posted on April 25, 2019 by Julia Bennet

Researching the Romance: Victorian Sexcapades

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read reviews that criticised historical romance for being inaccurate just because the characters engaged in pre-marital sexy times. But the Victorians were a lot sexier than people think. Our perception of them has been filtered by all those old photos of unsmiling grand dames and elder statesmen. Or by our reading of classics novels, often written after the Obscene Publications Act was passed in 1857. We mistake the public face of the Victorians for who they were in private. So, for your entertainment, here are 5 facts about Victorian sexuality.

Victorian doctors did not use vibrators to treat hysteria.

The myth originates with scholar Rachel P Maines in her book Hysteria: The Technology of Orgasm and popularised further by the (really fun) film Hysteria, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. They did use manual pelvic massage but the object was not to induce an orgasm, though this may have been an unwanted side effect. We can never know how many doctors were providing a free happy ending with treatment, but what is certain is that the official advice was that, if a woman showed signs of orgasming, the doctor should massage harder, causing enough pain to spoil her chances.

Happy ever afters are for sex workers too.

Prostitution was rife in Victorian England. Within London alone there might have been as many as 80000 prostitutes.  And no wonder. It was by far the highest paying job for a woman. While many of these women had tragic ends Thomas Hardy style (disease, death in childbirth, poverty, addiction,) the occasional real life happy ever after occurred too. Valerie, Lady Meux (pictured) was a banjo-playing barmaid and prostitute when she met and married Sir Henry Bruce Meux. Though she was never universally accepted by society, she still managed to become a renowned hostess and entertained the future Edward VII.

The Victorians knew about female orgasms.

Some doctors even believed they were necessary for conception. As with now, attitudes to sex varied dramatically. I’m sure many couples were completely clueless about how to make sex satisfying for the woman, but advice manuals (including the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden, both translated into English in the 19th century) existed to demystify things.

Love is and has always been for everyone.

According to some, Happy Ever Afters are not possible for gay characters in historical romance. After all, they argue, homosexuality had been criminalised in 1885. Oscar Wilde went to prison!

Well, yes, and that sucked. But, to keep things in perspective, in the second half of the 19th century, the prosecution rate for “indecent acts” between men was less than five cases per year. One case per year is still too many, but things weren’t as hopeless as some of us think. It was also during the 19th century that Edward Carpenter, a former clergyman, wrote “Confessed lovers of your own sex, Arise!” and published Homogenic Love, his defence of homosexuality. He also lived openly with his working class lover George Merrill, and they were far from the only same sex couple happily cohabiting. As long as gay couples were discreet and maintained a certain level of plausible deniability, Victorian society was unlikely to interfere. The happy ever afters of m/m and f/f historical romance are not only possible but, in my opinion, just as probable as the ones in m/f books.

The Victorians were really in to BDSM

Okay, it wasn’t actually called BDSM until well into the 20th century but it’s been going on for as long as there have been people. Many psychologists think the way corporal punishment was so liberally meted out in childhood in the 19th century, especially at public schools, might have something to do with the era’s obsession with the S&M part of BDSM. It’s up for debate whether there were more practitioners at that particular time or whether they simply left more printed records for historians to study. But those brothels in erotic historical romances that specialise in caning and whipping? They really existed. (By the way, it was really, really hard to find a safe for work image for this bit of the post. Let’s all ignore the fact that it’s from the 18thcentury.)

So there we go, 5 facts about the Victorians that I hope show how, when it comes to sexuality, they were much like us – diverse, mixed-up, and evolving.

Julia Bennet

Julia Bennet

Julia spent years looking for something to do with her English degree. Insurance underwriting, proofreading academic papers, and waitressing all proved unsatisfying. She spent an alarming amount of time daydreaming at her desk until she decided she might as well put the stories in her head down on paper. When Julia isn't writing, she enjoys spending time with her two children and her amazing husband/I.T. support.

2 thoughts on “Researching the Romance: Victorian Sexcapades”

  1. From a purely slightly informed reader of homosexuality in the Victorian age, in the first half of the 20th century homosexuality was severly persecuted and prosecuted. Law enforcement even set up honey-traps to capture homosexual men, imprisioned them and demanded they be treated with detrimental lhormones to straightened them out. Many men commited suicide rather than begin or continue treatments.

    1. Hi Sarina,

      I certainly don’t mean to imply that homosexuals weren’t persecuted or that gay couples didn’t have to take care. Merely that the prosecution rate was low. I refer to the 19th century statistics in the article. I don’t have figures for the 20th century and, if you do, I’d be interested in seeing them.

      We’ve all heard of famous cases of persecution, like Wilde’s in the 19th century or Alan Turing’s in the 20th, and obviously there were lots of lesser known ones; I would never deny that these occurred. But the fact remains that a HEA wasn’t impossible or unlikely for a gay couple in the era if they were discreet. We know these couples existed. They’re in the historical record. Their happiness doesn’t negate the sufferings of others. The two coexisted, and I’m glad that modern romance novels reflect that truth through the difficulties characters face as well as their triumphs.

      Hope this makes my stand point clearer.

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