Weird History

What "Doing It" Was Like in the Victorian Era 

Aaron Edwards
Updated January 23, 2020 904.7k views 16 items

It's simple to classify the past as an era of prudish and proper behavior; full of religious zealots and patriarchal power grabs even though that wasn't always the case. Rome, Greece and Egypt have documented instances of both the ruling class and regular citizens participated and openly enjoyed all kinds of wild intercourse. When it comes to Victorian England, the reputation for prudishness and repression was never more correct. Intimate relations in the 1800's was something to be avoided at all costs, and people found bizarre and creative ways to get around doing the horizontal mambo.

So then, what kind of preventative measures did people take during this time? Chastity contraptions, religious dogma, and shame were powerful tools in controlling copulation outside of reproduction. Make no mistake, this was a time of repression, and they did anything to keep intercourse out of society.

There Was A Mascot For Repression
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Photo: Gerbera~itwiki/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Since seemingly everyone in Victorian England was repressed in some way, it makes sense repression eventually took on a human form as Mrs. Grundy, originally an off-stage character in Thomas Morton's 1798 play Speed the Plough. In that play, characters fretted about what the very traditional and conservative Mrs. Grundy would think of their actions. Over time, the character's name became shorthand for respectable repression and extreme purity. During the Victorian era, Mrs. Grundy was invoked as a means of controlling desires. 

There Were Male Chastity Devices
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Photo:  Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Contemporaries of the Victorian era were all about self-control. While women got the brunt of that mentality, men weren't exempt from it. It was thought that if men weren't consumed by sexual desires, they'd have more time to focus on being productive members of society. From this mentality, anti-masturbation devices were born. One specific accessory called the jugum penis was intended to prevent men from engaging in any intentional or accidental self-pleasure. When worn at night, the teeth of the ring would dig into any spontaneous erections, waking the wearer and encouraging him to compose himself instead of completing any nocturnal emissions.

Women Were Encouraged To Find A Bathroom If Their Partners Got Too Frisky
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Photo: Charles Dana Gibson/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

For women, sexual intercourse was a necessary step in the process of procreation, and to treat it as anything more than that would bring them down to lower classes. That meant they had to be vigilant in case their husbands started to get frisky. Sometimes, that meant taking drastic actions. In the book Sex Tips For Husbands and Wives, Ruth Smythers gave a vital piece of advice on the matter:

If he attempts to kiss her on the lips she should turn her head slightly so that the kiss falls harmlessly on her cheek instead. If he lifts her gown and attempts to kiss her any place else, she should quickly pull the gown back in place, spring from the bed, and announce that nature calls her to the toilet.

Things Became More Open And Acceptable In The 1890s
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Photo: The Library of Congress/flickr/No known copyright restrictions

There's only so long staunchly "proper" society can be imposed before rigid mores become a problem. Prostitution and pornography had always been just beneath the powdered surface of Victorian culture, though they were never openly discussed. By the end of the 19th century, that secret world of underground sexuality flourished in Victorian society.