THE FOURTEENTH February was an important date in Victorian Britain. By the middle of the century so many Valentine cards were being sent that the Post Office urged the public to post early to ensure delivery on time. And more than 10,000 women were employed exclusively in the manufacture of beautiful and intricate Valentine cards.
Often the cards were sold without a pre-printed message inside so that men and women could compose personal verse. The cards were made with lace and dried flowers, hand-painted and stitched with satin ribbons.
The nineteenth century was supposedly a very romantic time. It was a time when men were virile, chivalrous gentlemen and women were demure, gentle ladies.
Perhaps it was like that for the wealthy. Those could afford beautiful lacy gowns and expensive valentine cards had the time to swoon in the arms of their uniformed loved ones.
But for thousands of working class people, life meant working long hours for a pittance in appalling conditions with only the workhouse to look forward to in their old age.
But even amongst the middle and upper classes the romantic image of Victorian Britain didn’t quite cover up what was for many a very different reality.
Sexual morality was the message from the pulpits of the nineteenth century churches. The sermons said that sex was mostly bad, unless practised with moderation within marriage. Medical opinion backed up the clergymen, and so did the middle and upper classes.
Yet, in the middle of the last century, one house in six was a brothel. And the customers were respectable middle and upper class gentlemen, including the clergy. These were the same men who, in outrage, wrote letters to The Times calling for the imprisonment of prostitutes to rid the streets of vice so that ladies could venture out.
The image of the middle class family was all important. The Victorian picture of the family hearthside, with Papa reading aloud or the eldest daughter playing the piano, the children listening quietly, is a familiar one.
Yet the picture does not correspond with reality, for it was the fathers of those families who frequented the Haymarket in the evenings. Prostitutes gathered there in their hundreds – women driven to prostitution by poverty. It was the very people who wanted to ‘rescue fallen women’ that both accepted their propositions and did nothing to alleviate the poverty which forced them to prostitution in the first place.
The prevailing ideas about sex in the nineteenth century are often laughed at today. A few years ago I came across a book entitled: ‘The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age and Advanced Life Considered in their Psychological, Social and Moral Relations’. It was written by Dr William Acton, the accepted authority on sex in mid-Victorian England, and published in 1875.
The book contains a mine of fascinating information about the moral attitudes and medical diagnoses of the day.
Acton concentrates on men – simply because he thought, along with prevailing opinion, that women didn’t play any part in sexual activity. But he makes clear to his readers his thoughts on ‘a woman’s place’:
‘During the last few years and since the rights of women have been so much insisted upon, and practically out by the ‘strongest minded of the sex’, numerous husbands have complained to me of the hardships under which they suffer by being married to women who regard themselves as martyrs when called upon to fulfil the duties of wives. This spirit of insubordination has become more intolerable – as the husbands assert – since it has been backed by the opinions of John Stuart Mill, who in his work on the ‘subjection of women’ would induce the sex to believe that they are “but personal body servants of a despot”.
‘As opposed to the doctrines I would rather urge the sex to follow the example of those bright, cheerful and happily constituted women, who, instead of exaggerating their supposed grievances, instinctively, as it were, become the soothers of man’s woes, their greatest gratification apparently being to minister to his pleasures, seeing as woman was created for the purpose of being a helpmate to her husband. Doubtless many a medical man can, like myself, recall the self-condemnation of more than one married woman, who in her repentant moments, has acknowledged that want of sympathy and affection on her part has led first to estrangement and subsequently to a permanent separation from her husband whose merits she has learned too late to appreciate.’
The dangers of sexual immorality were spelt out to men, for it was them who were likely to fall prey to the temptations of ‘low women’. Most women did not experience sexual pleasure, it was widely believed, and therefore weren’t likely to submit to ‘animal urges’. Dr Alan said bluntly that women who do enjoy sex were bound to become prostitutes.
‘I should say that the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind. I admit, of course, an existence of sexual excitement terminating even in nymphomania, a form of insanity, that those accustomed to visit lunatic asylums must be fully conversant with, but, with these sad exceptions, there can be no doubt that sexual feelings in the female is, in the majority of cases, in abeyance; and even if roused (which in many cases it never can be) it is very moderate compared to that of the male. As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him’.
Incidentally, many doctors – according to Acton – suggested as a cure for nymphomania the removal of the clitoris; by Acton maintained that this wouldn’t work as a remedy because he was “fully convinced that in many women there is no special sexuality sensation in the clitoris”.
And that’s all Acton had to say about women. He was much more preoccupied by what he sees as the sexual problems of men. Much of his book is taken up with the dangers of masturbation, including many case histories to suitably warn his readers. (A large proportion of the case histories concern clergymen.
Acton says ‘that insanity is a consequence of this habit (masturbation) is beyond doubt’, and he recounts numerous cases where men had voluntarily committed themselves to an asylum on Acton’s advice. He also quotes a contemporary of his, Dr Ritchie: ‘The pale complexion, the emaciated form, the slouching gait, the clammy palm, the glassy or leaden eye, and the averted gaze, indicate the lunatic victim to this vice’. Look round the room to see if you can spot any.
Although these ideas were very much the ideas of the bourgeoisie they certainly found their way into the attitudes of working people – and well into the twentieth century. The notion that women didn’t enjoy sex, or that masturbation is somehow wrong, or that men’s needs are more important, or that sex outside marriage is immoral – they still exist today.
And so does the hypocrisy of the people who preach longest and loudest about morality. The Mary Whitehouse followers and the Tory ministers and MPs when demand that the streets be cleaned up, that censorship be used, that prostitutes be sent to prison, are the same people that want to ban sex education in schools, who support the sacking of gay men and women, and condemn women to have unwanted babies, and who want men and women to stay married even though it makes them unhappy.
The same hypocrisy exists in the national newspapers which print editorials saying that rape is a horrific crime alongside news stories about sexual violence and pictures of naked women which are designed to titillate their readership.
On the one hand the intention is to excite readers by lurid tales, and yet these papers are the hardest advocates about the sanctity of family life.
The truth is that most people do not have the freedom to enjoy their relationships with men or women, and they will not have that freedom until the pressures of low incomes, bad housing, shift work, and unemployment are removed from their lives. And another truth is that the present day preachers of morality don’t suffer from those pressures.
And that sort of hypocrisy we can well do without.
Caroline Tomson – Women’s Voice – February 1982 – Issue 60