Monday, June 13, 2011

Self-Love Victorian Style

Self-Love Victorian Style

I've been working on a research project this quarter involving normative Victorian views on masculinity (and especially how these ideals are subverted in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray). In my research I have come across an interesting book entitled "Talk on the Wilde Side" by Ed Cohen. I was especially drawn to the chapter entitled "Taking Sex in Hand: Inscribing Masturbation and the Construction of Normative Masculinity." This isn't my first rodeo when it comes to odd Victorian health topics and I knew Victorians were pretty uptight about sex (even though some argue that the existence of a discourse on the subject shows an increase in openness), but I had not read about the reasoning for their opposition and fear of masturbation. The whole topic of health in the Victorian era always appears curious to me since the sanitation problems in the cities were rather abysmal. I guess they focused on what they thought they could stopping young men from touching themselves. This was a rather proper-sounding posting, but from now on this piece will be interspersed with inappropriate euphemisms from the World Wide Wank.

Think of England--but not if you find England to be particularly sexy...

"Lie back and think of England" was a quote sometimes credited to Queen Victoria, but it was apparently part of the advice given to young brides when it can to the sexual desires of their husbands. Women were not supposed to enjoy sex as their great pleasures were supposed to come from having children and working in the home. Men, however, had sexual urges that apparently required the invention of table skirts to protect the modesty of especially attractive pieces of furniture from unwanted advances (this is according to a show I watched on the History Channel several years ago).

There was a double standard in existence though as the virginity of upper and middle class women was to be protected, but single and married men could expend their additional sexual energy on prostitutes from the lower classes, but not upon women from their own social standing. The practice of men purchasing services from prostitutes was generally allowed in society, but led to the spread of venereal diseases that probably didn't go over too well with their supposedly faithful wives. During the late Victorian era "Chastity Leagues" formed with the intent of men also pledging their chastity until marriage and promising their fidelity once married. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 protected women and girls further, but extended sodomy laws to criminalize any sexual contact between men even if everyone involved consented. Girl-on-girl action was excluded from this set of laws because women were not supposed to have sexual desire, and in a quote that I've heard was attributed to Queen Victoria, "Women would not do that sort of thing."

"Every Sperm is Sacred"

I know that Monty Python song isn't exactly from a satire of this time period, but that was the thought. Sperm should be used for reproduction, not entertainment purposes, and it should be used for the Empire! The mantra of the Victorian era was "self-control" and getting in touch with your manhood was not self-control. Young men were the future of their class and Empire, so wasting anything that could be used in reproduction was akin to the guy saying, "I hate the Empire." The middle-class had additional issues with their sons' reproductive abilities since they were a group formed upon their financial distinction from the poor, but not defined by blood as the aristocracy was. This meant that the middle-class sought to establish itself by creating their children in the appropriate image of their values of Christianity, industriousness and self-control.
In addition to religious, imperial and parental control over young men's interactions with their own bodies there were additional pressures from school and doctors. Schools encouraged lots of sporting activities that were meant to exhaust students so much that they wouldn't think of playing the organ. Victorians were big into the concept that how you looked on the outside was a representation of how your mind and soul were on the inside. This is why The Picture of Dorian Gray was such a scary book. Dorian did naughty things, but looked fantastically handsome and healthy. Also Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shows this concept as well, since Mr. Hyde is representative of a lack of self-control and indulgence in violence he appears as a nearly animalistic figure (he's also considered obviously lower-class...but we won't talk about that right now).

So, charming the one-eyed trouser snake shows no self-control, a hatred of the Empire, a disrespect to family and disregard for class perpetuation. You're basically committing treason by this point. So a sense of shame should follow one around at all times, but what did the doctors have to say about it?
One a side note: It seems that visiting a lady of the evening was more acceptable than buggering your hand because at least there was a lady involved and the young man was being kind of productive... plus, everyone loves the pox, right?

You'll go blind--or end up mentally deranged

Self-abuse was the term coined to talk politely about going on a date with Mrs. Palmer and her five slut daughters and the possible medical complications of such activities. A self-abuser was viewed as mentally deficient, lazy, self-centered, and heading for a derangement as well as other physical ailments. So basically if you knew a lazy young adult who was apathetic and uninterested in perpetuating his Empire...or maybe he just preferred Art or Literature over physical fitness... yes, you guessed it, he's probably spending too much time getting his palm red. Although, there was never an appropriate level of that activity because it was tough to turn around a guy who was playing tug-of-war with the cyclops. Everyone around him must try to help him realize his errors though because eventually he may be more than lazy and apathetic; he could end up with just about any ailment you could ever have--not just carpel tunnel-- and he may spiral into a debilitating mental derangement. Victorians apparently thought Insane Asylums were the place for people who had trouble keeping their hands off themselves.
Not only mental illness and physical illness could be caused by this selfish sex act, but it could apparently KILL YOU!
A fun French picture book showing the degradation of a young man who spent too much time decongesting the snorkel...
Click for depraved pictures, or what passed for depraved in 1830

Look at that guy...unhealthy soul, unhealthy body, apparently... I'm still trying to figure out how you lose your teeth and cough up blood from wanking. I guess I can kind of understand the whole not being able to walk and red eyes...maybe. He was obviously playing too rough and has poor aim.

Anyway, since Victorian women apparently had no sex drive they didn't touch themselves and therefore did not have their own madness related to having a clam bake for one, but apparently just about anything else could drive a woman to madness (probably because she wasn't supposed to be doing those previously unmentionable things), but if her madness was self-abuse related, then, no one really talked about it like this because sexual desire was not supposed to be part of the proper feminine nature. Although, Victorian doctors had a cure for that hysteria...hysterical paroxysm. Yeah, the doctor's office was the best chance for an orgasm. Of course that was treated as a disorder, but I'll just share this article to pick up where I left off: Vibrators and Clitoridectomies: How Victorian Doctors Took Control of Women's Orgasms. 

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