Sexuality and Modernity
Victorian Sexuality

It is against this cultural and political horizon that an understanding of modern sexuality needs to be contextualised. The Victorian era of the nineteenth century, like no other period preceding it, became dominated by the belief that an individual's sex and sexuality form the most basic core of their identity, potentiality, social/political standing and freedom. It is a curious irony that we moderns commonly portray Victorian sexual mores as puritanistic, moralistic and highly repressive, when like never before, sexuality became a focus of public and private attention. The Victorian bourgeois may have covered their piano legs out of modesty, but as an emergent social and political force they chose sexuality as the basis for delineating their identity from the aristocracy, peasants and emergent working classes. As Michel Foucault (1976) points out...

Toward the beginning of the eighteenth century, there emerged a political, economic, and technical incitement to talk about sex. ..... This need to take sex ‘into account’, to pronounce a discourse on sex that would not derive from morality alone but from rationality as well, was sufficiently new that at first it wondered at itself and sought apologies for its own existence. How could a discourse based on reason speak like that? 21

But speak they did, with increasing intensity and authority, bringing into the objective light of science, a multitude of distinctive sexual species. The pervert, child masturbator, homosexual, hysteric, prostitute, primitive and nymphomaniac, all emerged as distinctly classified sexual species possessing their own internal "secret" which had been revealed by the penetrating gaze of science.

The polarisation of public and private spheres becomes the foundation upon which the ascendant bourgeoisie constructed the family and it's sexuality. The passionless reproductive wife confined to private domesticity, along with her publicly and competitively orientated husband becomes the central reference point for discussions concerning sexuality. The prostitute, homosexual and the solitary masturbator emerged as entities posing the greatest threat to heterosexual reproduction, bourgeois morality and social order.

Mother Nature casting evils out of her children 22


The Prostitute

The Lancet medical journal in 1887 estimated that there were approximately 80,000 prostitutes in London. This is out of a total population of 2,360,000 or 3%. Prostitution or "whoring" had long been regarded as detrimental to the Empire, however it had no special place alongside blasphemy, drunkenness and other public disturbances. It is not until the nineteenth century that it is elevated to a "social evil" of gigantic proportions. 23

The Solitary Vice

Masturbation or what was termed the "solitary vice" or "onanism" emerged as a veritable epidemic, especially amongst children. This forms the core around which the modern child becomes engulfed in what might termed the sexualisation of modern society. A medical and moral campaign was waged around the sexuality of children. Parents, educators, doctors were all alerted to hunt out any traces of child sexuality through a myriad of surveillance techniques and upon discovery subject to a seemingly inexhaustible array of corrective measures. One nineteenth century doctor invented a device which administered electric shocks to a sleeping boy's penis upon erection.

Nineteenth Century Anti-masturbation Devices 24

The insane, pale, quivering masturbator along with the lascivious barren prostitute emerge as creatures spreading contagion and weakening the modern social body. The masturbator and the prostitute both disrupted the boundaries surrounding the emergent bourgeois family. Prostitution because it directed sexuality outside the family to non-reproductive ends and masturbation because it turned sexuality inwards to the core of the family - the child and solitary adult. Sexuality in general becomes dominated by men’s fear concerning women’s sexuality, expressed as a threat to public rational masculinity.

Temptation of St. Anthony

John Charles Dollman 25

Franz von Stuck 26

Psychoanalysis and its Discontents 27

A Clinical Lecture at the Salpetriere
Jean Charcot Demonstrating Hysteria to a select audience (1887)

Copy of print hung in Freud's consulting room

No matter what you think about Freud, his works, all eleven volumes (Standard Edition), mark a decisive point in modern conceptualisation about sexuality. As we have seen Freud’s contemporaries viewed sexuality as flowing directly from nature, directed otherwise resulting in perversions and vice. Freud begins his research along side Breuer whose notoriety for treating female hysterics with hypnosis and surgical removal of the ovaries had shocked and captivated public attention. While his earliest scientific endeavours were founded upon a purely physiological understanding, Freud’s work would increasingly lead him toward formulating a theory of the mind encompassing and integrating the physiological, psycho-sexual and social dimensions. Freud’s legacy to the twentieth century is to have brought sexuality into the social; the sexualisation of the social. In this sense psychoanalysis unsettled the Victorian centrality of reproductive sexuality and the rigid distinction of masculinity and femininity. We can interpret Freud as forging a bridge between nineteenth and twentieth century sexuality; from nature to culture; individual to society. Freud and psychoanalysis provides a conceptualisation of how the "natural" materials of sexuality (instincts) are transformed into culture and individual psycho-sexuality. From natural chaos to social order -; id to the super-ego. Fundamental to Freud is the belief that civilisation is only possible at the expense of repressing and regulating our natural sexual instincts. Freud speaks of an "aboriginal population of the mind" describing it as the "dark inaccessible part of our personality ... a chaos, a cauldron of seething excitations." 28

Freud’s legacy is a modern patriarchal narrative which coalesces into a unified theory - the transition from primitive to civilised; child into adult, infantile bi-sexuality to adult gendered heterosexual normalcy. While Freud has at the base of his theory the natural foundation of animal instincts, the bulk of his work focussed upon the psychic forces of the human mind or libidinal drives.

Freud divides the mind into a hierarchical opposition between the conscious and unconscious, giving primacy to the latter. The unconscious, with its dark, impulsive, unstructured labyrinths of memories which have no chronological origins or definite form, cannot be recovered or comprehended by the conscious component of the mind, and thus must be mediated through a "pre-conscious" buffer which regulates its desires. Freud relies upon the modern hierarchical opposition between the mind and body. The transcendent mind however, is divided through a complex interplay between the unconscious and conscious hemispheres. In short, consciousness and ultimately civilisation is the repression of unconscious desires. The human "animal’s" sexual drives are viewed by Freud as the most powerful, and are thus central to his analysis of subject formation. Indeed, it seems he collapses the entirety of conscious thought and culture into the category of deferred or displaced sexual cathexies.

Drawing upon these founding principles, Freud mapped out a thorough going theory concerning the processes behind the formation of gendered sexuality. According to Freud, the entire developmental process of an individual's "normal" gender and sexual identity is governed by the child's resolution of what he terms the "oedipal" and "castration" complexes. Gender is conceived as a process of "becoming", whereby the child, depending upon their possession of a penis, will encounter and resolve these complexes in contrasting ways, culminating (if all goes well) in anatomical females possessing heterosexual "feminine" consciousness, and anatomical males possessing heterosexual "masculine" consciousness. The primary social institution held responsible for a child's resulting gender is of course the family, and for Freud, comprised of a bourgeois Victorian nuclear structure with dominant authority invested in a male father, and a co-dependent nurturing female mother. The understandable ambivalence, even outright repudiation, feminists have displayed towards classical psychoanalysis, stems from its reliance upon the male anatomical penis as a universal referent around which both female and male children respond in acquiring gendered identities.

Freud argued that gendered consciousness results from the repression of childhood incestual desires. The sexuality of the new born infant irrespective of anatomical sex is viewed as "polymorphously perverse", 29 in that its entire body comprises potential sources of erogenous pleasure. The development to adult genital sexuality is only arrived at by first passing through a number of discernible phases within which the child gains conscious control over bodily processes through repression. The starting point is the incestuous desire for the mother by both male and female infants. This desire is not yet genital, rather the mother is the primary love object, or source of pleasure. Adult genital investments emerge with the process of oedipal repression.

Freudian discourse escaped from the laboratory, (or was it the sitting room), in the nineteenth century to become a pervasive institutionalised force in medicalisation and social science. While Freud can be read as saying that "normal" gendered consciousness represents a special case of neurosis in itself, his view of "normal" tacitly assumes the heterosexual nuclear family; a model which was promoted by dominant nineteenth century institutions and writers. The heterogenous source of infantile sexuality is brought to the service of civilisation and bourgeois society. All departures from his constitution of heterosexual normalcy can only be understood in terms of deviancy, aberration or malformation in the gendered developmental process. He sought not to challenge patriarchal relations but legitimate them with the seal of scientific authority. The entire process of gendered sexuality is conceptualised with respect to a masculine referent, the boy becomes normal, the girl fails to measure up, her clitoris a truncated penis, her superego ill defined and weak, her independence compromised by an all consuming "penis envy"; in short, she is inferior male - castrated "other". 30 As Luce Irigaray (1985) insightfully points out, there are not two sexes in Freudian discourse but only one, this being man, while the woman is seen as "a sex which is not one". 31 The boy who acquires his superego takes his place as productive public citizen and warder of culture, morality, ethics, justice, whereas the girl is denied membership by virtue of her inferior castrated equipment. She barely escapes the clutches of "nature" with all its consuming desires, instincts and dependencies, she teeters on the edge of a threshold between animal and hysteric.

In summary Freud’s legacy for the 20th century has been the following...

  • To posit sexuality and gender as a process rather than a pre-given natural determination.
  • To have brought sexuality from the confines of nature to the heart of the modern social and public body.
  • To have sexualised the child.
  • To have divided the modern subject such that the core of our gendered sexuality lies beyond the boundaries of conscious cognition in the unconscious.
  • To have founded a modern patriarchal narrative which integrated nature, sexuality, gender and the modern social.


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