Victorian Sex Was Bizarre And Filled With Contradictions

Published June 19, 2014
Updated May 23, 2018
Published June 19, 2014
Updated May 23, 2018

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 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.