on “Victorian morality”

Given how often I’ve seen the idea that disgust toward sex is haughty and oppressive unless paired with a disclaimer, I’m interested in how that erroneous cultural link formed to begin with.  I can only assume it must have something to do with the upper-class elites of the Victorian age, your classic “prudes,” and this post details the best explanation I’ve come to for what we now know as “Victorian morality,” based on what I can put together from what I can scrounge up on the subject.  If you’re more informed and have corrections or additions to make, please let me know in the comments.

So long as you’re defining it according to the timeframe of Queen Victoria’s reign, the Victorian era spanned from 1837 to 1901, which you may recognize as overlapping with the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. Some additional context to bear in mind about this period:

  • The massive economic shifts away from the feudal system spurred a reconceptualization of labor and, consequently, a reconceptualization of the gendered division of labor.  While this isn’t the origin of the latter by any means, this is where you saw “the women’s place is in the home” become a Thing.
    • A transition from a more agrarian system to a system in which a household doesn’t produce most of its own necessities, which, in effect, moves “the workplace” out of “the home,” whereas prior to this point they had more or less been one and the same.
    • The reconceptualization of “the home” as distinctly separate from “the site where labor takes place” is what allows the “femininity = domesticity” idea to arise.  (White, English) women aren’t supposed to labor or earn wages (– two concepts now made synonymous); and because women don’t earn wages, men are supposed to earn enough to “support” a wife before they marry.
    • And guess what you get when a certain financial threshold is a prerequisite for marriage?
    • That’s right.  A bunch of unmarried poor people.
  • Urbanization skyrocketing — lots of people were moving to the cities and cities were getting bigger and denser, with a bunch of poverty now packed into a concentrated area.
  • The population of England at this time was heavily gender-skewed — that is, there were way more women than men.  In a culture of monogamy, this means not all women could get married, hence the phrases “superfluous women” and “redundant women” as subjects of social concern.
  • Aaaaand along with all the industrialization, urbanization, urban poverty, and mass numbers of unmarried women there came a bigtime flurry of moral uproar over prostitution.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: obviously attitudes toward sex work is not synonymous with attitudes toward sex.  But that’s kind of my point.  Would it come as a surprise to anyone if I said that the Victorians were a-ok with sex between a husband and wife?

There wasn’t necessarily a national consensus on sexual ethics or a moratorium on talking about it, besides.  This is the era in which Sigmund Freud formulated his gross theories on repressed incestuous sexual desire, after all (a part of why “repressed sexuality” continues to be a staple of pop psychology to this day — funny how people drop the “incestuous” bit when it suits them).  Heck, Nathaniel Hawthorn(e) published The Scarlet Letter, a novel that lambasts the Puritans for being too sexually strict, in 1850!  It’s almost as if the Victorians didn’t share a punitive hivemind more than the people of any other era.

There were some considerable trends, however.

The majority of antipathy, as far as I can tell, was directed at masturbation and nonmarital sex — forms of “unproductive” sexual activity that do not create or facilitate a (socially legitimate) family.  There was a ton of hand-wringing about prostitution/full-service sex work/whatever you feel like calling it especially, which was derided as “The Great Social Evil.”  And you know who was doing most of that opining?

Take a wild guess.

Social structure had much to do with the popular perception of prostitution, as the majority of contemporary work published on the topic was written by the middle classes about the lower social orders, which came about primarily from nineteenth-century urbanisation.

…poor working wages for women formed by far the strongest link between poverty and prostitution. …Petty theft was more profitable than petty manufacturing and in turn prostitution was more profitable than either…

Thus prostitution became associated primarily with the troublesome poor.

…The urbanisation of the nineteenth century forced the wealthy and poor closer together and the associated vices of the latter, frowned upon by the former, became a visible and thus undeniable problem.

…The working prostitute did not fit her gender role as a mother or ‘angel of the house’, instead choosing to work in public.

…In an age with two extreme romanticised images of women, she posed a stark contrast to the middle-class ideal of the woman as a mother, an obedient wife and above all financially and socially dependant on her husband. Branding prostitution as the Great Social Evil helped to reinforce this patriarchal social structure.

All I’m saying is, the more I look at it, the more the infamous “hatred of sex” associated with the Victorians looks a lot like hatred of women in poverty.

So when I said that real “prudery” is actually misogyny+classism (and not bitterness+sex aversion), this is what I was talking about.

What that leads me to wonder is what might have spurred the shift to mock and spurn “Victorian morality” as too uptight.  It’s certainly not that we’ve abolished misogyny and classism, no doubt.  Pinpointing all the causes would be a complicated task, with the modern conception no doubt influenced by the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, but it looks as though the beginning of the “silly, prudish Victorians” idea may have had its inception around the 1920s.

As early as 1918 you had people publishing works like the Eminent Victorians, but I don’t know much about that.  It’s easier to talk about the fact that young women of the 1920s are infamous for challenging the gender roles of the time.  Some sources make it sound as though women just suddenly decided to up and assert themselves, but the more I read on the technological, demographic, and economic changes of the time, the more it sounds to me as though “Victorian morality” was unsustainable in the face of so-called New Money.

Risking a little bit of a controversial statement here: this is when I’d say that “shopping” became a Thing.  In the United States, consumer spending was becoming a more key facet of the economy, and intentional advertising was on the rise.  Men were still expected to be the “breadwinners” and wage-earners of the household, but now women’s role in the gendered economic binary became that of the shopper and spender.  Advertising & consumer culture advocate excess and indulgence, which are incompatible with an upper-class Victorian emphasis on refinement and restraint.

And so, essentially, with Old Money losing its monopoly on power, that particular set of values (contextually) gave way to others that happened to be more useful to the powerful.

This doesn’t satisfy me as a complete explanation for how sex aversion became associated with narrow-minded & oppressive attitudes… but it’s hard to imagine that these things had nothing to do with it.

5 responses to “on “Victorian morality”

  • Elizabeth

    Shopping was certainly a thing before the 20th century. In the Victorian era, women could shop in department stores without damaging their reputation. While women’s role might not have been… codified?… as a shopper/spender yet (I’m no historian, so I can’t say for sure), I think the roots of that were already there, if not actually firmly established. I don’t think consumerism is necessarily incompatible with Victorian culture, as pretty clothes would still be a mark of status/wealth.

    But yeah… I agree on misogyny+classism, and I find this post really interesting and insightful.

    • Coyote

      Hm. Thanks for bringing that up. For some reason I still perceive there being some kind of shift there, but I may be misidentifying it… Could be a case of how upper-class markers filter down/get imitated by the classes beneath them, adulterating the meaning in the process. But yeah, these things tend to gradually build over decades, so it’s hard to pinpoint any one start date.

      Re: incompatibility with Victorian ideals, I’m getting that idea from stuff like this, where advertizers belittling the mentalities they attribute to the 1890s is… pretty direct.

      • Elizabeth

        Well yeah, they’re certainly belittling the mentalities of the 1890s, but what they’re belittling is the artificial, elaborate, and restrictive parts of it. The elaborate clothes and “stately dinners” were very much markers of class and wealth for the Victorians. It’s a shift in values, yes, but it comes across as more just a shift in target market than a shift away from or to more consumerism. It strikes me as the flappers abandoning the (ultimately unsustainable) classist status markers of their mothers, and advertisers sneakily trying to capitalize on that. They would open up a much wider range of (cheaper) products to sell by encouraging youth to break tradition, whereas with the Victorians there would have been more focus on a narrow range of “correct” products that were especially fine and elaborate. It seems more like a shift in strategy than a completely new thing. Presumably the younger generation wouldn’t have wanted the things marketed towards their mothers anyway, so the advertisers picked up on that and tried to sell things just by praising their youth and encouraging tradition-breaking.

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