Were Victorians Repressed or Not?

For years Victorians were called repressed. Now some say they were not.

Were they?

The answer depends:

1) What do you mean by “repression.”

2) Which sex counts as “a Victorian.” 

VictorianWeb.org makes this declaration:

We are well-accustomed to the ideas of the prudish, sexually-repressed Victorians, who cautiously guarded themselves against any temptation, no matter how slight. Critics and reader have largely and successfully questioned this conception and proven it inaccurate.

And over at “Victoria and Albert Museum” you can read this:

Foucault argued that sex was not censored but subject to obsessive discussion as a central discourse of power (with) sexuality looming large in art and medicine.

Yet sexual repression is tied to obsession.

Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud points out that puritan guilt-trips in places like Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen — where orgasms are subject to religious diktats and sex is taboo — create an obsession with sex:

One acts as though it doesn’t exist, ironically causing it to be everywhere, determining everything that’s unspoken. Denied, it weighs on the mind by its very concealment.

What do you mean by repression?

Some point out that Victorians managed to procreate, so they must not have been repressed. Queen Victoria had several children, in fact, suggesting that she was sexually engrossed — say some.

Yet a woman may have many children despite even without any interest in, or enjoyment of, sex.

Victoria and Albert

The site “Romantics and Victorians” also insists that Queen Victoria was not repressed. After all, she found her husband, Albert, charming and handsome:

Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.

Such frank expression of desire confirms that sexual enjoyment was not exclusively a male prerogative, adds R&V.

Does finding a man charming and handsome mean that you aren’t repressed? I’m repressed but I still find men charming and attractive.

That said, the queen does seem to have been quite sexual, based on other evidence: When physicians told her that her ninth baby should be her last she asked, “Can I have no more fun in bed?” So Queen Victoria was not Victorian.

Yet others were. As V&A also point out,

According to their own testimonies, many people born in the Victorian age were both factually uninformed and emotionally frigid about sexual matters.

Sexual repression involves discomfort and/or disinterest in sex, and arises from suppressing desire for fear of punishment.

In the U.S. today nearly half of American women have low or no interest in sex. And Victorian times were even more punishing towards women’s sexuality and repressive than ours. There, a good woman was not expected to enjoy sex. A woman who had sex outside of marriage was seen as forever “fallen.” She was strongly shamed and could neither marry nor get a job.

Are men the only ones who count?

However, Victorian men may not have been terribly repressed. As V&A point out,

A hypocritical ‘shadow side’ to this public denial (of sexuality) was glimpsed in the ‘secret world’ of Victorian prostitution and pornography, and more openly in the ‘naughty nineties’.

Les Miserables’ Fantine sold her hair, teeth and body to survive after ostracism.

Calling sex “naughty” is telling. “Sex = dirty” is a sign of repression.

And why did men visit prostitutes so much?

Because — as already noted — if a woman had sex outside of marriage she could not get married, her family might disown her, and she couldn’t get a job either. She was basically ostracized. How does one live in such circumstances?

Les Miserables tells the story of the Victorian, Fantine, who lost her job when it was discovered that she’d had a child out of wedlock. Unable to support herself, she sold her possessions, her hair and her teeth. When she had nothing left to sell she sold her body (and soul) in prostitution.

Because men “needed” a pool of prostitutes, women were accrued by making it impossible for “the fallen” to be redeemed. An increase in her pain was “necessary” to satisfy an increase in men’s pleasure.

In Victorian times women’s sexuality was severely punished. And, women are more responsive than men to repression. The perfect repressive storm.

Were Victorians repressed?

Were Victorians sexually repressed?

If by Victorian you only mean men, the answer is “not so much.” But turning to women the answer shifts to “Very much indeed!”

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 28, 2017, in sex and sexuality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. I’m assuming that nothing happened to the men who strayed outside their marriages for sex. This all sounds like just another example of patriarchy. Men are applauded whilst women are punished for expressing their sexual desires. I actually watched a TV show: The White Queen, that spoke of some of this sexual repression. The queen had her own separate bedroom and only slept in the king’s bed when they were trying to have a child. So sex equated to trying to reproduce an heir. But she later realized the power she held over him with sex and she used it to manipulate him into bending to her will. This is how she was able to gain more power within the kingdom and also the army.

    • Yes, patriarchy is behind all this. In tribal societies when you didn’t know who dad was Women had a lot of power because family lineage was traced through women, Women headed clans and property passed through women. So the double standard becomes very important in a patriarchy. And when women are basically forced to be sex slaves in Victorian times, that’s still more patriarchy.

  2. What happened to Victorian men who had sex outside marriage?
    What happened if a single men sought prostitutes? Did it effect his job/marriage prospects?
    What about a married woman who sought prostitutes?
    And how about a single or married man who slept with a woman who wasn’t a prostitute and also wasn’t his wife?

    • Total double standard. Men could do whatever they liked. Women were punished. It’s a tool of patriarchy:

      1. men are free, Women are constricted
      2. men are celebrated for a core desire while women are shamed for that same core desire
      3. and in our oldest societies not knowing who dad was gave women a lot of power because then Family name and property were passed through women and women we’re the head of clans. So if you want to patriarchy you control women’s sexuality more (need to know who dad is)

  3. I believe Victorian are repressed because in order for Victorian women to survive, they would need to hold back and give up everything just like Fantine from Les Miserables in order to to survive. During the Victorian era, most of the women are supposed to follow to rules of the society so they didn’t have much freedom like the U.S. today and whatever they desired was hard to get. This would include the fear of punishment when involved with sexual repression and if they were expected to not enjoy sex. It’s kind of sad that they couldn’t express themselves whether they enjoy sex or not because if they were to have sex outside her marriage life, she would be ostracized which would make her hard to survive by herself with no job and she couldn’t get married. Victorian women has more judgement than Victorian men since Victorian women are more strict with their expectation when it comes with sex so they are more likely to be repressed than Victorian men does. Victorian men seemed to have an easy time living their life since their expectation of them are low than Victorian women who would have troubles in order to survive and not being in shame from the society.

  4. Sarah Yoffe-Sharp

    I believe that Victorians were sexually repressed. Victorians were not allowed to have sex before marriage. Women who were known to have had sex before marriage were unable to marry or obtain a job. These women’s lives were essentially over. Victorians were not allowed to say that they enjoyed sex. Sex was not an acceptable topic of conversation, and certainly women were not free to acknowledge that they enjoyed sex. Those Victorians who broke these unwritten social rules were ostracized. If mostly women were ostracized for breaking these rules, then they were being repressed by the social norms that established and maintained those rules and the consequences of breaking them. This is another historical demonstration of men holding power over women. This traditional viewpoint can still be seen in more recent times in Britain, as Prince Charles carried on a long term extramarital affair with Camilla Parker Bowles while he was pressured to marry the innocent virgin, Princess Diana. Maybe it was not just the Victorians who were repressed.

  5. It seems to be human nature to want something you can’t have, especially when that something is sex. Rejection breeds obsession (T.Robins) and the above post indicates (at the very least) a fascination with sex. Perhaps the constant talk and discussion of sex was used as a outlet, much like therapy. In the end I think taking into account the time period, the social norms, and the expectations of women vs men is all important. To answer the question, were Victorians sexually repressed or not, it seems like the women were and the men were but only because the women were, though that idea is based off of a very minimal understanding of the time period. If the sexual urges and drives of people today were to be compared to those who lived in Victorian times, I would guess that those living in Victorian times would have a greater drive and would think about sex far more, in modern America sex is fairly consistently involved in some sort of media and is consumed daily by most Americans (if that makes sense) and the more normalized sex becomes the less of an impact it has. For instance anyone today can see naked pictures of thousands of random people, you can even go to a strip club and see naked people dancing right in your face. Because the waiting period has been removed and because sex is everywhere it holds less value. All one mans opinion though and I hope this made sense, like I said before I don’t know much about the time period in question.

  6. Male homosexuality was outlawed for centuries, but not lesbian relationships. I dare say it was up to their fathers and husbands to control and prevent such behaviour. Perhaps if cast out of the house they would resort to prostitution, but otherwise it’s difficult to understand why they would be forced into it. Far better to conceal a source of shame than advertise it.

  7. Ironically at that the time, male homosexuality was considered to be illegal and it was persecuted.
    While at the same female homosexuality wasn’t an issue.

    So if we want this to be completed:
    Victorian gay men were repressed to the point that they were punished by law.

  8. Not as much as Americans are 🙂
    Kidding of course… I think…

  9. The Victorians have always captivated me, I studied a bit of the literature of the time period. I would agree that women were much more repressed as a result of male dominance. I definitely think there has been a “resurgence” of that doctrine today in the U.S. Very interesting post!

  10. Interesting, i think certain cultures lead to repression – women in countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia etc – since they can’t engage with men outside of marriage for fear of severe punishment.

    Seems Victorian culture had something around the same which ‘repressed’ them.

  11. Interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing.

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