Were Victorians Repressed or Not?
The answer depends:
1) What do you mean by “repression.”
2) Which sex counts as “a Victorian.”
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.
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’.
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!”