chapter  6
26 Pages

Sex and Sexuality

Sexual prudery and the nineteenth century are synonymous. Victorianismwas a phenomenon which took its name from the prim and proper British queen in her advancing years, who symbolised the most puritan and apparently sexually abstemious period in history. Across Europe in general there was a sexually oppressive climate, and women were its primary victims. The perils and pleasures of the city came to be symbolised by discourses on sex. Women’s sexuality especially represented all that was dangerous about modern society. The nineteenth century is sometimes described as the disciplinary century, when women were made to pay for what was regarded as their inherently unruly sexuality. Novels of the period are full of anti-heroines like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, women who pursued their sexual passions and were punished for their rejection of the respectable but passionless role of wife and mother. This was an era characterised by the sexual double-standard, whereby women were constrained and punished for public sexual activity, but men’s less restrained (hetero-) sexual behaviour was tolerated. It was marked by a series of ‘moral panics’ centred on the fear of the spread of venereal diseases, the apparent rise in the number of prostitutes on city streets and the increase in illegitimate births. The passionless woman was held up as an ideal in middle-class circles whilst working-class adulterers, mothers of illegitimate children, women who lived ‘in sin’, prostitutes and even women who liked to enjoy themselves, were punished for allowing their sexuality to destabilise the fragile social equilibrium. Woman came to be regarded as ‘the Sex’. She was defined first and foremost by her sexuality, whether she was ‘sexually comatose or helplessly nymphomaniacal’.1