Victorian orgasm, etc.

Fern Riddell “No, no, no! Victorians didn’t invent the vibrator” *1


Victorian doctors knew exactly what the female orgasm was; in fact, it’s one of the reasons they thought masturbation was a bad idea. A few theorised that it might be beneficial to a woman for her period pain, but the majority of doctors saw the art of self-pleasure as highly dangerous to your health.

This attitude was not because they were on some sort of anti-pleasure, or anti-sex crusade, but because orgasms were actually important to the Victorians. Marriage guides discussing the sex act often claimed that a woman in a sexually satisfying relationship was more likely to become pregnant, as the wife’s orgasm was just as necessary to conception as her husband’s. A book called The Art to Begetting Handsome Children, published in 1860, contains a detailed passage on foreplay, and shows us that, for the Victorians, sex, pleasure and love were concepts that were universally tied together. In A Guide To Marriage, published in 1865 by the aptly named Albert Sidebottom, the advice to young couples exploring their relationship for the first time is that “All love between the sexes is based upon sexual passion”. This is something I’ve come across time and again in researching Victorian attitudes to sex: sexual pleasure, and especially female sexual pleasure, really mattered.

But we seem incapable of seeing women in the Victorian period as anything other than sexually passive, a gender so disconnected from their bodies that they had to be stimulated by the inventions of men. This just isn’t true. From the erotic life of courtesan Cora Pearl, to the romantic female relationships of Mary Benson, wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Victorian female sexuality was just as expressive and expansive as it is today.


Sexual fulfilment isn’t always about getting pregnant, and Victorian women seem to have had a healthy interest in protecting their bodies, while still being able to enjoy a sexual relationship. In 1877, Annie Besant, a one-time vicar’s wife, helped to publish Fruits of Philosophy, a guide that set out every possible contraceptive method available to its Victorian reader. From vaginal douches to early forms of spermicide and even condoms, the information in the pamphlet became so popular that its British circulation reached over 125,000 in the first few months alone.

(…) From sex toys to sex chairs, condoms and contraceptives, the Victorians had many of the things we see today. They used rubber, wood, ivory, and leather; some are delicately crafted from silver, others decorated in enamel flowers and hidden inside everyday objects, like a walking cane.
物の本質について (岩波文庫 青 605-1)

物の本質について (岩波文庫 青 605-1)