Women’s Decadent Sexuality in the Nineteenth-Century

Delia Santos

Delia Santos

Many people associate the term Victorian with the notion of sexual repression. Looking back at nineteenth-century America, modern day culture has constructed a belief that the Victorians were straitlaced and sexually in the dark.

This sort of discussion usually consists of the topic of femininity and relies heavily on evidence regarding a woman’s role in the United States during the nineteenth-century. It is true that various handbooks detailing an “ideal” form of femininity were being distributed.

It is also true that this sort of literature propagated the idea of the cult of domesticity, where a woman’s sphere was in a home, subservient to her husband, and completely devoted to her children.

There was even an idea that women should be passionless, meaning above men because they did not have their animalistic desires.

Lastly, it is also true that many women chose to live their lives according to these ideals. However, it is completely false to think that all Victorians acted as such. This sort of ideology was “idealised” for a reason–it breaks with the natural and is something that has to be working towards to achieve.

Similarly, this notion of the cult of domesticity was bread and created by the middle and upper class and not a universal notion. Many of the members within that class did not even adhere to it. A modern-day person who actually looked at the evidence would be shocked–in many cases women actually appear as hypersexual, dangerous, and a force to be reckoned with.

Popular literature for the working class helps to shatter the myth that the only ideologies that prevailed in the nineteenth-century were the those found in ladies’ pamphlets: “The antebellum social and literary scene was deeply riddled with sexual tensions and perversions. Although reliable primary evidence of antebellum sexual habits is frustratingly scarce, enough evidence survives to explode the long-standing myth that there was an all-powerful cult of domesticity that governed daily behaviour and kept America a prudish, highly moralistic culture. True, such a conservative outlook was promoted in popular ladies ‘magazines and etiquette books. But the cult of domesticity was itself, like Conventional fiction, an ideological response to reading habits that were far more inclined to the scabrous and illicit than is commonly supposed. Beginning in the early 1830s, sex scandals were often featured in penny-papers, dark-reform literature, and trial pamphlets, and in time a frankly erotic popular literature emerged.” (Reynolds Rennaissance 211).

An astounding number of people in nineteenth-century America actually believed that women were capable of having sexual desires. One group of people, those who subscribed to the ideas created by phrenologists (“doctors” that used bumps on the head to indicate personality), deeply believed that anyone could have sexual desires: “the sex drive was now generally recognized as powerful and irrepressible, largely because of the widely publicized discovery by the phrenologist Andrew Combe that the organ of ‘amativeness’ was the largest in the brain” (Reynolds renaissance 214).

Similarly, those who belonged to the group called the perfectionists believed that a woman could have insatiable sexual lust and that women often acted on it, for better or for worse: “In a surprising number of novels of the 1840s, women are either willing partners or actually aggressors in the sex act. Among the many views of women circulating in antebellum America was that of John Humphrey Noyes’s perfectionists, whose views were well known after their notorious ‘love feasts’ of the 1830s and especially after Noyes’s often reprinted ‘Battle Axe Letter’ of 1837. The perfectionists regarded woman as an insatiable sexual vampire who demanded constant sexual stimulation but drained vital force from man every time he experienced orgasm. Celebrating ‘amative’ sex while fearing the emasculating results of ‘propagative’ sex, Noyes and his followers at the Oneida community (founder 1847) practiced a system of complex marriage whereby man was encouraged to have many sexual partners (therefore keeping lustful women satisfied) but always avoiding ejaculation (thereby saving himself from the dementia that was thought to accompany the release of semen). Although the perfectionists’ view of woman as a sexual vampire may not have been openly accepted by most Americans, it clearly lies behind the portrayal of fictional heroines” (reynolds renaissance).

It is evident, at least from sensation fiction, phrenologists, perfectionists, and Nichols, that many people in the Victorian age knew that women felt sexual urges and did not necessarily adhere to the idea of “passionlessness.” However, many others took the idea of the amorous woman and took it a step further. Some believed that a woman’s sexual desire could lead her to become a danger to society–possibly even a murderess.

Yes, people believed women had sexual desires. But many people also believed this to be a negative thing. The Victorian age was a time when some believed a woman who was insatiable had a mental disorder, or worse — a manifestation of evil.

From this sort of thinking, we get a sense that the Victorians were preoccupied with a very old figure — the femme fatale: “Female sexual desire was believed to be particularly dangerous: women were more easily overwhelmed by the power of their sexual passion because they were closer to nature and thus more volatile and irrational than men. According to one doctor, ‘when they are touched and excited, a time arrived when, though not intending to sin, they lost all physical control over themselves‘ (Heywood Smith in Routh 1887, 505). Women’s potential for explosive sexuality jeopardised the self-discipline and control of desire that the Victorian middle class asserted were the mainstays of civilisation. Throughout these discussions, women were presented not only as metaphorically dangerous-to the family, to the moral order, to civilisation itself-but literally dangerous as well. Some doctors argued that a nymphomaniac would not just seduce a man but would overpower him and actually force him to satisfy her sexual desires. Female sexuality was thus understood in terms of the male sexual act, a kind of reverse rape fantasy” (Groneman Nymphomania 353-354).

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