Victorian-era Sexual Suppression: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

A Gadget used to prevent masturbation in Victorian Asylums.

A Gadget used to prevent masturbation in Victorian Asylums.

Lets talk about sex. In the Victorian era, sexual activity was a major obsession. To be more accurate, the suppression of sexual activity was the goal of every wowser, politician, religious leader and medical professional. After all, giving in to sexual urges meant a weakening of moral fibre and mental acumen. Asylums were full of the victims of sexual frenzy and hysteria. As women were the weaker sex, they had to be protected from themselves.

A woman’s uterus was seen as a pathological organ, which was where the term hysteria originated, from the same Greek root word for hysterectomy. In 1859, it was claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria, and hysteria was used as a diagnosis whenever a doctor thought his female patient was suffering from ‘nerves’. It was the cause of a multitude of complaints. One of the recommended treatments was massage of the ‘womanly parts’, which almost sounds like fun, except a the woman generally didn’t get to choose to participate in such treatments. The womanly parts were massaged until a paroxysmal convulsion occurred, which we now know as an orgasm; a desirable outcome when with your romantic partner, but not so much with a medical professional.

Massage as therapy for hysteria.

Massage as therapy for hysteria.

Veedee massager in use.

Veedee massager in use.

Vibrators were invented as another treatment. J M Granville patented his electromechanical vibrator, nicknamed ‘Granville’s Hammer’, in about 1883, but he had invented it for muscular therapy. It was other medical practitioners that used vibrators to cure hysteria.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's wooden vibrating chair

Dr John Harvey Kellogg’s wooden vibrating chair

Vibration machine from Barton-Wright.

Vibration machine from Barton-Wright

Non-conforming women were labelled as hysterics. It was a way of controlling them, because the threat of being institutionalized was very real. Many suffragettes were classified as hysterics and locked away, which was a worse fate than being jailed, because the conditions in insane asylums were often much cruller than the conditions in jails – remember the previous blog about the experiences of Nellie Bly. Hysteria was easy to diagnose, because it wasn’t a real disease. It was the Victorian equivalent of the Scold’s Bridle.

No Steampunk writer should avoid the topic of sex in their work. I’m not talking about erotica or romance, I’m talking about the issues that repressing a whole society created. Most of the male aristocracy had mistresses and concubines as well as wives. A woman’s reputation was more important than her education. The double standard for respectable  behaviour of men and women was at its worst; a girl was ‘ruined’ by sexual dalliances, while a young man was sewing his wild oats. This is a fertile area for creating conflict within a narrative.

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2 Comments

Filed under Analogy, History, Metaphors, Science, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, writing

2 responses to “Victorian-era Sexual Suppression: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. Half-Rats

    Ugh…perhaps if they still institutionalized sexual profligates today, Steampunk wouldn’t have been ruined – what was once something fun is now ruined by prodigious amounts of tits and airships. I take this blog post as a gross affront and ask you why you Steampunks must constantly slander the Victorians and defame them? I must point out that you pulled singular examples from history and project them as though these were indeed the sentiments and sensations of the whole…

    Here:

    1. The Victorians were quite religious and celebrated propriety, chastity and faithfulness of both men AND women. They weren’t as sexist and racist as they are made out to be, either. Yes, there were gender roles – but both sexes were expected to fulfill the duties of their given office. Chivalry was not dead and Libertines were looked down upon as much as harlots. Of course, there were brothels, but visitors to those were looked down upon as well; hence the term, “house of ill repute”.

    2. Pornography was illegal and you didn’t have nudity and the exploitation of women shoved down your throat, your children’s throat or your husband’s throat daily via the mass media. You didn’t have MTV, you didn’t have Victoria’s secret, you didn’t have Barbie. Additionally, Men had to keep covered as much as women did – and yes, there were corsets for males, too.

    3. That device atop this blog post was meant for males, and not all had their use confined to asylums.

    4. Read an actual book that was written and printed from the 19th century. In fact, read more than one, more than two even, then you’ll throw this sensationalist tripe to the wind.

    5. People were just better then…at everything. We live in an era of cheap garbage, unfaithfulness, excess and weakness, pornography and sexual exploitation. Women are more oppressed now than ever, but its all under the guise of liberation…Sad. May the dead rise up to take ya’.

    • My first thought was – if you think Steampunk is ruined, why are you reading this blog? And I have read a great many books from the Victorian era, both fiction and non-fiction. Why did you assume I hadn’t? And, I have read many books in the Steampunk genre, and only one or two would qualify for your ‘tits and airships’ comment. I can recommend a whole pile of books you might enjoy, if you want.

      I am answering this comment against my better judgement, because I can’t help but wonder if you are trying to yank my chain. I’ll cover the one area, sexism, because your comment could really take an entire book to discuss properly. In the Victorian era, women had no vote, no public voice, couldn’t get a tertiary education, didn’t have any rights to their property or children once they married, and it was every husband’s right to tell his wife how to live her life and beat her if she didn’t comply. And that is straight forward sexism. Every era has its own issues. The suffragettes would be the first to disagree with you that people were better in the Victorian era. I don’t enjoy the sexual exploitation that occurs in our modern media, but that is something that our society has to address.

      People were not better in the Victorian era; people are always just people, good and bad and confused, that interesting mix of angel and devil that makes up the nature of humanity.

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