REPRESSION AND CONTROL
To explore their development after 1800 in detail would require a comprehensive description of the whole period: for, as was the case in preceding centuries, the evolution of sexual attitudes reflected the changing characteristics of the culture in general. My aim here is more modest. Histories of modern sexuality rarely consider the world before 1800, whilst their characterizations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries vary widely – one authoritative recent account of Victorian mores argues for the sensuality of nineteenth-century private life, whilst another stresses its general ‘anti-sensualism’. 1 The intention of these concluding pages is simply to explain how some of the most obvious characteristics and contradictions of the modern sexual world grew out of the developments described in this book.
At a basic level, attitudes after 1800 evolved in two contrasting ways. On the one hand we can trace continued, or even tightened, social control over various forms of sexual behaviour. Though the machinery of public punishment had been largely abandoned, its ideals were not. In part, as we have seen, this was inherent in new, enlightened ways of thinking, which did not discard the distinction between permissible and impermissible sex, but merely redefined it. In the eighteenth century, the growth of ‘natural’ sexual freedom for middle – and upper-class heterosexual men went hand in hand with the sharper proscription of what was defined as ‘unnatural’ or socially objectionable behaviour. In the nineteenth century, as scientific ways of describing sexuality took on new-found authority, they were likewise mainly used to argue for the undesirability of female lust, same-sex behaviour, or sexual licence amongst the lower classes. Similar ideals of ‘social purity’ were central to feminist and other progressive ideologies long into the twentieth century. Modern ways of thinking did not necessarily lead to greater liberty, at least not for everyone.
In any case, not everyone believed in them equally. The decades around 1800 also saw a fierce backlash against the perceived excesses of Enlightenment principles and practices. There were many reasons for this, which went much deeper than a simple distaste of permissiveness. The most obvious cause was the ongoing political crisis of the age, which began with the loss of Britain’s North American colonies, continued through the terrifying cataclysm of the French Revolution, and culminated in the British ancien regime’s desperate wars for survival against the forces of radicalism, both at home and abroad. Equally unsettling were the unprecedented demographic and economic changes of the period: a further colossal surge in the population (from about five million in 1700 to almost twenty million by the 1850s), and a huge expansion of the industrial and commercial economy, of urban living, and of mass poverty.
Against this backdrop of apparent national decline and social upheaval, the importance of religious faith and of social conservatism came to be widely reaffirmed: only by going back to basics would the nation find its way again. This outlook was part of the inspiration for the great religious revivals that swept the period, both in England and in North America, and for the intellectual Counter-Enlightenment. Christian and conservative observers often saw the spread of sexual freedom as the central manifestation of a broader cultural malaise, and the reassertion of moral discipline as the most urgent task in national regeneration. ‘It is impossible to find a more apt description of a corrupt, profligate, and vicious age’, urged the loyalist writer John Bowles in 1800, than one which palliated sex outside marriage: but ‘such a description is unfortunately applicable to the present times; and a stronger proof cannot exist of extreme and general depravity’. Amongst the common people, warned the panic-mongering Anti-Jacobin Review around the same time,
this species of profligacy, so detestable in itself, and so pernicious in its consequences, both to the individuals, and to the community at large, has increased of late years, especially in the metropolis, to an extent that is almost incredible. Adultery and concubinage in the lower classes of society are unhappily most prevalent, and culprits of this description so rarely attend worship, and so seldom become objects of legal punishment, that little hopes of reformation remain. – Yet how can we expect a nation to flourish where the people are so abandoned!2
Already in the middle of the eighteenth century such views had animated the early Methodist movement: its founder, John Wesley, was one of the chief supporters of the revived London Society for Reformation of Manners in the 1750s and 1760s. From the 1780s onwards, as the evangelical revival took hold within the Church of England itself, it inspired a much more powerful, broadly based, and long- lasting campaign for national moral reform. Along with the abolition of the slave trade, this was the life-long mission of its great leader, William Wilberforce, a campaign to which he felt he had been called by divine providence. ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners,’ he recorded in his diary in 1787, soon after his spiritual awakening: he set to work immediately, and never looked back. Out of this tide of reaction were born philanthropic efforts to re-educate the lower orders, such as the Sunday school movement (which began in the 1780s), more punitive initiatives such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice (1802), and unceasing attacks on the prevalence of upper-class debauchery. Underpinning it all was a flood of propaganda reasserting orthodox Christian values and propriety, such as the enormous quantities of edifying penny-pamphlets produced for the Religious Tract Society by the movement’s chief publicist, Hannah More.3
Have you looked at Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman? Horace Walpole mischievously asked Mrs More in 1792. Certainly not, she replied: ‘there is something fantastic and absurd in the very title’. But when she did read Wollstonecraft’s posthumous novel, Maria (1798), she exploded in anger at its message that contemporary marriage laws were unjust and ‘that adultery is justifiable’. ‘Let us take comfort,’ she advised her readers, ‘these atrocious principles are not yet adopted into common practice . . . Clear and strongly marked distinctions between right and wrong still subsist’ – it was everybody’s duty to uphold them. This was the context that spawned the deeply conservative and massively influential writings on population of the clergyman Robert Malthus. In the eyes of most orthodox and governmental observers his theories seemed to provide scientific, incontrovertible proof that without ‘moral restraint’ (i. e. the confining of sex within marriage) demographic catastrophe and national decline would inevitably ensue.
The cumulative effect of all these currents can be clearly seen in the changing moral tone of late eighteenth – and nineteenth-century Anglo-American society. By the 1820s, most commentators agreed that public manners had become more decorous in recent decades, and sexual vice more restrained (though they disagreed on whether it had been merely pushed underground, or really reduced). In 1837, Queen Victoria’s ascent and example were seen as confirming this trend, rather than inaugurating a new age. And many historians would now concur that this ‘Victorian’ avowal of strict boundaries on sexual freedom, and the repression of various forms of sensuality, lasted well beyond 1901 – indeed, that it was a dominant feature of western sexual culture until the 1960s. So pervasive did this outlook become that it gradually affected sexual relations even within marriage. Between 1800 and 1920, for example, rates of childbirth in most western countries plummeted by fifty per cent or more. This was a permanent change, and it appears to have been brought about not principally by any innovation in birth control, but by the mass adoption of techniques of sexual restraint within settled relationships – abstinence, limits on intercourse, the use of coitus interruptus. (It was only towards the middle of the twentieth century that the balance began to shift towards the artificial methods of contraception that are now the norm, and which have allowed for greater sexual freedom without a revival of the birth rate.)4
A vital component in this re-emphasis on discipline was the relative desexualization of women. This book has tried to explain the eighteenth-century origins of this remarkable trend: but it reached its fullest development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For women of all classes, sexual ignorance and passivity came increasingly to be valued as essential components of respectable femininity and heterosexual love. This was not just a male ideal: most women themselves deeply internalized it, and policed it in others. Nor did it apply only to virgins. As is vividly apparent from recent oral histories of twentieth-century sex, it remained the norm even when women became sexually active within marriage – and this, too, was a pattern that persisted well into the later twentieth century. Men, by contrast, were expected to take the initiative, to be sexually knowledgeable, and to understand that nice women would not necessarily enjoy sex very much.5  Publicly, this double standard was expressed everywhere, in the most blatant terms. It was not until 1991 that English law formally recognized the concept of rape within marriage.
Just as important, especially in the English context, was the further development of social double standards. Regulating, controlling, and forcibly improving the sexual mores of the working classes became in the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, an immense fixation for many middle – and upper-class politicians, commentators, and social reformers. Like gender (and, especially in colonial contexts, race), class became a crucial marker of sexual otherness, which could be powerfully attractive as well as repellent. We can see this effect in countless private lives. It fuelled the fascination of innumerable propertied men and women with the lives and characters of prostitutes; it informed the sexual voyeurism of Victorian and Edwardian social investigators more generally; and it pervaded the everyday interactions of women and men throughout urban life. In one of the best – documented London examples, the gentleman civil servant Arthur Munby (1828-1910) spent his life sexually obsessing over, and documenting, the tension between the conventional feminine i deals of his day and the bodies of the strong, dirty, disfigured, working-class women who populated the city. He endlessly watched, interviewed, sketched, photographed, described, and catalogued them, titillated by the contrast between his power and their degradation. For decades he courted one particular menial servant, Hannah Culwick; eventually they were married secretly. But until her death in 1909 she lived with him, and without him, as his servant, as a working woman – acting out for him, and for the world, over and over again, their private and public rituals of female, lower-class, submission, innocence, and bodily objectification.6
The same fascinations, and cross-class dynamics of wealth and power, fuelled same-sex affairs between men. Whether cruising in a crowded shopping street or in the privacy of a Turkish bath, for many better-off men the thrill of a clandestine liaison with some ‘rough trade’ was clearly heightened by the frisson of social transgression. In 1953, one of the patrician characters of The Heart in Exile, a sympathetic and best-selling novel about homosexual life in London, looked back wistfully on this apparently disappearing culture. ‘People like us have less money now’, he complained, ‘the working class no longer respects us as they did’ – whereas previously, young working-class men
were yours for the asking. . . Boys accepted us because we were class. . . they liked us because, unlike women, we didn’t cost them money. I suppose we made a fuss of them, which their girls didn’t. Anyhow, today they can afford women, and if they don’t want women they have plenty of money for other amusements.
‘We don’t like people like ourselves’, explained another, ‘we don’t want anybody who shares our standards. I mean educated, middle class and so on. In fact, we want the very opposite. We want the primitive, the uneducated, the tough.’
Heterosexual attitudes to same-sex behaviour were just as deeply inflected by presumptions about class. As doctors, lawyers, and criminologists struggled to understand homosexual desire, they tended to distinguish between the apparently more loving and ‘natural’ passions of mature, respectable men, and the perverted promiscuous practices supposedly more common amongst working-class queers – which, as a handbook on the Psychological Treatment of Crime explained with distaste in 1949, simply combined ‘primitive sexual interests with an interest towards all forms of sexual activity’.7
Similar double standards characterized attitudes towards heterosexual prostitution. This was a prime enabler of sexual freedom for bourgeois men, yet perpetuated the depravation of lower-class women: small wonder that its class basis provoked such strong feelings on all sides. Equally telling was the character of ninteenth – and early twentieth – century censorship. The Victorians and their successors put considerable efforts into limiting the public availability of sexually explicit materials. To a certain extent it proved possible to push sexual imagery, writing, and information underground, and to police its availability. Yet this did not prevent ever-greater quantities of pornography from being clandestinely produced and circulated. Many gentlemen amassed huge collections of it: the main concern was simply to keep immoral materials away from women and from the masses. In i960, when Penguin Books was prosecuted for publishing D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, this outlook was echoed in the opening speech of the lead prosecutor, J. M. G. Griffith-Jones (of Eton, Cambridge, and the Coldstream Guards). After he lost the trial, his remarks were to be held up by more liberal commentators as notoriously ill-judged; yet in earlier decades they would have been wholly unexceptional. Naturally, Griffith-Jones stressed, in this modern day and age it would be wrong to ‘approach this matter in any priggish, high-minded, super-correct, mid-Victorian manner’. Nonetheless, the essential test for the jury was
to ask yourselves the question, when you have read it through, would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?8
The subject of Lawrence’s book, written in the later 1920s, was itself of course a testament to the great English obsession with sex and class.
The final key feature of modern boundaries on sexual freedom was the growing frequency and harshness with which homosexual men were persecuted, both legally and socially. This was once more a development that had its origins in the eighteenth century, but took on even greater prominence after 1800. It was, again, especially marked in England. Throughout the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of prosecutions and convictions per year for sodomy and homosexual indecency. Until the 1830s Englishmen were regularly executed for ‘buggery’: between 1810 and 1835, forty-six men were judicially killed for this crime. Thousands more were publicly humiliated in the pillory, or sentenced to jail for their unnatural perversions. Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment at hard labour for two years in 1895 is only the best-known example. Even more remarkable than this Victorian severity is that, in numerical terms at least, it was vastly outstripped by the huge twentieth-century increase in legal persecution of homosexual behaviour. At the time of Wilde’s trial, such incidents amounted to about 5 per cent of all trials for crimes against a person; by the later 1950s, the figure had increased to over 20 per cent – in other words, thousands of prosecutions per year. The same dramatic surge took place in other European countries and across the United States. To curb homosexuality, perhaps even to exterminate it, was for many decades a prominent concern of public policy.9 There was far less overt anxiety about lesbian sex, which had never even fallen under any criminal law. Yet it is telling that, all the same, even its mere discussion in public was regarded as a threat to morality. In 1921, a proposal to criminalize sex between women was rejected in parliament partly because it was felt undesirable to draw the practices of ‘an extremely small minority’ of women to the attention of the vast majority ‘who have never heard of this at all’. Likewise, when in 1928 Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness tried to advocate tolerance for female ‘inverts’, its message was summarily deemed ‘obscene’ and ‘unnatural’, and the book banned.10
At the root of this collective nineteenth – and twentieth-century concern to restrict supposedly unnatural sexual practices was an important development in how such behaviour was conceived. Rather than as sinful actions, they were increasingly likely to be viewed as the marks of a deviant personality, whose origins (whether in nature or nurture) now became the focus of intense debate. The typology of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ behaviour thus came to be mapped on to a medicalized pathology of character-types – the homosexual ‘invert’, the ‘nymphomaniac’, the ‘criminal woman’, and so on. As we have seen, this approach had its origins in the Enlightenment desire to understand human nature in new, scientific ways; but it grew increasingly elaborate and powerful in subsequent centuries, as medicine and biology became ever more authoritative determinants of what was sexually and socially ‘natural’. (This was one of the chief insights of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976), the most influential late twentieth-century study of the subject.) Here was born our essentially modern way of thinking in terms of sexual identities, rather than sexual acts, and our obsession with labelling others and ourselves accordingly.11
Even after 1800, therefore, sexuality continued to be policed in a variety of important ways. Though the machinery of public punishment had been largely abandoned as far as sex between men and women was concerned, it was directed with increasing practical and symbolic force at ‘unnatural’ behaviour. More generally, the ideals of sexual restraint, newly reinforced, had a profound impact on mainstream attitudes and behaviour. Yet there were several crucial differences between the sexual regimes of the modern and the premodern worlds. As we have seen, there was now always in sexual matters a question over the exact boundaries between the public and the private domain. Overt policing was also a low priority for the major institutions of government: modern ways of enforcing discipline were much more diffuse and fragmented. All in all, the norms of sexual discipline were far less hegemonic than before, and in continual and growing tension with alternative lifestyles and attitudes.
The result was a sexual culture riven by, indeed dependent on, a whole series of contradictions and hypocrisies – this is sometimes called the ‘Victorian compromise’, though its essential features lasted into the later twentieth century. It was one in which, at one level, sexual matters were being continually dissected, discussed, and publicized; and, at another level, were supposed to be hidden away from sight. It was a culture in which what was normal and permissible behaviour and knowledge varied strongly according to class and sex – and in which the transgression of those boundaries consequently became highly sexualized. It was equally one that, in its quest to shore up moral norms, attempted to draw the boundaries between the public and the private with ever greater rigour, so that exactly the same behaviour could be treated according to widely different standards, depending on its exposure. As the political history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries abundantly illustrates, sex outside marriage by men was generally silently tolerated – yet if their conduct became public it was to be fiercely condemned.
This combination of paradoxes explains the variety of scholarly views on the essential character of Victorian and early twentieth-century sexual culture. It is easy to find well-off men who revelled in sexual freedom; not hard to notice the huge population of prostitutes. On such grounds, some early (and male) historians of Victorian sexuality were keen to highlight its erotic aspects. More recent and feminist scholars by contrast have tended to reaffirm the endless ways in which women in this society, and to a lesser extent men too, were indoctrinated in the repression of sexual desire.12 Take again Arthur Munby and Hannah Culwick. Almost everything about Munby’s outlook on women was, actually or potentially, sexualized. He thought about
their bodies constantly. The two of them kissed: they saw each other naked. Yet in half a century together they never seem to have had intercourse. Theirs was undoubtedly a highly unusual relationship: yet there is no better illustration of the Victorian tension between sexual obsession and restraint.