I am doing some research about sex in Victorian times for a book I am writing and it’s fascinating. Reading the Victorian magazine The Pearl online gives a great insight in what people found sexy or acceptable in that time. There were a few things that struck me in reading The Pearl and I would like to discuss some of them.
Despite living in a repressive time, people in Victorian England were definitely interested in sex. And it seems that people were more relaxed about it. Although society was restrictive and prescriptive in how people should behave, it seems that behind closed doors anything went. The Pearl is full of stories about siblings (and especially sisters) exploring each other.
It also seems like it was far more acceptable for women to engage in sexual acts – without it earning them the label of lesbians. Deborah Lutz, who wrote a book about sex in Victorian times, explained it thusly in an interview:
Victorians were very supportive of intimacy between women. Women would live openly together, a woman could refer to another woman that she lived with as her “wife” and they would sleep together in the same bed; this was very common and it wasn’t read as being sexual. The Victorians generally didn’t see women as very sexualised, so it was difficult for most Victorians to understand that two women might have sex. There was something kind of invisible about lesbianism in the period.
While the progress we have made in terms of sex, and especially women’s sexuality, is fantastic I do like the idea of women being intimate with each other without immediately attracting a label. Same goes for men, but I want to focus on women. I realise that some people want to define their identity, but there is something freeing about no labels. I would have liked to be with women before setling down and getting married, but back in the day I was afraid of the label “lesbian”. I always thought something was wrong with me for being attracted to women, especially since I was also very much attracted to men and I wanted to eventually get married and have children.
While I now realise that bi-sexual is the label that probably applies to me, in Victorian times it would have been quite acceptable to explore my sexuality with other women. There was no need to be put in a box. Women slept together without worrying whether this made them lesbian, whether they could still be with men or whether they had to choose. I am not saying that we should go back to Victorian times – heaven forbid! – but maybe we can be more relaxed about who has sex with whom without immediately applying labels. It just seems sad that I made it to age 39 before I can acknowledge that I am attracted to both men and women.
I am not saying that there is something wrong with labels, they can be very useful. I just think we should leave it up to individuals to label themselves. If someone identifies as a lesbian, great, that is their choice and we should all accept that. If someone identifies as straight, same. And if someone doesn’t want to label themselves at all, we should leave them be. It doesn’t all have to be so politicised.
Anyhow, I am glad I decided to research Victorian times. Goes to show how much you can improve your life by being a writer!