We are well-accustomed to the ideas of the prudish, sexually-repressed Victorians, who cautiously guarded themselves against any temptation, no matter how slight. Critics and reader have largely and successfully questioned this conception and proven it inaccurate. For during this period, even in seeking any man or woman's ultimate goal in achieving the apparently conservative happy ending of marriage, Victorians were inevitably led to the consummation of their love and the creation one's own home and family. Sex and sexuality, then, were unavoidable issues for the Victorians.
As Jill Conway reminds her readers, that since it wasn't until the early 1900's that scientists connected sex chromosomes to sex-linked characteristics or that they discovered the workings of hormones -- "we [begin] to see why for some forty years the exact nature of sex-differentiation and its psychic accompaniment was a subject of intense, though inconclusive debate."
What exactly differentiated men from women and why the species evolved into the two sexes, then, unsurprisingly confounded Victorian theorists such as Herbert Spencer and Patrick Geddes. Thus, they and other specialists constructed a stereotypical dyadic model. Other than the different sex organs and physical differences, men were considered the active agents, who expended energy while women were sedentary, storing and conserving energy. Victorian theories of evolution believed that these feminine and masculine attributes traced back to the lowest forms of life. A dichotomy of temperaments defined feminine and masculine: an anabolic nature which nurtured versus a katabolic nature which released energy respectively.
Such beliefs laid the groundwork for, or rather arose from, the separation of spheres for men and women. According to the model, since men only concerned themselves with fertilization, they could also spend energies in other arenas, allowing as Spencer says "the male capacity for abstract reason... along with an attachment to the idea of abstract justice...[which] was a sign of highly-evolved life." On the other hand, woman's heavy role in pregnancy, menstruation (considered a time of illness, debilitation, and temporary insanity), and child-rearing left very little energy left for other pursuits. As a result, women's position in society came from biological evolution -- she had to stay at home in order to conserve her energy, while the man could and needed to go out and hunt or forage.
Moreover, this evolutionary reasoning provided justification for the emotional and mental differences between men and women. Conway shows how the logic led Geddes to believe that
Male intelligence was greater than female, men had greater independence and courage than women, and men were able to expend energy in sustained bursts of physical or cerebral activity... Women on the other hand... were superior to men in constancy of affection and sympathetic imagination... [they had] 'greater patience, more open-mindedness, greater appreciation of subtle details, and consequently what we call more rapid intuition.'"
The roles of men and women understood as thus, the Victorians still had to deal with the actual sexual act, wherein the bipolar model still held. Earlier on in the century, women were considered the weaker, more innocent sex. She had little to no sexual appetite, often capturing all the sympathy and none of the blame over indiscretions. Men represented the fallen, sinful, and lustful creatures, wrongfully taking advantage of the fragility of women. However, this situation switched in the later half of the period; women had to be held accountable, while the men, slaves to their katabolic purposes and sexual appetites, could not really be blamed. Therefore, women were portrayed either frigid or else insatiable. A young lady was only worth as much as her chastity and appearance of complete innocence, for women were time bombs just waiting to be set off. Once led astray, she was the fallen woman, and nothing could reconcile that till she died.
Many artists and writers of the period did not accept such strict roles for men and women in either their sexualities or their contributions to sexual intercourse. The dyadic model set up for men and women permeated the age, but only served to try to encourage an ideal. In real situations and in fictional agendas, Victorians could recognize the complexities and areas of gray.
Last modified 1996