Not Having Sex in the Victorian Period
Sarah Green joined the project in October 2017. Her work looks at sexual continence in the literature of the British Aesthetic and Decadent Movements.
If you don’t have sex, you will be better at something else.
My research is not, of course, concerned with the truth (or otherwise) of this premise (no, woman I sat next to on a train, I don’t know quite how one would ‘prove’ it, and no, man in the coffee queue, it isn’t how I wrote my doctoral thesis). I’m interested in its wide and continuing popularity as an idea; in the very different models of bodily function that have been used to justified it, in the range of political agendas that it has been made to serve, and in the surprisingly numerous groups that have adopted it in so many times and places, from athletes to yogis, psychoanalysts, and pornography addicts, to name just a few.
In the nineteenth century, this idea could be found in a wide variety of writing that dealt, however tangentially, with sexual health and well-being. My current work looks at its perhaps unexpected presence in Aesthetic and Decadent writing about the artistic or aesthetic life, and especially its association there with anxieties about how to be healthy and productive in an increasingly challenging modern environment, one full of distinctly un-artistic and potentially unhealthy dirt, noise, crowding, hurry, pressure and degeneration.
In the astonishingly varied and often contradictory world of Victorian sexual health, the question of whether not having sex was good or bad for you was especially fraught. There were plenty of voices ready to claim that celibacy was damaging to both physical and mental health, with grisly consequences like atrophy of the sexual organs and permanent impotence.
But proponents of the opposite view often drew on centuries of thinking about the body to claim that not having sex was not only harmless, but could actually be actively good for you. Their reasons were not always compatible or consistent: some stuck to the ancient Greek belief that semen (both male and female), if not evacuated, would be reabsorbed by the body and become nourishing, while others thought that the energy taken to make more semen took vital energy from other bodily functions. Still others pointed, as the Greeks had also, to the stress on nerves and the brain caused by orgasm.
Whatever the ostensible reason, the underlying logic was the same, that not having sex allowed one to reserve resources for some other purpose, whether simple physical health or more mental functions such as scholarly or artistic work. And formal medical writing was not the only place that this idea could be found. Towards the end of the century it could be found in quack pamphlets and adverts, advice books for young men, feminist writing, and literature of all kinds. It was an idea that popped up in the most surprising of places, like the training regimes of Oxford and Cambridge undergraduate rowers.
In the nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge rowers are said to have included sexual abstinence as part of their training regime.
When, for example, sexologist Havelock Ellis claims that ‘a high degree of energy, whether in athletics or in intellect or in sexual activity, is unfavourable to the display of energy in other directions’; when Baden-Powell says that a man’s retained semen ‘gives the vigour of manhood to his frame, and it builds up his nerves and courage’; and when Walter Pater writes that ‘a passion of which the outlets are sealed, begets a tension of nerve, in which the sensible world comes to one with a reinforced brilliance and relief’, they share a structure of thought even while their understandings of bodily function vary.
And it certainly hasn’t disappeared now, either; think of Dr Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper, and his strange obsession with ‘precious bodily fluids’ and ‘loss of essence’. In today’s world, not having sex is as contentious as ever, as abstinence-only sex education, virginity pledges and purity rings rub shoulders with a growing recognition of asexuality as a sexual orientation. It is increasingly important that the history of not having sex is shown to be as variegated, rich, and complex as the history of having it.