Queers in 18th & 19th Century England 2/4

We have to jump forward nearly 100 years to the start of Queen Victoria’s reign to find more artifacts of queer British life. The mid 1800s were, in the United States and England, an era of moral reform. From abolition and temperance, to spiritual revival and anti prostitution, the rising respectable middle class saw themselves as moral guardians of the home and the community. 

Sexual matters were a particular concern, from the potentially fatal consequences of numerous pregnancies to the morality of masturbation. Abstinence outside of marriage was encouraged as well as continence, or the avoidance of ejaculation. Women’s publications began to advocate reduced procreation through abstinence even within marriage, and the average number of children dropped from seven to three over the 64 years of the Victorian era. 

Of course, these new strict sexual values were not shared by all, and a variety of counter culture groups sprung up in protest. Naturalists, free love advocates, and even strange communities like the Oneida Perfectionists in the United States, pushed back against gender roles, monogamy, and contemporary notions of modesty.

Like the Society before them, Victorian era moral reformers considered prostitution to be a threat to the nation’s physical and moral wellbeing. Sex workers were simultaneously blamed for spreading syphillis and inciting lust, and portrayed as hapless victims in need of salvation. Historians estimate that sex work was the fourth most common profession among English women at the time. Compared with other work, it was better paying with much more autonomy than more “respectable” women had available to them. 

The Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 gave police in certain port towns the authority to arrest women they suspected of prostitution, who would then be subjected to a compulsory examination to determine if they were infected. If so they would remain incarcerated until symptoms cleared. It is unclear if this invasive and sexually aggressive act, later repealed, had any impact on the high rates of venereal disease in the British armed forces. In 1867, one of every three health concerns reported to military doctors was due to an STI. 

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