We've Come a Long Way, Baby
Victorian people are remembered for their controlled, public persona, their mastery of pretense and self-restraint. The Victorians were white, middle- to upper-class members of society who lived around Queen Victoria's reign, from 1830 to 1901. They were an upwardly mobile bunch, powered by the 19th century's industrial age; they were intent on climbing the social ladder and lived on both sides of the Pond.
Art, literature, and journalism of the time pictured ladies cinched in corsets, smiling coyly at gents in skin-tight pants, sporting top hats and canes. But untie those corsets, unfasten those belts, and viewers will find a big secret of 19th century life. Contrary to their prudish, repressed stereotype, these folks were obsessed with sex.
Many Victorians pretended they were not having sex and were not interested, but everyone was, and plenty wrote about it-how to do it, when to do it, how not to do it, and the right and wrong kinds of sex to have. The strict religionists bewailed all matters sexual and wrote lengthy treatises on the proper position during intercourse. They warned against enjoying it, even married couples, lest the frenzy take over their lives.
No persons were exempt from talk of sex. A royal account accused Queen Victoria of telling her daughter to "lie still and think of the empire," on her wedding night. The story is surely false, or at least taken out of context, as the Queen's letters provide proof of an abundant sex life with Prince Albert-not to mention they had nine children. Unmarried couples were blasted with repeated warnings, and the stamp of shame that pre-marital sex would heap on them and their tribe. These howling jeremiahs were a minority, but they were loud, and the ones we remember, so they color our attitudes about the times.
In private, moderate Victorians embraced romantic love. They felt that sexuality was the highest expression of love for married couples, and they spoke and wrote freely on the subject. Since couples often lived apart in the nineteenth century, correspondence became the bright spot of their lives. Letters became their lovers, as described by historian, Karen Lystra. A lover wrote how she, "caresses, kisses, and holds your arduous words to my breast." One husband rushed his just-arrived letter to the bedroom so "I could have you all to myself," then asked his wife to "wear your black dress with the white slip next time you write." Another woman teased her husband about her lonely "bubbies" and how she missed "old long Tom!"
The woman with the lonely "bubbies" may have been a member of the "Enthusiasts," persons who were as loose about sex as the fanatics were strict. Enthusiasts knew that both men and women enjoyed sex equally, but differently. Feeling that the strongest power in the world was sexual attraction, they championed intercourse between unmarried couples and encouraged sexual experimentation. Enthusiast and Professor O.S. Fowler insisted that, "no man could ever become great, or even good, without the aid of powerful sexuality."
The enthusiasts would have approved of another Victorian secret: the medical "massagers" that came along toward the end of the century. Doctors used contraptions with names like the "Steam-powered Manipulator" or "Chattanooga Vibrator," to treat Hysteria, a condition diagnosed centuries earlier and found in widows, nuns and single women. It must be noted here that the symptoms of Hysteria were identical to those of chronic arousal. These new massagers helped women to achieve "paroxysm," the highly rated, but temporary cure of Hysteria!
Readers might be doing a double-take right about now, feeling they have fallen into some parallel universe, but historian Rachel Maines provides well-documented accounts in her book, Technology of an Orgasm, about these inventions and their uses. One of the earliest models was a large table with a cutout for the pelvic area to allow for massage, and another resembled an old-fashioned bicycle. The tortuous-looking "Carpenter Vibrator" hung from the ceiling, while later "personal" models looked like hairdryers with a rubber tips. Whatever model, they all had one thing in common: to bring women to "paroxysm." Patients would walk away-satisfied, happy-and come back the next week.
Surely, a few doctors were privy to what they were doing with these "massages," and some women must have been clued-in to the nature of their "treatments." One might wonder why Victorian women didn't treat their own bouts of Hysteria. The answer is that solo-sex was forbidden back then-it was thought to cause blindness, dementedness, and all sorts of grim conditions. So instead, women trundled out the door for their gentle massages, and doctors gladly took their money. It begs the question: Were the Victorians naive about sexuality or did society develop an acceptable ruse to satisfy unmarried women? That answers remain hidden in the records of Victorian secrets!