50 Shades of Victorian

50 shades.jpeg

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 By the 1870s, the notion that the severe ‘rule of the father’ had been replaced by the gentler, feminine, rule of the mother was expressed, and encouraged.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.

Victorian Sensibilites: Dildo’s and Dildon’ts


This post is really a follow on from the earlier http://viceandvirtue.posterous.com/the-victorians-and-the-blow-up-doll-femme-de  which seems to have intrigued a number of people. In it I mentioned that sex aids have existed since the dawn of time, with countless museums and archives displaying and debating the role of a fake phallus in religious and ceremonial activities, as well as for personal use. Having previously talked about aids for male use, it is only fair that we have a look at the female answer to the Femme Du Voyage. And so, I give you, The Female Syringe.

Doesn’t that sound unattractive?!

This advert, which has come from the same source as the Femme Du Voyage, is shown here in a shortened form. Spread out over two pages, it contains directions for use and for care, as well as remarks from satisfied customers. Priced at £5-20, and out of the range of most people, my timeline estimation places it in the 1860-1880 period.

But let’s return to that name ‘The Female Syringe’. When I read it first I immediately dismissed it as just another example of the Victorians need to medicalise any aspect of female sexuality. The fact that the advert is almost three times as long as those for male use, becoming – in places – almost pornographic, as well as and the terminology used, just made me mad. I think a number of you will have heard the term ‘Female Hysteric’ before. The Victorian’s monopolised this idea that almost any aliment that could be suffered by a women was due to her womb. From irritability, to nervousness, sleeplessness and anxiety, ‘hysteria’ became the focus for the medical establishment whenever it dealt with a woman.

And the cure? Pelvic massage or manipulation. In 1880, the first electrified vibrator was created by an English doctor, Joseph Granville – the story of which is about to be immortalised by Rupert Everett and Hugh Dancy in the aptly titled (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFy6cfPmjd4 ) ‘Hysteria’ – which proved to be a highly successful device, occurring almost simultaneously as the rise in female diagnosis’s for the disease began to move towards it’s peak in the 1890s.

But the idea that women need to orgasm to maintain their health and mental well-being is an old one. We might like to think it was just another sad symptom of the patriarchal social dynamic of the Victorians, but they cannot be blamed for this one alone. Women’s role as the reproductive core of humanity, which many think was idolised in the pre-classical world, became man’s biggest reason for subjugating her. As early as the Greeks, the womb’s effect on female mental health was seen as the single most important factor when diagnosing women. The Romans took the view that married women just needed a good roll in the hay, and those not contracted to a man were advised to seek pelvic massage at the hands of a midwife. This idea remained influential throughout Europe right up to the 17th century, and is a feature of ancient medical advice in both the Eastern and Western schools of thought. So we can’t really blame the Victorian’s, they just took an old idea and industrialised it, mass produced it, and marketed it. As they did with almost everything.

What is important to note about this period, in terms of the history of sexuality, is that it began to open up the debate on female desires, which in turn lead to female voices being heard for the first time. The message from this period, hidden underneath male confusion and early female silence, is the first move towards an acknowledgement that woman had sexual desire, even though it hidden behind the belief that the repression of their sexual desire could make them hysterical.

*Original advert has been reproduced to apply with the archives Terms and Conditions