Learning to love your friends: Sexuality within Victorian friendships

When you think of your friends today do you ever say that you love them? I don’t mean your casual “I love you bro” moment, I mean really deeply love them. To many of you reading this you may find the sole idea of this to be quite strange. I wouldn’t say that I passionately love my friends for instance. They are great to be around but I don’t have thoughts of marrying them. For people (especially women) it was incredibly common to have a profound love for close friends during the nineteenth century. Living within Victorian society, the sexes were commonly separated and encouraged to only speak with each other in terms of future relationships rather than any kind of friendship. This led in many cases to oddly erotic relationships between friends of the same sex, despite no evidence of actual sex taking place.

Why did things like this happen? I’d argue it’s because humans are incredibly sexual beings. The more aware we are of our sexuality the more it crops up in our lives. For men and women of the victorian era, their sexuality was known to them. It was commonly repressed by both society and religious standards, but that doesn’t remove it from their being. It is the kind of thing that builds up over time and needs to get out. As the saying goes, “we all have needs.” So despite the homosexual nature of these passionate friendships, the inner sexuality needed some form of expression. As Angela noted last week, Karen Lystra explains that during this time sex is sacred and private. It concerns what is deep inside us. Don’t we only share and express what is deep down inside us to our closest of confidants? In the Victorian era, this was usually a same-sex best friend.

I would argue that Caroll Smith-Rosenberg has it right when it comes to what context we should be looking at with these relationships. Don’t simply look at the psyche profile, but rather examine the culture and societal norms of the time to help understand why the women of this time had these relationships. “American society was characterized in large part by rigid gender-role differentiation within the family and within society as a whole, leading to the emotional segregation of women and men.” (Smith-Rosenberg, 205). Through this structure women were encouraged to only form close bonds with women, and men with men prior to marriage. So we have our context. Society is gender separate which leads to closer and more emotionally dependent friendships with the same sex.

These dependencies then dip into the world of sexuality. While many of these women still preferred heterosexual relations, they had experiences prior to or even during marriage with the same sex that were sort of fringe sexuality. Combining the emotional attachment they’ve had with the same sex with their own need to be sexual. “The girls are very friendly towards me… One of them wants to sleep with me. Perhaps I will give my consent some of these nights.” (Hansen, 219). The African American woman Addie Brown was giving her testimony to her incredibly close friend. She described a coworker of hers wanting to “sleep” with her. Now, this wasn’t in a sexual fashion, but during the rendezvous the girl did want to practice sexual acts such as fondling Addie. Even though Addie was a co worker who wasn’t a very close friend, the girl had an attachment knowing that she was a woman and would understand her sexuality and her desires.

Because of the distinct separation of the sexes before marriage, the Victorian era created distinct homosexual relationships in society between heterosexual people. All people learned growing up was to avoid the opposite sex until courtship. This created emotional bonds between members of the same sex. Human beings being very sexual in nature had to let out their desires somehow. Because of the tight bonds that were formed between great friends, they released some of their sexuality to their closest of friends. For many sexuality building up explodes out like a volcano, but for many of the Victorian era it had to come out little by little and eventually became natural among members of the same sex.

 

Hansen, Karen. “An Erotic Friendship Between Two African-American Women.” In Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, edited by Kathy Peiss, 214-228. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Smith-Rosenburg, Caroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual.” In Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, edited by Kathy Peiss, 201-214. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

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