that some women wished to embrace their sexuality, and were not afraid of expressing it, contrary to the farce of verbal delicacy surrounding the family. This can be supported by studies such as Mosher’s, acquiring verbal evidence about women’s enjoyment of orgasms and the frequency of intercourse during pregnancy.[12] Perhaps then it is that parents wished to stay ignorant to their child’s newfound sexuality and felt it unsuitable to be discussed between people of close relation, rather than them objecting to discuss sex altogether. This cannot be generalised to the wider female population however, due to the small number of respondents and their predisposed willingness to talk, just as those who declined to take part in the study were probably embarrassed to discuss such private matters.[13]

The Victorian’s embarrassment of discussing sexuality within a marital context arguably drove this expression underground towards deviant outlets, specifically prostitution.[14] In London alone there was an estimate of 50,000 prostitutes during this time.[15] Although sources on prostitution can be unreliable due to the necessity of anonymity and discretion, we can assume that prostitution occurred in high volume due to the equally high levels of venereal disease. The highest concentration of prostitutes between 1857 and 1869 surrounded the ports due to the transient male clientele; this is supported by death rates from syphilis.[16] Whilst prostitutes posed a threat to social behaviour, literally and figuratively infecting society, the authorities did little to prevent prostitution as it was considered unavoidable if a marriage was sexually restrained; they accepted that men’s animal drives couldn’t be contained.[17] This agrees with Garton’s statement that ‘Victorians preached restraint but practiced vice’, as this transgressive behaviour does not conform to the strict morals laid out by society.[18] The acceptance of prostitution is extremely contradictory however, as this seems to extend only to the male population. Female’s finding themselves in the trade of prostitution found their reputation to be compromised, earning the labels of ‘fallen’ and ‘morally corrupt’.[19] These double standards are hypocritical as one cannot exist without the other; obviously whilst society turned a blind eye towards an alternative expression of male sexuality, the same act was unacceptable for women as this went against an ideology stressing women’s purity and domestic virtue.[20] This judgement seems unfair given that resorting to prostitution was often a result of repression and exploitation under Capitalism, highlighting not only a contest between expression and repression, but also a contest between the genders.[21]

Poor working women during the Victorian period had few employment opportunities, and as prostitution could earn a woman the weekly wages of workman in a day and provide them with better dress, a room, heat, light and food, this was considered a rational choice of survival for those finding themselves in a deprived situation.[22] Typically, they would fall into prostitution 1-2 years after experiencing their first sexual encounter at the average age of 16, implying that they made informed decisions rather than being naively lured into the underworld with no experience.[23] Swinging Sal, for instance, left her underpaid domestic position to enter the short hours and good pay of the prostitution industry.[24] Often, these girls were from broken homes in which the father had abandoned, making it easier to act up against social norms as they tended to suffer from a lack of education and nutrition, whilst striving for independence; they had no hopeful prospects.[25] The case of Hannah Cullwick and Arthur Munby can also be examined under this context of survival, as whilst married, Cullwick resumed her initial position as his servant who could be dismissed upon refusal to satisfy her master. Given the hierarchy in place, we must question whether this was an example power exploitation. This is most likely the case given Munby’s obsession with working women (he would often dress Cullwick as a peasant). Their dominant and submissive roles can be established by examining the paraphernalia surrounding them, including: boots, chains, leather, blindfolds, costumes and scripts.[26] However, whether the couple actually engaged in sex is unknown.[27] Regardless, women were becoming objects of the male gaze; acrobatics were sexualised in elegant dresses performing physical contortions.[28] I would argue therefore, that due to social and gendered hierarchies, prostitution is repressive from the perspective of the female, as society has neglected to assist those in need, providing them with no other alternative than to submit to socially deviant behaviour in order to survive. Cullwick’s submission as a servant is a parallel, as it’s likely she could not risk resisting Munby, else her domestic position would be compromised. Although it is the society’s lack of protection against sexual exploitation that is at fault, if these examples of sexually deviant behaviour were to be unearthed during the contemporary period, the woman involved would be the height of scandal in the midst of an unsympathetic public.

Victorian Papers were covered in divorce cases and sexual scandals, providing fuel for gossip on behaviours which were not considered the norm.[29] Attitudes towards Victorian sexuality were constructed by public opinion, further restricting immoral behaviour through creating a unanimous view on what was acceptable or what was transgressive enough to cause rejection of family members. If a girl happened to escape the clutches of prostitution and wished to return to her family home, she would likely find herself rejected by them. Neighbourhood surveillance and gossip kept women busy during work hours, occupying doorways; though it tended to be the older women who regulated behaviour and monitored observance of the norms. In this ‘large scale manifestation of community disapproval’, it was hard for sexually deviant behaviour to go unnoticed and unpunished from a social perspective, as the community consensus determined one’s reputation which would then affect the ease of which one could gain employment.[30] This supports Michael Mason’s argument that widespread anti-sensualism created self-inflicted moral discomfort as one had to adhere to the common opinion else face being an outcast.[31] Whilst the Victorians believed sex should be contained within the marriage bed, the fact that 7% of all births in the middle of the nineteenth century were illegitimate shows that whilst society held their prospects above extra-marital affairs, this didn’t prevent their occurrence.[32] Up to one half of brides in became pregnant during a courtship which resulted in marriage, highlighting the societal pressure to marry in order to hide the illegitimacy of the birth so as to save the woman’s reputation.[33] In the case of Laura Clark however, this pressure had a spiralling negative effect as she was forced to uproot in social disgrace and adopt prostitution after an illegitimate pregnancy.[34] This attitude didn’t necessarily hold in all cases, particularly where rape was involved. Philander Kerry was a domestic servant raped whilst making the bed; instead of rejecting Kerry for partaking in pre-marital sex, her family sheltered her and her two illegitimate children. Philander herself, the eldest sibling, was a result of pre-nuptial relations. However, they were aware that prospective employers and the wider community would need to be concealed from these facts, forcing Kerry to adopt the name Ann Miller to improve her chances. Curiously, her mother appears to have had five children in four years, whilst in her forties, conveniently around the time the two eldest daughters were sexually active. Even more interesting is the birth of Mary Ann, who was born within a year of Philander’s rape case in 1854. It is likely that Philander’s mother adopted these children in an effort to preserve her daughters’ reputation in the face of disapproval towards sexual transgression.[35] This case study suggests that whilst sexuality was expressed, through either rape or voluntary pre-marital sexual intercourse, even though individual families may have been understanding of their landed situation, the knowledge of it was repressed out of fear of wider disapproval, implying a secondary contest between knowledge and secrecy.

In extreme cases, girls subject to rape or fearing becoming a victim of gossip and rejection after pre-nuptial sex resulted in pregnancy, women would seek out abortionists. Figures surrounding this trade are unreliable due to the denial of the procedure as conducting an abortion was a criminal offence in both England and America. Evidence of the trade existing can however be found through adverts promoting herbs or quacks and the use of lead and steel rods to terminate a pregnancy. In 1898 there were at least 10,000 clients in England, and by the end of the 19th Century in France these figures were reaching 100,000-500,000 per year. If women were unable to afford the ‘professional’ procedure, they could take matters into their own hands, often resulting in a botched induced miscarriage which in the worst-case scenario resulted in death or permanent infertility. It is in this context that debates around birth control arose as this was considered the lesser of two evils if births were going to be restricted by women.[36]

By the 1960’s, the Victorian period saw the onset of contraception as the decay of religious sentiment changed attitudes towards prevention of conception.[37] Prior to this, the use of birth control was considered a crime against nature as Christians believed the purpose of intercourse was for procreation only.[38] The medical knowledge available at the time, with regards to sexual activity, also appears to be limited as William Acton believed that people possessed a fixed volume of sexual energy which would be used up, therefore it was necessary to focus this on reproduction over pleasure.[39] However, women with several children to feed fantasised about exploring the possibilities of birth control to prevent the burden of having multiple mouths to feed. In some cases, women were so determined to prevent conception that they resorted to locking the bedroom door on their husbands. In a society which held motherhood as the reason for women’s existence, it was hard for universal comprehension that motherhood might not be the highest duty of this gender, contrary to Marx seeing a wife as an objective ‘instrument of production’; although discussions about limiting offspring became less shameful as the century progressed.[40] Instructions on how to use the selected contraception provided candid references to organs and actions, and, particularly in the case of withdrawal, would have to be discussed between partners in advance of the act to ensure its success. This suggests that over the course of the century it was becoming easier for couples to discuss topics of a sexual nature which previously stirred embarrassment.[41] Whilst the development and acceptance of birth control gave the potential for couples to express their sexual pleasure both inside and outside of marriage, whether this was fully liberating during this period has to be questioned as women were writing to Marie Stopes, a birth control advocator, concerned about its inefficiency, with one poor wife stating ‘it is two months since I last allowed him intercourse’.[42] Nonetheless, birth control was enabling women to take their sexuality and gender roles into their own hands, a change which has crafted modern day attitudes towards sexual behaviour and the role of women within society, therefore I would argue that the invention and growing awareness of contraception was an advancement which increased the ability to express one’s sexuality if they were willing to embrace it, escaping from the restrictions they might otherwise have faced if trapped in a pregnancy deriving from rape or naïve seduction.


In conclusion, whilst the Victorians appeared to be outwardly ignorant about the onset of sexual expression and were unable to discuss such matters within the family due to a sexually repressive society building embarrassment around the topic, a minority of confident women thought themselves free to discuss their sexual activities with a doctor, with both their answers and their participation showing a desire to engage in intimate relations and converse about them comfortably. Prostitution was an inevitable outlet for unsatisfied married men to express their sexuality, however the hypocrisy towards the prostitutes and the humiliation they were subject to after the revelation of their profession implies that tolerance towards the trade was gender specific; it was acceptable for men to express their sexuality, but women must have theirs repressed or face the consequences of being socially ostracized, despite their occupation being a result of an uncaring society for those fighting for survival.  These are examples of repression set by societal conventions, however the use of contraception could invoke expression or further repression depending on personal choice, particularly as its acceptance became more widespread. Birth control increased couple’s ability to express their sexuality as long as they were willing to embrace it; if they were afraid of its inefficiency or didn’t discuss it with their partner, they would find themselves restricted if they were unwilling to produce further offspring. These points therefore agree with the statement that sexuality was shaped by a ‘contest between expression and repression’, although gender and social hierarchies also come into the picture. Ultimately, sexuality was still expressed despite having strict morals to deter regressive behaviour; it was the knowledge of such activities that were either repressed, or else caused repressive consequences.


D’Cruze, Shani. Crimes of Outrage: Sex, Violence & Victorian Working Women, (Northern Illinois University Press, 1998)

Garton, Stephen. Histories of Sexuality: Antiquity to Sexual Revolution, (Routledge, 2004)

Gay, Peter. The Bourgeois Experience: Education of the Senses Vol.1 (Oxford University Press, 1984)

Mason, Michael. The Making of Victorian Sexuality, (Oxford University Press, 1994)

Reay, Barry. Watching Hannah: Sexuality, Horror & Bodily De-formation in Victorian England, (Reaktion Books, 2004)

Walkowitz, Judith. Prostitution & Victorian Society: Women, Class & the State, (Cambridge University Press, 1980)

Weeks, Jeffrey. Sex, Politics & Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, (Routledge, 2012)

[1] Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Education of the Senses Vol.1 (Oxford University Press, 1984), p.9

[2] Stephen Garton, Histories of Sexuality: Antiquity to Sexual Revolution, (Routledge, 2004) p.4, p.11

[3] Gay, p.105; Shani D’Cruze, Crimes of Outrage: Sex, Violence & Victorian Working Women, (Northern Illinois University Press, 1998)pp.15-17

[4] Michael Mason, The Making of Victorian Sexuality, (Oxford University Press, 1994) p.32

[5] Garton, p.101; Gay, p.71; Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics & Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, (Routledge, 2012) p.76

[6] Garton p.114

[7] Weeks, p.27

[8] Garton, p.104

[9] Gay, pp.286-7

[10] Gay, pp. 286-7

[11] Mason pp.38-39; Gay, pp.162-3

[12] Gay, pp.135-138

[13] Ibid, p.143

[14] Garton, p.4

[15] Ibid, pp.116-7

[16] Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution & Victorian Society: Women, Class & the State, (Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 21-22

[17] Garton, pp. 116-7

[18] Ibid, p.110

[19] Ibid, pp.116-7

[20] Walkowitz, p.7

[21] Ibid, pp.3-4

[22] Walkowitz, p.195

[23] Ibid, pp. 17-18

[24] Ibid, pp. 14-15

[25] Ibid, p.20

[26] Barry Reay, Watching Hannah: Sexuality, Horror & Bodily De-formation in Victorian England, (Reaktion Books, 2004) p.159

[27] Ibid, p.8

[28] Ibid, p.148

[29] Weeks, p.28

[30] D’Cruze, pp.60-1; Walkowitz, p.209

[31] Mason pp. 43-44

[32] Mason p.71

[33] Ibid, p.67

[34] Walkowitz, p.194

[35] D’Cruze, pp.31-39

[36] Weeks, p.240

[37]Mason p.45, p.60

[38] Gay, p.138; Weeks, p.28

[39] Garton, p.110

[40] Gay, p.37, pp.243-244

[41] Mason, pp.126-7

[42] Weeks, p.241

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