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Victorian Sexuality – The Powerlessness of Women

Page history last edited by erin 11 years, 7 months ago

Algernon (to his Sisters, his Cousins, and his Aunts) : "My dear Creatures, if you want Equality among the Sexes, you must learn to be independent of Us, as we are of You. Now we Men live chiefly to please ourselves first, and then each other; whereas you Women live entirely to please Us!"





Victorian Sexuality – The Powerlessness of Women



          Victorian women are widely believed by the general public to be the perfect images of sexual repression – uptight, prudish, and secretly unhappy for it. The Victorian era is seen as a time when sex and sexuality were kept behind closed doors and hidden away. However, this restricted view of the women of 19th century Britain fails to look at the real lives of these women and the heavy social pressures that influenced them. Victorian women were in a state of powerlessness. They were second-class citizens behind their powerful male counterparts, and were forced to be sexless angels (yet submit to their husbands) or risk dire consequences.  Although it may appear from an outsider’s perspective that these women were indeed “prudes,” we see that they were, in reality, compelled into this role by the influences of society.
          The preceding cartoon, published in Punch magazine in December of 1881, conveys an image of this very notion of the powerlessness of Victorian women. Although the cartoon does not speak specifically to the issue of sexuality, we understand that the problem of equality extends to all areas of life, including that of sex. In many ways, this cartoon reinforces and indeed mocks British women’s situations, letting them know just where their place is, and to whom they must answer.
          This image of powerlessness is noticed at the very first glance at this cartoon, without even needing to read the caption – one man, prominently displayed and relaxed, surrounded by eight uncomfortable (or irritated) women. The man is obviously in the position of authority, much in the same way that men were in positions of authority in the bedroom. In his medical study, titled “Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs,” William Acton tells us that sex is solely for the pleasure of men, and that women must use it only as a means to please their husbands and potentially satisfy their own maternal instincts (210). These women were required by society to hold a position of obedience and submission; they were told not to enjoy sex, but to have it anyway, in order to satisfy their husbands. Acton notes that some women’s sense of duty compelled them to have sex during pregnancy, which in certain cases was “almost worse than death” (210). The laws of gender took into account nothing of what the woman may want or need – it served only to gratify the men.
          The women in the cartoon are clearly frustrated – as much by the pompous man displayed before them as by their own dismal situations. Victorian women were forced to live up to a nearly impossible ideal. In “Victorian Sexualities,” James Eli Adams describes this ideal as “the angel in the house,” a woman entirely self-sacrificing and without any personal desires (129). Acton confirms this, calling the perfect woman “self-sacrificing… pure-hearted… unselfish” (211). This ideal of womanhood is certainly enough to make any woman grimace as those in the cartoon do. This picturesque portrait not only compelled women to sacrifice themselves for their men but also forced them to deny any sexual feelings that they may indeed have had. A woman chancing to express her own sexuality and desires was a dangerous undertaking – she would be risking her reputation and her standing in society. Furthermore, she may risk being looked down upon by her husband, if this man truly bought into the female ideal of the times.
          The situation was further complicated by the widely held belief during the 19th century that a woman must reach orgasm in order to become pregnant (Adams 131). If a woman did not want more children for reasons of financial well-being, health, etc., this misguided medical idea may have kept her from having sex at all, let alone deriving pleasure from it. This unfortunate circumstance required women to either submit to their husbands in order to be “good” wives, or risk stepping outside of the role of the ideal woman and forgoing her own pleasures in order to keep her family down to a manageable size.
            The women of 19th century Britain simply could not win – and the caption of this cartoon speaks volumes about their situation. The man in the cartoon, speaking to the female relatives surrounding him, tells them that if they want equality, they must be more independent (as men are) and reminds them that “…Women live entirely to please us!” Of course, it is doubtful that these women could ever forget that, and certainly not in the area of sex and sexuality. Although one may argue that the cartoon’s intention may be to poke fun at this pretentious man’s ignorance, we can clearly see that what is actually achieved is a mockery of Victorian women’s situations. These women were at once fated to be self-sacrificing angels and sexual submissives, or risk the consequences of stepping outside of their pre-ordained destinies. Their own wants and needs were pushed aside for the good of the men, regardless of the circumstances. The man in the cartoon is a clear representation of the grim view that Victorian society had of its women.
            Although it is certainly easy to simplify Victorian women as prude, reserved, and uptight, this is a drastically limited image. These women were not simply willfully repressing sexual thoughts, desires, and actions – they were powerless at the hands of society. When we glance behind the closed doors of the 19th century, we see a structure that relegated these women to second-class citizenry and necessitated that they suffer for the benefits of men. The lives of Victorian women were certainly much more complex and deeper than we may at first give them credit for.
Photo: Du Maurier, George. "Aesthete at Home." Cartoon. Pauls-Room: Punch Cartoons from 1881-1911. 23 Feb. 2009 <http://www.paulsroom.com/punch/aesthete.htm>.

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