Victorians, groping their way toward a new view of the sexual body.
September 19, 2011 6:33 AM   Subscribe

There were sexual revolutions before the sexual revolution.
posted by Obscure Reference (41 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Men and women in every generation have convinced themselves that they’ve stumbled upon something new."

Including the knowledge that every generation knows about sex and has a lot of it.
posted by michaelh at 6:46 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


This piece bothered me because the writer glossed over the very different conditions the various libertines she talks about operated in. More specifically, she didn't make clear it enough that 18th and 19th century rakes were more likely to be ravishing servants, prostitutes and women generally a huge number of rungs below them on the power ladder than conducting libidinous experiments with people they considered their equals. Yes, there were a few exceptions at the top of the social scale, but if you look at Boswell's diaries, say, or some of the stuff discussed in The Other Victorians, it's less 'Haight-Ashbury, with tea cozies' and more kerb-crawling with stiff collars.
posted by Mocata at 6:47 AM on September 19, 2011 [19 favorites]


Sure, Reich invented the Orgasmatron, but Woody Allen perfected it.

I don't care if it reminds me of Woody Allen, I still want one anyway.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:53 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Other Victorians also points out, particularity in discussing "My Secret Life" just how wildly, disastrously uneven the power relationship was between the cocksure young swain and the women he bedded. Any unescorted woman of any lower class was considered fair game. The overwhelming feeling I got from "My Secret Life" was not sexual freedom but how powerful being reasonably well off and male made you and how readily available and consequence-free sex was as a result.
posted by The Whelk at 6:56 AM on September 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


I've been studying up on how to build an orgone generator. I've got to fix up some of the plumbing in the basement and grout some tile. Then install some asbestos in the attic before the winter. But after that, I'll build the orgone generator.

Next meetup at my house!!!
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:00 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


More specifically, she didn't make clear it enough that 18th and 19th century rakes were more likely to be ravishing servants, prostitutes and women generally a huge number of rungs below them on the power ladder than conducting libidinous experiments with people they considered their equals.

Yup. Reading Casanova's Memoirs led me to the certainty that, had he lived in the present day, Casanova would also have landed in prison, and very deservedly so.
posted by Skeptic at 7:01 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just finished Jan Marsh's Back to the Land: The Pastoral Impulse in Victorian Britain, 1880-1914, which touches on the free love and group marriage experiments of the Fourierists (mentioned in the article), Simple Lifers, and other groups in the orbit of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Marsh makes a good case that a lot of the impulses and projects we now associate with the 1960s counterculture are a nearly stock set of responses to specific cultural and economic conditions, and that they're cyclical.

The Other Victorians also points out, particularity in discussing "My Secret Life" just how wildly, disastrously uneven the power relationship was between the cocksure young swain and the women he bedded.

There are several 19th c. ballads that say as much - e.g. Rosemary Lane.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:07 AM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Reich had his detractors, notably Albert Einstein, who, after two weeks of tests on the box, declared it useless.

But the first week was a lot of fun.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:15 AM on September 19, 2011


...a lot of the impulses and projects we now associate with the 1960s counterculture are a nearly stock set of responses to specific cultural and economic conditions, and that they're cyclical.

We just have to keep the humans out of our museums until we are able to get the secret of the Langston Field, allowing us to escape the Mote.
posted by DU at 7:15 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Definitely, a lot of those sexual conquests look to the modern eye like rape.
posted by Forktine at 7:30 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The big difference between previous sexual revolutions and the 1960s, was the presence of cheap, effective contraceptives, and legal abortion, allowing women much more security in expressing their sexuality. If the social conservatives manage to take those away, the power distribution will once again be highly unequal.
posted by happyroach at 7:35 AM on September 19, 2011 [13 favorites]


twoleftfeet: “I've been studying up on how to build an orgone generator. I've got to fix up some of the plumbing in the basement and grout some tile. Then install some asbestos in the attic before the winter. But after that, I'll build the orgone generator.”

This has nothing to do with the point, but: you are aware that asbestos is highly carcinogenic and usually illegal, right?
posted by koeselitz at 7:43 AM on September 19, 2011


"Fire up the Orgone Accumulator, baby. Just one look at your face and I'm accumulating a wad right here that could heal the sick, cause the lame to walk and raise the dead right up outta their graves."

Did they have pick-up artists back before the 1960's?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:44 AM on September 19, 2011


They neglected to mention one of the most interesting of the sexual revolutions, the brief one in Bolshevik Russia
posted by Blasdelb at 7:45 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I too am unimpressed with what was happening in England, given that the phrase "free love" appears to have been coined in the U.S. in the 1890s, and there's a history of debauchery (and I mean that word in the best way) that may even go back to Thomas Morton in the 1600s. And "petting parties" were going strong in the U.S. in the 1920s while Reich and his cronies were defrauding Viennese society.

Hardly seems like news.
posted by straw at 7:48 AM on September 19, 2011


Marsh makes a good case that a lot of the impulses and projects we now associate with the 1960s counterculture are a nearly stock set of responses to specific cultural and economic conditions, and that they're cyclical.

*taps nose and points* I've had a sort of armchair-amateur's study of history, particularly in the late 19th/early 20th century (I was the dramaturg for a theater company that did plays of that period, and I had to do a lot of research for actors of the "what were the social codes of this time period" variety). What struck me again and again is how the same stuff seemed to keep happening....again and again. It got to the point that I'd start humming that one line from "Once In A Lifetime" over and over ("same as it ever was....same as it ever was....same as it ever was....")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:59 AM on September 19, 2011


Well, it's not particularly clear that My Secret Life is an authentic memoir as opposed to being the Victorian equivalent of the collected works of one of those ASSTR authors who write 800 stories that all have the same story codes. It's always read to me more like a work of obsessive fantasy than a record of somebody's experiences.

In any case the basic point that Victorian libertinism was exploitative and based on a massive power inequality stands, though. There are plenty of other sources for that and it's pretty much in keeping with every other aspect of their society.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:05 AM on September 19, 2011


Actually, I dunno why I asked that question. From the book I'm currently reading:

"As far as broads were concerned. I was seventeen years old before I was able to get a finger damp enough to turn a page. Once I got started though, I was quite the little cocksman. (...) Now and then, I was what was called a 'dinner pail pimp', which means that I tried to live off working girls. A regular pimp has a girl who sells her body and gives him the money. A dinner pail pimp keeps her body for himself and makes her work for the groceries to boot. (...) I broke a good many virgins. The boys considered that a very smart thing to do, but I am ashamed of it now. The only time you can be proud of busting a virgin is if she asks you to. Or if she is a prick teaser. Oh, what some of those broads would do to tease you ... suck tongues, blow in your ear, rub your organ, then send you home to run off a batch by hand. A guy that busts a broad like that deserves a medal..."

From McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler (1972)
(As told to) Robert Byrne.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:11 AM on September 19, 2011


Also, and I could be completely mistaken here, but I always got the impression the lower and working classes were having way more casual sex then their more middle-class brothers.
posted by The Whelk at 8:26 AM on September 19, 2011


"See the depraved social morals of the lax and wanton lower classes!" is practically it's own genre, even still today.
posted by The Whelk at 8:27 AM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, and I could be completely mistaken here, but I always got the impression the lower and working classes were having way more casual sex then their more middle-class brothers.

Generally they had fewer means of hiding their shenanigans, rather.

Also, it depended of many other factors other than wealth. Gender, of course, but also religion and even whether one was first- or last-born: one of the reasons why younger sons are often portrayed as more dissolute in Victorian literature is that there was a lot more social pressure on first-borns to stay within the straight and narrow, so as not to endanger the family fortune by dalliances with golddiggers. Younger sons, on the other hand, because they hardly came into consideration when distributing the family inheritance, were left to their own devices, often to join the military, and it mattered far less if they sowed plenty of wild oats...
posted by Skeptic at 8:50 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


See the depraved social morals of the lax and wanton lower classes,
Watch them fucking mouths and cunts and asses,
Just remember when the frenzy passes,
You belong to me.

See the fetish of the aristocrats,
Firing jizz into each others twats,
Defecating in each others hats,
Doesn't appeal to me.

I was so unsatisfied without an orgone accumulator,
I bet you were unsatisfied too,
Now, whoo hoo!

See the habits of the bourgoisie,
Why have one partner when you can have three,
Just remember when you get VD,
It doesn't belong to me...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:00 AM on September 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


you are aware that asbestos is highly carcinogenic and usually illegal, right?

If it's illegal I'm going to smoke it. Damn you, I tried, asbestos!
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:06 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


My Secret Life really is a fascinating read. It's out of copyright, here's a good web edition. The class and gender relations are hugely problematic of course, the narrator is a terrible cad. But he's also fairly direct and honest about himself, at least the parts he chooses to write about, so it's quite fascinating. His experiences with homosexual sex (such as Chapter 6) were particularly interesting to me. A messy stew of class and gender issues all wrapped up in jerk-off writing.
posted by Nelson at 9:10 AM on September 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Reich claimed that his box intensified these “mysterious currents” that “could not only help dissolve repressions but treat cancer, radiation sickness, and a host of minor ailments.”

According to some fliers I've seen in Berkeley, they are apparently quite useful in combating chemtrails.
posted by brundlefly at 9:12 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


In any case the basic point that Victorian libertinism was exploitative and based on a massive telepathic power inequality

The Marvel Comics Hellfire Club seems to have been a surprisingly on-point fictionalization of the historical Hell-fire club. An aristocratic gentleman's club, sexually liberated but also sexually exploitative.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:14 AM on September 19, 2011


Everyone, of whatever era, can imagine himself to be a Cortez of coition, staring at a heaving Pacific of newly discovered erotic possibility.

Metafilter: a heaving Pacific of newly discovered erotic possibility.
posted by Billiken at 9:16 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The thing that makes me think A Secret Life is probably mostly true is how freaking boring it is. The bulk of the encounters are described completely without pornographic detail, as you note that you had a soup and sandwich for lunch today. Of course that being said, we'll never know, it could a mix of fiction and reality or half-truths, but as Nelson mentioned, his homosexual dalliances are hilarious:


"How strange seems the handling of another's prick tho it's so like one's own. "Show him your cunt." Back she went on the bed exhibiting her charms. The delicious red gap opened, his prick stiffened at once, and after a feel or two of his rigid gristle, I made him wash it tho already clean as a whistle. I'd already washed my own. Then a letch came on suddenly, for I had arranged nothing, and taking his prick in my mouth I palated it. What a pleasant sensation is a nice smooth prick moving about ones mouth. No wonder French Paphians say that until a woman has sucked one whilst she's spending under another mans fucking, frigging, or gamahuche, that she has never tasted the supremest voluptuous pleasure. Some however had told me that they liked licking another woman s cunt, whilst a woman gamahuched them, better than sucking a prick in those exciting moments. But erotic tastes of course vary."


Now imagine it in Stephen Fry's voice.
posted by The Whelk at 9:19 AM on September 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


"Palating the Rigid Gristle" is the name of my new album.
posted by Decani at 9:31 AM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Gamahuche! Gamahuche! Can you dance the Fan-Dan-Go?
posted by msalt at 9:46 AM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Gamahuche! Gamahuche! Can you dance the Fan-Dan-Go?

Up among the rigging, sixteen men are friggiiiiing ME!
FELLATIO (fellatio) FELLATIO (fellatio) I'm fellating Figaro -

MAGNIFICO -o o o o....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:55 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm 90% sure that was said word for word in the neo-Restoration comedy "Measure For Pleasure"
posted by The Whelk at 10:03 AM on September 19, 2011


It's sexual revolutions all the way down.
posted by Evilspork at 10:05 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


stop the sexual revolution i want to get off?
posted by The Whelk at 10:08 AM on September 19, 2011


Spin the sexual revolution wheel.
posted by Tweachzone at 10:31 AM on September 19, 2011


Did you know that the word "orgy" comes from the same word as "urge"? It's the same root as Erg - the unit of mechanical work. It's also the same root, with the same meaning, as "work".

Makes an orgone orgasm sound like more trouble than it's worth.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:51 AM on September 19, 2011


I guess this is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, but it seems to me the class inequality endemic in Victoran porn acts as a fetish in itself (possibly just for the modern reader). It's somewhat along the lines of teacher/student, MILF/young man, police officer/suspect, or the like in modern porn; there's a barrier of proper relations being broken, and this can be exciting in itself.

Incidentally, in Anonymous' Victorian-era Cremorne stories, social justice is actually a common subject of discussion among the upper classes, and a tryst with the servants was expected to be reimbursed with financial remuneration afterward. No matter how lowly her station, women always had the right of refusal in such situations, at least as they are presented in the 'maInstream' pornographic literature of the time.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:01 AM on September 19, 2011


And on the drums, Bill Reich!
posted by homunculus at 11:07 AM on September 19, 2011


PeterMcDermott has written half of a Noel Coward song, BTW
posted by The Whelk at 5:19 PM on September 19, 2011


Christopher Hitchens: Inside the Orgone Box
posted by homunculus at 5:00 PM on September 24, 2011


victorians have their own sexual ideas .. humm..
posted by RickStar at 5:57 PM on September 24, 2011


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