Were Victorians Prudes?

People of the Victorian period (until 1901) and the Edwardian period (1901-1914) have acquired a reputation—if countless television programs and movies are any guide—as dull, stuffy Puritans who fainted dead away at the sight of a naked ankle.

Were our ancestors really that uptight?

The first thing to note is that cultural taboos—the things Never To Be Uttered—change over time. Today, any speech interpretable as racist or sexist will get one banished from decent society. Clearly that was not the case in the Gilded Age, which had very different ideas about those things than we do today. Then, it was public discussion of one’s sexuality that was considered beyond the pale, and going on about it at a dinner party, for example, would mean you’d likely not be invited back.

Or worse—if you committed your sexy thoughts to paper—you might wind up in jail.

The Comstock Laws of 1873 made it a Federal crime to use the mail to distribute material that could be judged as ‘obscene’, ‘filthy’, or otherwise injurious to the prevailing moral culture. And this didn’t mean just pornography (though there were plenty of that, too, in 1901)—it covered private love letters that referenced sexuality, the mailing of contraceptive devices or even information about contraception, and lots of other things that today we take pretty much in stride.

(Interestingly, availing oneself of the services of a prostitute today is generally considered rather outré—and is, with a very few jurisdictional exceptions, illegal. Yet men of all classes in the Gilded Age did so with some regularity, and without fear of prosecution; it was simply kept on the down low. What happened in Vegas, stayed in Vegas, even then.)

Since we can’t hear Gilded Age people chatting today, we have to rely on written accounts—newspapers and books, mainly—to document their conversations. Since it was either unpopular or illegal to talk or write about sex, it’s natural to imagine they didn’t think about it either. But that is like saying that there’s no racism or sexism in our world because people don’t put that stuff in email or bring it up at a dinner party.

Just because people knew better than to put anything incriminating into things (like letters) that could be made public, even many years later, it doesn’t make them prudes. It makes them prudent.

And today, while our government has lost interest in policing porn, the use of electronic mail and the Internet for any currently illegal purpose is now regularly used to turn a state or local crime into a Federal one—the idea being that in using electronic communications, one is (metaphorically at least) crossing state lines. The old version of prohibited mail has been replaced with a new one, and so people are careful about what they write. Or if they are not, they ought to be.

In The Unsealing, Arthur Pendle and Alicia Miller are engaged in an affair that was itself illegal (an adulterous relationship was then considered a violation of a husband’s property right, believe it or not)—and they carry on a vigorous written correspondence, using a shared Post Office box. Their lusty epistolary romance—letters being the only way they could communicate when not face-to-face—would have been in clear violation of the Comstock Laws. It wasn’t so much their illicit affair that got them into real trouble—it was documenting it in those pesky letters.

So you may safely imagine that Victorians weren’t so different from us today, sexwise or otherwise. They, too, wanted to fit in, be part of the in-crowd, win friends and followers—and feared being cancelled for saying the wrong thing. 

Like people today, they knew enough to tiptoe around social and legal landmines. What is different between then and now is only what is considered a landmine.

If, the next time you’re at a cocktail party, composing an email, or preparing a post on social media, you find yourself wondering whether you might better keep something to yourself that could come back to haunt you one day—or, God forbid, ‘go viral’—you are entitled to feel some kinship with our Victorian ancestors.

(And for those of you who enjoy my books—which contain at least, ahem, a smidgen of the down-and-dirty, you may rejoice that, while it took the better part of 50 years, the Comstock Laws were found to be unconstitutional, and were overturned.)