Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

But the Victorian attitude to women was different in some important respects from the medieval. Where the medievals had regarded woman as the source of sin, the Victorians regarded her as pure and sexless. There was, at the same time, a difference in their attitude to sex itself. The Victorians, if mistakenly, regarded themselves as more civilized than the men of the preceding century: it was with only a trace of irony that a writer in the “Gentleman’s Magazine” could say:

“We are every day becoming more delicate, and, without doubt, at the same time more virtuous; and shall, I am confident, become the most refined and polite people in the world.”

That was in 1791; and fifty years later the conviction of moral superiority was even stronger. But the sexual act was not refined, it was not even dignified. Animals must rut, but man — noble, grave, rational should be able to procreate without descending to such uncivilized contortions. In short, the Victorian saw sex not so much as something sinful, but as something bestial, something disgusting. Besides which, conceiving himself as rational, he distrusted an activity which was so evidently not under rational control.

But to say that the Victorian thought sex bestial does not explain why he should pretend that women were incapable of sexual feeling. As we have seen, the father identifier feels a conflict in respect of his mother — he feels that she has betrayed him sexually by her relationship with his father. The medieval patrist met this by decomposition: he presupposed a completely pure ideal mother, who had never had sexual relations (the fact that Mary had other children besides Jesus was conveniently forgotten) and urged all women to a like purity. But while he urged women to purity, he felt women were inherently wicked. He wanted them to be virgins but believed them to be courtesans. The Victorian patrist felt the same conflict, but was no longer disposed to solve it by postulating a divine Virgin: he was therefore compelled to divide the female sex into two categories: “good” women who had no taste for sex, and “bad” women who had. No more telling remark can be found than W. Acton’s assertion — and remember it was not a hyperbole but a cold statement of supposed fact, made in a scientific work, “The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs” — that it was a “vile aspersion” to say that women were capable of sexual feeling.