Victorian Sex Was Bizarre And Filled With Contradictions

Published June 19, 2014
Updated June 6, 2020
Published June 19, 2014
Updated June 6, 2020

Wary of masturbation yet fond of full-frontal public nudity, Victorian sex is is filled with some of the craziest customs in human history.

We all that know the Victorians were a bunch of uptight prudes. In the late-19th century, women weren’t even allowed to vote, so how enlightened could they really be? People back then probably got arrested at the beach for showing their knees, right?

Actually, while the Victorians—like everybody before and since—had their hangups, their all-too-human sexuality tended to come out in ways that modern people find really bizarre. For example:

Gentlemen Never Took Off Their Coats Around Ladies; Totally Got Naked With Each Other

Victorian Sex Dapper Gent

This gentleman smells like roadkill. Source: Deviant Art

Have you ever noticed how, in nearly every picture from the Victorian age, the men are all wearing jackets and coats? This is especially the case when the picture is of men posing in the presence of ladies.

The reason is simple: B.O. In an age when hygiene was largely optional and bathing every day was in the domain of obsessive-compulsives, some kind of stink-control mechanism was sorely needed, and that mechanism was an elaborate social etiquette governing the exact protocol for when and where to cover up the stank.

To quote a couple of rules from one website dedicated to all things Victorian, a gentleman:

“Should never remove his coat while standing, sitting, riding, or walking with a lady.

And:

Shall never ask a lady to dance if he has his coat removed.”

Given how uptight these people were about armpits, you could assume that they had a similar attitude toward butts. But you would be wrong. Victorian men and women may have undressed behind screens rather than in front of their spouses, but all bets were off, apparently, at the beach, where just about everybody went fully nude.

Here’s a Victorian minister of the freaking church complaining in 1873 about all the prudes who keep trying to bum him out whenever he goes for naked strolls on the beach:

“[He complains about] the detestable custom of bathing drawers that are now becoming de rigeur.”

Same guy:

“[T]he young ladies strolling near seemed to have no objection.”

Naked Beach

Which is weirder; that the Prince Regent is naked in the ocean, or that nobody else is?

Prostitution Was Okay; Being Gay Got You Killed (Unless You Were A Lesbian)

Victorian Sex Scullery Maid

Much better. Source: Victorian Web

Prostitution in Victorian times was the vice that society loved to hate. Officially, every one of the nearly 9,000 prostitutes working just in London in 1857 was a fallen flower who would be better off in a workhouse; on the other hand—nearly 9,000 prostitutes! Clearly somebody was paying them.

See if this sounds familiar: temperance crusaders, concerned about the moral and spiritual toll of prostitution, campaigned to close the brothels. Once the brothels were closed, the nearly 9,000 prostitutes in town were turned out onto the streets to fend for themselves, whereupon the respectable people became concerned about the even-worse conditions of these women and started rounding them up for “health inspections” and job training in the exciting career field of a scullery maid.

Also—Victorian men were totally still paying for prostitutes like, all the time, and Victorian law didn’t allow women to get divorced for adultery unless cruelty could be proven in court.

One form of sexual release from which Victorian men were absolutely forbidden, however, was homosexuality. The attitude here was so inflexible (rigid? turgid? stiff?) that even Oscar Wilde got caught up in the witch-hunt mentality and . . . okay, he totally was gay, but still—the judge who sentenced him and his boyfriend to two years’ hard labor for lewdness complained about not being able to sentence them to more than that. When Wilde asked to speak at his sentencing, no doubt having rehearsed a few witticisms the night before, he was drowned out by the audience shouting “shame!”

The Victorian attitude toward homosexuality was so fierce (rough? violent? strapping?) that it had a curious effect: so few people were willing to consider even the existence of the lesbian that more than a few of them managed to live their whole adult lives openly with women. These “Boston marriages” weren’t explicitly sexual, of course, but considering what happened to Oscar Wilde that was probably for the best.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.