“Did late Victorians think of homosexuality primarily as a crime, a disease, or something else?”
The late Victorian era of the nineteenth century, has long been synonymously recognised as highly-repressed and morally obsessive. Yet distinct from all preceding eras, there lay a fixation in society in the belief that an individual's sex and sexuality form the most basic core of their identity and indeed of one's social or political standing, and freedom. Though we can acknowledge that the urbanisation and industrialisation of society occurred at different paces influenced by its own geographical distinctions, the population as a whole came to see family structures, gender roles and employment patterns alter. The fragmentation of their communities and pluralisation of values for many was how previously unacknowledged parts of one's social identity came to gain significance and definition; sexuality had been brought to the forefront of Victorian discourse.
As I attempt to identify what the popular attitudes towards homosexuality and same-sex behaviour were of this period, it becomes clear that earlier works are somewhat limited by a weakness in evidence, relying largely on the significance of famous homosexuals embroiled in notorious court cases, notably the Cleveland Street scandal or the Oscar Wilde trials amongst various others. However, what has emerged in recent decades is attempt to understand homosexuality not from an 'isolating' perceptive, but questioning its evolution within the wider context by acknowledging the diverse elements of social structures as being inextricably linked to the shaping of sexual identities. The notion that sexuality is a product of scientific discourses is a matter which incites great debate, drawn within the fundamental theories on sexuality introduced by Michel Foucault, which I will later discuss in more detail. What has also been clarified through the works of Jeffrey Weeks is '...a picture of new deepening hostility towards homosexuality alongside the emergence of new definitions of homosexuality and the homosexual'.1 The definitive medicalisation and pathologising of homosexuality came to lend itself as influential to the development of homosexual self-image, identity and subcultures, which we can trace back to the works of Havelock Ellis, John Addington Symonds, Edward Carpenter and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, amongst others. In order to broaden the depth of my argument, I will also refer to the works of Seth Koven and Matt Houlbrook, which brings fresh insight to the dynamics of sexual identity under the influence of the metropolis by focusing on class boundaries and cross-cultural elements.
Often, Victorian understanding of sex is seen to be characteristically represented through the works of Dr William Acton. Best known as the pioneering advocate for the Contagious Diseases Act for the regulation of prostitution was also recognised for his most famous and quoted work, 'Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs', first published in 1857, and considered to the qualified opinion on sex, as medical paper 'The Lancet' reviewed:
“In the work now before us, all essential detail upon its subject matter is cleverly and scientifically given. We recommend it accordingly, as meeting a necessary requistion of the day, refusing to join in that opinion which regards the consideration of the topics in question as beyond the duties of the medical practitioner.”2
This discourse on largely focused the aspects of male sexuality, with an explicit degree of attention accounting the perils of masturbation. The key understanding here was that the human body was a machine, with sexual functions serving for the purely mechanical purpose of procreation. Any experience of sex beyond the legitimising confines of marriage, enjoying it for non procreative reasons was considered condemnable and dangerous for one's health because of the importance attached given to seminal fluid:
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