Frigid Victorian Women?
by Kim Murphy
"How I long to see you... I'll drain your coffers dry next Saturday I assure," wrote Laura Lyman in a letter to her husband, Joseph. 1 Far from the stereotype of women being represented as passionless, sexless individuals, Laura demonstrates the private, often ignored side of Victorian sexuality. But was she an extraordinary woman ahead of her time, or simply a woman, regardless of the time period, who missed her husband?
Much has been written about Victorian sexual mores. The double standard proclaimed that ladies were "sweet, untouchable guardians of morality, whose distaste for sex led to an explosive increase in prostitution..." 2 But does the image of frigidity and purity represent real events, or is it a caricature that has been handed down through propaganda and repeated throughout the years?
Early books and articles on the subject cite secondary sources, which in turn were quoted from the original Victorian references. Very few of these older secondary sources quote primary sources--namely, the diaries and letters of individuals. To understand the importance of examining primary sources, one must comprehend the total separation of the public and private Victorian spheres. In diaries, it wasn't uncommon for women to mention inequality in society.
But what about sex? The basic argument until recent years has been that an unwed Victorian woman would avoid premarital sex due to society's restrictions. And once married, she was too tired from the burden of childbearing and raising children even if she would have considered sex a natural desire. To further this belief, some doctors wrote about the chaste wife and how she would remain pure by expending her energies in caring for children.
Yet the statistics of the period disclose a different story. In 1760, the premarital pregnancy rate was thirty-five percent, then declined to ten percent in the 1850s. By the end of the Civil War, the rate more than doubled to twenty-five percent. 3 Was sexual restraint abandoned due to times of turmoil? Or do the numbers reflect a shift in sexual ideals and attitudes?
By the 1860s, diaries and letters reveal more explicit and intensely erotic discussions among middle-class couples. Mabel Loomis wrote in her diary after spending a passionate night with her fiancé, David Todd, "I woke up the next morning very happy though, and feeling not at all condemned." 4 In spite of some advice literature, Mabel, in the privacy of her diary, admitted that she was content in sharing sexual intimacy with her fiancé.
Karen Lystra, a professor of American Studies at California State University, has taken her investigation of Victorian sexuality a step further. She has studied numerous love letters of the period to learn what courting and married nineteenth-century couples were actually doing in the bedroom and parlor. Instead of finding stereotypical couples who lacked in sexual intimacy, she discovered the middle class beheld sex with "almost a reverence for, sexual expression as the ultimate symbol of love and personal sharing." 5 And while most women apparently resisted coitus before marriage, the sensuality in their letters revealed quite a range of acceptable erotic activity while courting.
What brought about the change? By the 1830s, the middle class had already begun to equate romantic love and its ultimate expression with sexuality. Also, with increased availability of contraception, women could engage in sexual activity with a lower risk of pregnancy. Civil War newspapers frequently carried advertisements for condoms. Pamphlets and documents recommended douches and sponges. In fact, Northern women, using the advice of pioneer birth control advocate, Francis Place, "were frustrated by a sponge shortage, since the major sponge fisheries were in Florida." 6 Coitus interruptus, abortions, and herbal remedies were other birth control methods commonly used.
Topical literature on the subject by women themselves was becoming more prominent. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, wrote about the "immense power of sexual attraction felt by women." 7 And Ida Craddock, an advocate for women enjoying the sexual experience, wrote detailed instructions in a marriage guide informing men on how they should "arouse" their wives, "and study carefully every movement with reference to its pleasure-producing effect upon her." 8
On the surface, these views seem to contradict the popular Victorian belief of female purity. According to Lystra, the concept of Victorian purity has been grossly misunderstood by historians. One nineteenth-century adviser sums it up, "Love in its truest, purest, highest form is that of strong, unselfish affection blended with desire..." 9 Lystra went on to discover that many love letters demonstrated that purity possessed a sensual quality. In other words, purity did not mean sexlessness, but sanctified sexual activity for both men and women.
American moral advisers were divided into three groups: restrictionists, moderates, and enthusiasts. Often quoted in the medical literature of the time was the English restrictionist adviser, William Acton, who claimed that "the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind." 10 Acton greatly admired W.R.Greg, a classic moralist, who stated that "sexual indulgence... is when, accompanied by love, a sin, according to nature..." 11 Even in England, Michael Mason, a lecturer at the University of London, documents the Victorian sexual stereotype as mythical.
Moderate advisers were more in touch with the private side of the Victorian population than the restrictionists. The moderates separated intercourse from the sole purpose of procreation and felt sexual desire was purified by love. Though most equated sexual activity with married life, one moderate, Reverend George Hudson, wrote about premarital sex, "We are engaged, we intend to marry, it is only a question of time, whose business is it, if we choose to enjoy the privileges of married life beforehand..." 12 And finally, the enthusiasts were the radical group of the nineteenth century, often writing about unrestrained sex and correlating it to health.
The restrictionist opinion has been too often misrepresented as the nineteenth-century mainstream view. Many advisers wrote not about female asexuality but advice to men on how to increase their wives' sexual desire. Although there was much misinformation in the literature, most restrictionists were not as severe as Acton in their advice, and the fact that even this group could not agree on women's sexual roles contradicts the stereotype of female frigidity.
Still, advice literature from any group tells little about how people actually behaved. For that, the primary sources lend a better insight. Love letters reveal no repression of sexuality. Many letters uncover intensely erotic patterns and women accepting of themselves as sexual beings. Most women expressed their desire as being natural. And men encouraged women without astonishment. In fact, if studied closely, Victorian love letters uncover the origin of our modern views.
- D'Emilio, John and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. (NY: Perennial Library, 1989), 79.
- Reay Tannahill. Sex in History. (NY: Stein and Day, 1980), 347.
- Lowery, Thomas P., M.D. The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), 26.
- D'Emilio and Freedman, 76.
- Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1989), 5.
- Lowery, 94-95.
- D'Emilio and Freedman, 71.
- Craddock, Ida. "The Wedding Night." Ida Craddock website [www.idacraddock.org]
- Lystra, 60.
- Lystra, 103.
- Mason, Michael. The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 61.
- Lystra, 116.
Frigid Victorian Women © 2003 by Kim Murphy
"Frigid Victorian Women?" was first published in the December-January 2002-2003 issue of The Citizens' Companion.
Kim Murphy [www.kimmurphy.net] graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in anthropology, a social science where one of the first lessons taught about a culture is that ideology and actual behavior are two very different things. Presently, she is a freelance writer,and her first Civil War novel, Promise & Honor [amazon.com], was released from Coachlight Press [www.coachlightpress.com] in January 2003. And she makes no apologies for her female characters enjoying sexual intimacies.
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