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Hidden secrets of Victorian sexuality

(December 1993

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Worm in the Bud
Ronald Pearsall
Pimlico £12.50

‘The best mothers, wives and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, children and domestic duties are the only passions they feel ... She submits to her husband, but only to please him; and, but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions.’

This statement from a 19th century doctor – who studied reproductive organs! – is our received view of Victorian sexual attitudes. Sex is a miserable experience for women, to be undergone only when absolutely necessary.

Most people, apart from the Tory neanderthals Redwood and Lilley, would regard such ideas today as completely fantastic, adhered to by only a tiny number of bigots. But even in Victorian times this view of women and sex simply did not match reality.

Ronald Pearsall’s book – written in the 1960s and now reissued – is a comprehensive study of every aspect of ‘the world of Victorian sexuality’. That world is pretty remarkable for the prevalence of sexual activity on the one hand and of hypocrisy on the other. Pearsall studies every aspect of his subject from menstruation through divorce to flagellation. His sources include popular songs, bawdy poems set to hymn tunes and health statistics.

He builds up a picture of a society marked for its very sharp class divisions, in attitudes to sexuality as in all other matters. The study of prostitution in the book is a fascinating example of this. Pearsall draws on Henry Mayhew’s study London Labour and the London Poor, written in the mid 19th century, which places prostitutes in six categories: kept mistresses and prima donnas, convives, low lodging houses’ women, sailors’ and soldiers’ women, park women and thieves’ women.

One contemporary authority on prostitution argued that £8 million a year was spent on prostitutes. Out of a London population of just under 2.5 million, it was estimated that there were 80,000 prostitutes. The vast majority of them were very poor and lived a short and hazardous life of disease and danger. The minority of rich prostitutes mixed with royalty and politicians and were well looked after.

Single parents were widespread. In 1851, a total of 42,000 illegitimate children were born. ‘Many thousands more were killed, and dead babies in the Thames were so common that attention was not drawn to them’. Women turned to prostitution because it was better than the alternative. ‘The fruits of vice were, in fact, what should have been the fruits of virtue – reasonably clean living conditions, food and good clothing.’

The overwhelming impression the book gives is that the people who suffered most from sexual repression were the respectable middle classes. Working class people appear to have had a fairly healthy contempt for Victorian values when it came to their own sexuality. Similarly, the ‘top ten thousand’ of the aristocracy and their hangers on spent much of their time in extra marital sexual liaisons.

The middle classes too had their fair share of sexual scandals but these were much more likely to be hidden and public exposure of them usually meant disgrace. It was this class, however, which more than any other stamped its morality and narrow outlook on the family and society.

Dip into Pearsall’s book if you are interested in the arguments about Victorian values. Its style and attitudes are somewhat old fashioned for the 1990s, and some of the detail can get a bit much. But you will find a great deal of information to help you fight those descendants of the Victorian moralists who today dominate the Tory Party.

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Last updated: 25 February 2017