Not Just Passionlessness- Alternate Views of Sexuality in Victorian America

The dominant view of sexuality in Victorian America tends to be one that lacks passion, seeks restraint, and chastises those who can not control their sexual habits (or other aspects of their life for that matter). While this may be most common association of sexuality at this time, a deeper look into the historiography of nineteenth century sexual scripts provides for an alternate view. The Bowery was not the only place that exhibited alternative sexual norms, passion and recluse was occurring all over America from the antebellum South, to the middle-class North, and most notably in the Wild Western Frontiers.

Karen Lystra quotes Queen Victoria’s wedding night advice, “Lie still and think of the Empire” in her essay in Major Problems¬†(MP, 229), to illustrate the sense of duty and lack of passion that was to take place when during intercourse. The dominant public image was that women were pure and sex was only to occur for the sake of procreation. A look into primary source material shows that this was not exactly the case. Sex was supposed to occur only within marriage, and most nineteenth century courtships restrained from crossing the line until marriage, but that did not necessarily mean that all relationships lacked passion. For example, Lystra mentions that middle to upper middle class couples often did not undertake physical consummation until marriage; however during unchaperoned courtship they would, “forgo what their own culture defined as concomitant physical expression” (MP, 235) (meaning- just don’t cross the line). Primary sources tend to suggest that during the nineteenth century sex became linked to the sentiment of love- especially for women. While women were supposed to be pure by nature, Lystra asserts that, “Victorians joined the sexual and spiritual or moral in the concept of true love” (MP, 230). In 1865, a women wrote to her ‘Dear Soldier Boy’ and included many times the word love. She wrote to her lover,

“I love you more and more each day of my life [.] oh! I feel so often that if I could fly, how often would I go to you[,] how often I feel almost wild when I get to thinking of you. Oh! could any one love more dearly and truly?” (MP, 193).

Indeed many women who felt like they were in love did not just “lie still and think of the empire”, many actually enjoyed having sex with their husbands or lovers. This women was not married to her soldier boy, but from her letter it was obvious that they has engaged in sexual intercourse before. For those who were married, both men and women sometimes expressed genuine interest in pleasing the other (MP, 229). It is apparent that passionlessness was the result of restraint and not a full expression of one’s identity. Lystra sums up the private lives of Victorian couples by explaining that, “Properly sanctioned by love, sexual expressins were read as symbolic communications of one’s real and truest self” making it clear that enjoying sexual intercourse was fine for those married couples who believed that they shared a true love.

Love emphasized in the film "Gone With the Wind" set in the 19th Century South.
Love emphasized in the film “Gone With the Wind” set in the 19th Century South.

One final case to investigate is where the Western frontiers fit into the nineteenth century sexual ideals. Albert Hurtado writes about sexuality in California mining towns in his book¬†Intimate Frontiers, and asserts that, “California, like other faraway and exotic lands, posed a challenge to the bourgeois values that dominated middle-class thinking in the United States” (Hurtado, 75). Of course, we remember the (Wild) West in the nineteenth century as a land of rowdy men, crowded saloons, and busy bordello houses, but where did the average person fit into that spectrum? In any community, there are extremes (think modern-day Las Vegas), but that doesn’t mean that the majority of the community does not consist of average people who fit somewhere in the middle of the conservative to hedonist spectrums.

Sexualized representation of Wild West saloon girls (notice only one minority represented).
Sexualized representation of Wild West saloon girls (notice only one minority represented).

The reality is more complicated than the wild reputation that the West invokes. In most age groups, men doubled women- if not more than that- and while many men sought to find a wife that they deemed as respectable, it was not always that easy. Take the story of William, the only son of the middle-class Bullard family: he looked for a wife for over a decade before finally marrying on someone who in the beginning of his search he would not have settled for. Despite the its reputation, most new California settlers brought with them their Eastern ideals about sex and marriage. That doesn’t mean that these ideals were all about passinlessness. For example, take the story of missionary Sheldon who was sent to California to Christianize the bawdy white men. He was not able to find a woman in California who he deemed suitable, so he sent for a wife from back East. It is interesting to note that seven months after their marriage, their first child was born early. This invokes a thought that maybe even our good Christian minister was not completely adhering to the ideal of restraining from sex before marriage.

An investigation into some alternate views of Victorian sexuality certainly complicates the dominant Victorian ideal of passionlessness. As in any society, there is a public image and a private reality. For those in the nineteenth century, private passion could coincide with purity if love was involved. Private actions often diverge strongly from public ideals in any society and before we think of the nineteenth century as one big unsatisfied graham cracker, it’s important to consider lives behind the closed doors of the Victorian houses and frontier cabins.

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Kelsey Shober

Senior History and Political Science major at Virginia Tech. I have written blogs for multiple classes including: Twentieth Century Russia, America in the 1960s, and the History of Sexuality in America.

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