Weird History

What Sex Was Like in the Victorian Era  

Aaron Edwards
867.7k views 16 items

It's easy to see the past as a prudish place full of religious zealots, even though we know this wasn't always true. Look at ancient Rome and Greece, where citizens openly enjoyed all kinds of crazy intercourse. But when it comes to Victorian England, the reputation for prudishness was never more correct. Sex in the Victorian era was something to be avoided at all costs, and people found bizarre and creative ways to get out it. 

The Victoria era is so called for Queen Victoria, whose reign lasted from 1832 until 1901. So then, what kind of crazy preventative measures did people take during this time? Nasty chastity contraptions, underground art, weird adult toys, and the patriarchy affecting women with negative psychological views were just some of the ways people cut it out of their lives in Victorian times. Make no mistake, this was a time of repression, and they did anything to keep intercourse out of society.

There Was A Mascot For Sexual Repression
There Was A Mascot For Sexual ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What Sex Was Like in the Victorian Era
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 sexuality. 

There Were Male Anti-Masturbation Devices
There Were Male Anti-Masturbat... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Sex Was Like in the Victorian Era
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
Women Were Encouraged To Find ... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Sex Was Like in the Victorian Era
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.

Sexuality Became More Open And Acceptable In The 1890s
Sexuality Became More Open And... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What Sex Was Like in the Victorian Era
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.