The Power of Desire and the Danger of Pleasure: Victorian Sexuality Reconsidered

The Power of Desire and the Danger of Pleasure: Victorian Sexuality Reconsidered

Steven Seidman (State University of New York, Albany)

Journal of Social History, Vol.24:1 (1990)


In the early decades of the twentieth century, liberal reformers, political radicals, and sex rebels developed a construction of the repressed Victorian. This stere- otype was adopted by scholars and by the 1960s became a kind of orthodoxy.1 According to this view, the Victorians denied that women possesssexual feelings; they sought to purge sex of its sensual aspects and restrict its role to a procreative one; Victorian marriage was, finally, described as characteristically cold as the relations between husband and wife were emotionally distant and formal. The Victorians, in other words, were thought to be responsible for creating the sex, negative culture that twentieth century “modems” have rebelled against.

This view of the repressed Victorian has been challenged in the last decade or so. In particular, several historians, most notably Carl Degler, Peter Gay and Ellen Rothman have offered major re-interpretations of American Victorian intimate culture.! With respect to the American white middle-class, they have highlighted the role of personal choice in mate selection and the informal nature of courting amongVictorians.They describe Victorian marriage as a consensual arrangement based on love. Husbands and wives sought – and frequently found – companion, ship and personal happiness in marriage. Sexual expression was accepted as an integral part of love and marriage. Sex was not, moreover, restricted to a procreative function but was accepted as a sign oflove and as a domain of sensual pleasure. Finally, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has argued, same-sex intimacy and love were often viewed as compatible with heterosexual love and marriage.

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