By Susan Hamilton
Ryerson English professor
“[There is] a historical assumption that Victorians would not talk about sex — that there was a kind of repression of sex and sexuality in the 19th century, the assumption of Victorians as prudish…But if you go and look at the sources, you actually see this massive expansion of talking about sex.
“Working-class women were certainly considered to be more physical and more coarse than a middle-class woman. And the point of comparison would always be a middle-class woman; an aristocrat carried the burden of vice and excess.
“The class system left working-class women vulnerable. A lot of illegitimate babies were being born to servant girls, and it was their master’s child. There was a way Victorian culture took class politics and mapped them over sex politics.
“There’s a lot of explicit sexual material that’s not displaced at all. It’s direct, and there it is. So there’s pornography: straight pornography, gay pornography, lesbian pornography — it’s there…And it would range from the printer to the equivalent of a Playboy through to something much more extreme.
“Victorian culture was a culture in which contraception was not as wide spread as it is now — so sexual activity means babies in a very different way post the Pill.
“There were forms of contraceptives available, but they could be expensive and were distributed through people that knew you. So your sexual life would have been subjected to scrutiny. It’s like now: think about living in a tiny, tiny town and there’s one drugstore and that’s where you have to go to get a condom. What’s it like to be 14 there?
“[There was a] middle-class assumption that women are primarily sexless or passionateless until they are married. So two women living together was not a problem because there ‘could be no sex.’
“There’s a game called ‘Kiss in the Ring,’ and this is in an urban centre like London where large groups of working-class men and women would gather. And it sounds like people took turns standing in the middle and chasing someone to kiss them. It was an opportunity for men and women to play a courting game without chaperones, but completely respectable and legitimate.
“The 19th century saw the rise of the compassionate marriage. You have to turn to the 19th century to see the beginnings of a coming to fruition of an idea that marriage is about companionship. It meant the idea of two minds, two bodies coming together, rather than a family and its class markers connecting with another family wth its class markers.”