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Alcorn: Sexual attitude of Victorians is misunderstood

Published 10:45am Monday, May 27, 2013

Listening to “moderns,” as of course I do, one would think the term “mid-Victorian” identifies the most impractical, unhealthy, oppressive, and outright hypocritical attitude toward sex ever known in the world. Whenever one indicates respect for “old fashioned” marital sex, one is accused of being “Victorian.”

The metaphor refers to the social and sexual restraints common in England during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), but the cultural traits are supposed to have begun earlier and lasted longer. It is supposed to be the attitudes under which today’s oldest generations were reared and which it now attempts to impose upon all younger generations. Whatever of this might be accurate, it is just about the opposite of the attitude exhibited by today’s youngest generations.

Being Victorian then means — they would have us accept it from their presumptive judgment — an attitude and practice that was grossly repressive, male-imposed, and its lingering influence today is the cause of most sexual dysfunction. It has destroyed all the pleasure and fun of sex, and is but tolerated for the sole purpose of maximizing the number of children so there are enough to do the farm chores.

If one reads primary sources from the era critically, one can detect here and there, now and then, at least hints or some traces of such an attitude. This is to acknowledge that the obvious restraints of the era actually did cause sexual repression, and this was indeed not only unfortunate but unwholesome. If you presume the characterization of Victorian as necessarily such, you can conveniently read between the lines and suppose you find it there.

However, these sources are not read by those uninterested in the historical facts. They cling to their stereotypes and don’t want to be confused by the facts. Anything they might read is secondary or “historical” fiction, which is fiction with a modicum of history. The culprit is the stereotype itself, because it has acquired a life of its own and has become self-perpetuating. It is appropriated and sustained by those who find it self-serving and convenient in defiance of the historical facts.

Why so? It conveniently exploits possible perceptions of the distant past in indulgent service of what they would like to think is justified in their own subjective present. If the Victorians were spoil-sports, we can be excused for being fun-loving. If they were abnormal, this must mean we are normal. If they were stuffy, we are cool. But we cannot extrapolate what sometimes happened into the claim it was always so.

The intent of social and sexual restraint in the Victorian era — not always achieved and often exaggerated — was to normalize interpersonal relations and stabilize families. It sought to promote profound relationships in marriage and family and serious purpose in sexual behavior.

Most civilized societies have had clear and definite expectations or conventions about sexual behavior. For centuries, they understood and were convinced sex is the province of a man and a woman married in a life-long commitment and the formation of wholesome families. Such families would constitute healthy communities, and communities would form a functional society.

This worked well indeed for those who understood the concept and committed themselves to compliance. Some thought they knew better than society and would do it their way. Often the failure was that of officials and authorities (legal as well as ecclesiastical) who themselves forgot the spirit of the law and insisted upon enforcement only of the letter—and felt self-righteous for doing so.

The consequence of this misunderstanding was inconsistency in enforcement and downright moral hypocrisy. Men who condemned commercial prostitutes kept mistresses. A couple living in common law marriage loved each other more than many formally married.

From such minor instances a stereotype was manufactured for the Victorian majority. It allows a facile and advantageous excuse for today’s amoral and even immoral culture where anything goes. The popular objection today is not so much to the stereotype but to normal, wholesome, and natural sexual relationships. If they don’t sleep around, they are not cool. If a man marries a woman, he is old fashioned. If they wait until marriage to engage in sex, they are repressed. Victorians, all of them.

Is this itself a stereotype? Perhaps, but mine has more factual basis than theirs.

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