Modern Sexuality and the Myth of Victorian Repression

Christina Simmons

Excerpts: pages 17-20

For twentieth-century Americans the first sexual revolution popularized the image of the flapper, an ideal of youth, beauty, and freedom of action for women, but also one of sexual vitality. "The emancipated flapper is just plain female under her paint and outside her cocktails," explains a flapper's father in Gertrude Atherton's best-selling novel of 1923, Black Oxen. "More so for she's more stimulated. Where girls used to be merely romantic, she's romantic. . .plus sex instinct rampant." But in the shadows stands another figure, the authority against whom the flapper had rebelled - a stern and asexual matron, representative of outmoded Victorianism. "She believed in purity," wrote Sinclair Lewis, describing one such lady, Mrs. Keast, in Ann Vickers (1932): "She had, possibly as a result of fifty-five years complete abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, laughter, sexual excitement, and novels, a dark bagginess under her eyes, and twitching fingers." These contrasting images represent two elements in a new discourse on sexuality that appeared in the writings of white liberal commentators on sexual life in the 1920s and 1930s.

This group of thinkers created what I call the myth of Victorian repression to describe and condemn old patterns of sexual behavior and shape new ones. Through this device they interpreted and codified for white middle-class Americans the new morality that had emerged in the 1910s. By proclaiming the existence and legitimacy of female sexual desire, the new morality undermined the basis of the Victorian sexual code and encouraged some women's sexual assertiveness. Other women clung to the influence gained through sexual restraint. The myth of Victorian repression constituted a response to both forms of women's power.

These sexual revisionists proclaimed a modernist liberation from a repressive Victorian past, and subsequent historiography has tended to accept that frame of reference. Michel Foucault has absolutely criticized this paradigm, arguing that the supposed repression of the nineteenth century can better be seen as a "deployment of sexuality," the creation of new bourgeois discourses about sexuality, which in fact "incited" a greater intensity of consciousness about and desire for a "truth" of sex than had existed in earlier historical times. Hence, the Victorian prescription of restrained sexual activity,and modest sexual speech did not mean the absence or a repression" of sexuality but rather focused psychic attention on it. At the heart of the knowledge produced by such discourses were shifting relations of power between parents and children, women and the male medical establishment, the state and fertile couples, and psychiatry and sexual "deviants." Foucault sees the early twentieth century sexual revolution, the so-called antirepressive struggle, as "a tactical shift and reversal" in the deployment of sexuality but not a fundamental break with the past.

Analysis of liberal American discourse on sexuality in this period reveals both genuine changes in sexual prescriptions and important continuities with the past. I shall argue here that the myth of Victorian repression represented a cultural adjustment of male power to women's departure from the Victorian order. It constituted a strategic modification rather than a decline of male dominance. Although the new morality was made possible above all by women's greater political and economic activity - suffrage and reform work, college education, labor force participation - the new sexual discourse of the 1920s and 1930s attacked women's increased power. The myth of Victorian repression rehabilitated male sexuality and cast women as villains if they refused to respond to, nurture, or support it. And by identifying women with Victorianism and men with a progressive and realistic understanding of sex, it confirmed men's sexual dominance as normative in modern marriage.

Intellectuals, bohemians, and radicals attacked Victorian middle-class sexual mores in the first two decades of the century at the same time that sexual behavior seems to have been changing. Long-standing demands for female-controlled contraception - through voluntary motherhood and the right to say no - shifted toward a new demand for artificial means of birth control to facilitate female sexual pleasure as well as fertility control. Public discussion of these ideas signaled to both critics and proponents that more sexual activity was taking place inside and outside marriage, an increase precipitated by changes in women's sexual attitudes and behavior.

Women had been key figures in the Victorian ideology of sexual control. ~Nineteenth-century middle class men and women, whether feminists, free lovers, or conservative moralists, had all feared sexual excess and called for moderation. By the 1850s sexual continence, limiting sexual activity to legal marriage and a reproductive goal, had become the dominant cultural ideal. Allowing women to set the pace in sexual activity was commonly seen as a means to the ideal. Women were thought to be characterized by "passionlessness" and to be guided more by maternal instinct than sexual desire per se. Hence, they were expected to dampen men's unnatural obsession with sex. Although contradicted by women's legal obligation to submit sexually to their husbands, the image of women as upholders of sexual restraint was a powerful element in Victorian culture. Pursuing it, women mounted active campaigns for social purity, including attacks on prostitution and indecency in theater and literature. Victorian men took an equally substantive part in sexual control, however, in their own purity reform work. The YMCA contributed to the enactment in 1873 of the Comstock Act outlawing obscenity, including birth control and abortion devices and information. Federal Agent Anthony Comstock, enforcer of the law named for him, survived into the twentieth century to be mocked by sexual radicals for his efforts to ferret out vice wherever it lurked. While many people's actual behavior or feelings contradicted these prescriptions, the cultural power of this discourse on sexuality was pervasive and longlasting.

By the early twentieth century, however, Victorian conventions based on these sexual concepts were breaking down. Young women and men in the cities forged a new comradeship in a world of heterosonal leisure sharply different from what Victorian manners had prescribed. In large c ties new forms of amusement for unchaperoned couples challenged the sexsegregated or family-controlled recreation of Victorian middleclass life. Mixed-sex restaurants and cabarets, for example, appeared as part of New York nightlife in the 1890s. Men brought respectable women to establishments where men had previously gone alone or with prostitutes. In movie theaters and dance halls working-class couples set an example of sexually integrated amusement followed quickly by middle-class youth. "Good" and "bad" women now dressed similarly and frequented the same clubs.

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The Politics of Sex, 1923