50 Shades of Victorian

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Oh god. Yes, I have jumped on the band wagon. But is it really fair to say that, when, technically, the Victorians were at it looong before Mr. Grey arrived on the scene? In case you hadn’t already guessed, this months blog post is going to explore the Victorian fascination with spanking. It was the focus for the majority of Victorian pornography, from the comic opera of Lady Bumtickler’s Revels, to the Library Illustrative of Social Progress. As photography evolved, so did the depictions of pornography. Spanking was everywhere. But, in contrast to today’s attitudes, it wasn’t always so demonized.

Now today, spanking as both a form of punishment between parent and child, or as a form of sexual play between consenting adults, is widely seen as a negative form of behavior. By the mid-Victorian period, at least in the theoretical circles, there had been a move towards a growing opposition of the harsh domestic methods of corporal punishment by a parent for a child’s misdeeds. By the 1870s, the notion that the severe ‘rule of the father’ had been replaced by the gentler, feminine, rule of the mother was expressed, and encouraged. As women were painted as the Angel of the House, and Victorian society endeavored to plaster them into the private sphere of the domestic home, and away from the public sphere of manly governance, feminine discipline, and responsibility for it within the home, was paramount.  Could it be that this insistence on the feminization of discipline enabled it to become fetishised? That the linking of home, the place of women, the supposed place of socially accepted sexual interaction, with a focus on discipline, created the opportunity for a ‘negative’ sexual fantasy in way that had not previously been explored? As ever with the Victorians, the moment they repressed something, it appeared somewhere else, even if in slightly altered form.

This is most obvious in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine – published and edited by none other than the Mrs Beeton’s husband – which saw a flurry of letters in both the late 1860s and 1870s, on the subject of flogging one’s daughter. Some have liked this episode as depicting soley flights of erotic fantasy that managed to find their way into a mainstream audience. However, it is clear that, in the same way 50 Shades of Grey has been called ‘mummy porn’, the adult female audience for spanking and other forms of sexual power play can be found here, in the Victorian period as well. The EDM was primarily a fashion magazine, published from 1852-1879, with the sole purpose for ‘tending to the improvement of the intellect’. Mrs Beeton herself was a regular contributor. So it may be surprising to find within its pages a hearty debate surrounding the pros and cons of spanking – which was later reproduced verbatim in one of the premier pornographic texts of the 1880s. Although, on reading, it is hard to believe that Mr. B was unaware of the sexual undercurrents of his contributors, he met any form of criticism with a very modern defiance, saying:

‘Freedom has been given to all to express their opinions, for without such liberty nothing can be thoroughly sifted, and we have no desire to repress the candid thoughts of writers because they may differ from ourselves or from the majority.’

He seemed to take the ideas and suggestions of ‘R.O.D’, ‘A Lover of Obedience’, and ‘Miss Birch’ – all of whom went into graphic detail of how, what and who they enjoyed spanking – as the innocent debates of his readers. Either he was a very naive man, or one who enjoyed sexual exploration and discussion.

But then sexual spanking has been in vogue for centuries. The Tomba della Fustigazione in Italy dates from the 5th Century and has on its walls, frescos depicting men and women engaged in spanking, purely for sexual gratification.

So did the Victorian’s redefinition of spanking, as something that was now only thought of as sexual and pornographic and linked to childhood memories of shame, the reason why we saw it as so shocking until 50 Shades of Grey? Almost every single person I know has read this book, but few are aware that its hook is pre-Victorian. Hardly the shocking, ground-breaking, society-defying novel liberal-minded arty types would have you believe.

This act of shaming, especially sexual shaming, is something we often associate with the Victorians. Both Jung and Freud – who were tied to spanking in the brilliant A Dangerous Method – explored how the libido influences and guides us, and how human physical acts can resonate in the mind. I think this is where our fascination to define our tastes, and then shame ourselves, really has its roots. As ever, the Victorians are to blame. I think the classical world, and Mr. B, might have been on to something. Freedom without judgment, especially in debate, is vital to human existence. One of the most exciting things about the 50 Shades phenomena is that it has opened up a debate surrounding sexual attitudes and redefines what we would perceive as ‘otherness’ into the mainstream. This is a pattern that we seem to continue to repeat since revisionist historians appeared, ‘otherness’ explored results in ‘otherness’ accepted.