Vice and the Victorians
A combination of overt gentility and ignorance turned the 19th century into the most rotten age there has ever been for sexuality. In Britain the ideal of the middle-class wife, safely installed with her family in a bourgeois home, was the universal ideal. But the repression of natural urges led to a dark underground world of debauchery and vice. As the purity of the wifely figure was promoted (once-a-month sex was generally considered enough), prostitution became more widespread than ever before. In 1839, in London, a city of two million inhabitants, there were estimated to be around 80,000 prostitutes. Later in the century Prime Minister William Gladstone found the problem so pressing that he would walk the streets himself at night and counsel these working girls. Some courtesans, Lillie Langtry for example, reached the highest echelons of society and even managed to retain an air of respectability. But venereal disease was rife and syphilis spread wildly between prostitutes, their clients and their clients’ families (Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, is a well-known example).
Thus, “clean” virgins became a highly desirable commodity, although faking it was so easy that by the 1880s the price had dropped from 100 earlier in the century to just 5 a session. Homosexuals had generally enjoyed a period of tolerance until 1885 when the Criminal Law Amendment Act stated that gross indecency between men would be punishable by two years’ imprisonment. It was this law, known as the “blackmailer’s charter”, under which Oscar Wilde was convicted in 1895 and which remained on the statute books until 1967. Indeed the whole confused and hypocritical attitude of the Victorians towards sexuality had long-lasting repercussions.
Modern life and ‘the joy of sex’
Not until after the Second World War did any real cracks begin to show in the Victorian moral code. The freedom many men and women felt as war workers made it hard to go back to the old life once peace came. This is illustrated by the Kinsey Reports of 1948 which found that 69 per cent of men in the US had visited prostitutes, 50 per cent of husbands had been unfaithful to their wives, and that 37 per cent of men and 17 per cent of women had had at least one homosexual experience. During the 1960s many old ideas were swept away by what we now call the sexual revolution. The introduction of easily available contraception in the form of the Pill gave women more control and allowed them to indulge in sex for pleasure, often with multiple partners.
In 1972, Alex Comfort’s book The Joy of Sex was published and soon became the best-selling manual for a new generation. But the arrival of the lethal Aids virus in the West had a huge impact on the idea of free love in the 1980s. Since the virus can be transmitted by sex, it’s no surprise to hear that a common reaction of the public, summed up by a letter to Time magazine in 1988, was a call to return to “the God-fearing moral standard of yesterday”. But could conservatives ever effectively re-invoke the deterrent of hellfire? It’s a losing battle. New figures from the World Health Organisation show that 39 per cent of girls in Britain have underage sex, and 34 per cent of boys the highest rates in Europe. We might not approve, but the sexual revolution goes on.
Curated by Erbe