The Victorians invented sex.
Okay, okay, there’s biological evidence suggesting their forebears figured it out too, but our cultural understanding of sex in the western world is more steeped in the late 19th century than even us steampunks would care to admit. Sure, they were notoriously prude, but the Victorians were obsessed with sex. They just lied about it, constantly.
For the past six months, I’ve been working with several Victorian historians, professional sex workers, and sex-positive activists to assemble A Steampunk’s Guide to Sex. (Yes, unlike mainstream satires of the steampunk subculture, we’re rather open about stuff like this. And we appreciate sex. A lot.) During our research, we uncovered just how much the Victorian Age had impacted our modern attitudes about love and sexuality, for better and worse. So then, here are four Victorian kinks that existed during your great-grandparents’ time.
Strip Clubs and Pole Dancing
Strip clubs, and their attendant shiny brass poles with curvaceous women in various states of undress, seem quite modern, but in fact working women were “greasing the pole” throughout Victoria’s reign. They weren’t called strippers back then, but had many different names including “burlesque dancers,” “high steppers,” “ding-a-lings,” or simply “teases.” The first of these ladies made their money dancing in the late 1830s in British music halls, the grandparents of today’s strip joints and gentlemen’s clubs. These burlesque shows moved across the Atlantic and to the rest of Europe in the following decades, and it was France’s famous Folies Bergère club that brought the shiny brass pole to the stage for erotic dancing. Private performances, similar to today’s champagne rooms, were available in a variety of old west saloons, including the Alhambra in Dodge City where both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson worked.
XXX Movies and Porn Stars
Pornographic movies are nearly as old as the moving picture itself. The first erotic film was the 7-minute 1899 film Le Coucher de la Mariee, directed by Albert Kirchner (under the name “Léar”). It was he who brought the world its first porn star, Louise Willy (this was probably the beginning of silly porn names), who starred in a number of penny-arcade short erotic films. Victorian men and sometimes women would pack cellars of bars and even tents to watch all sorts of sexual exploits on film or through private stereoscopes viewing for a penny. These stereoscopes, also called “penny-poppers” were similar to contemporary quarter-fed peep-shows.
Vibrators and Strap-ons
Lack of AA batteries didn’t stop our inventive and horny great-grandparents from patenting no less than 23 fully mechanical dildos in the 19th century. Most of these were steam-powered and some required a full boiler to get the fake phallus to hum. Others required a rigorous cranking of internal dynamos to get the desired effect. All were patented as medical devices designed to relieve “female hysteria.” It is less clear, however, what the medical reasons were for Dr. Sumpter’s Harnessed Extension (though some have argued it was for soldiers who had their genitals damaged in the Civil War). But there are reports of women using strap-on dildos on women and men for explicitly erotic encounters in various pornographic memoirs pre-dating the U.S. Civil War.
Whips, Chains, Canes, and BDSM
BDSM has been around for centuries before Queen Victoria was born, but no examination of Victorian kink would be complete without at least mentioning the “British taste.” It wasn’t that Victorians were the first to write about or practice all forms of sexual sado/masochism; it was just that they took to it so enthusiastically and brought their own particular flair to it. Today’s BDSM scene has been shaped by these Victorian influences far more than it had been by the Marquis DeSade and Leopold Sacher-Masoch (who gave us the terms sadism and masochism). Elaborate dungeons, leather catsuits, naughty school girls, birch canes, pony-play, boot worship, and so on can be found in hundreds of photographs, films, and books of the Victorians. Theresa Berkley was one famous Victorian dominatrix who not only invented the Berkley Horse, a device for flagellation which can be found in any modern well-stocked dungeon, but ran a twenty-four hour dungeon that could satisfy up to a fifty patrons at a time. She, like many others, became minor celebrities in England, France, and to a lesser degree in America. The first manuals on bondage and whip types were produced in the 19th century to facilitate the BDSM underground.
The history of Victorian sexuality is filled with controversy because of its very nature, and there are dozens of books published every year on the topic. It seems as much as our Victorian great-grandparents shied away from talking about “the deed,” we can’t get enough of poking around their boudoirs. The truth is, when the gaslights were lowered, no one really knows exactly what went on in the brothels and the bedrooms and under all of those yards of lace. Our only sources are the memoirs of perverts, the letters of passions between lovers, staged pornographic photos and films, and volumes of pornographic tales. All we can know for sure is that they loved love-making in all of its forms – even if they didn’t like to talk about it in front of company.
Some sources to get you started:
- Levins, Hoag. American Sex Machines: The Hidden History of Sex at the U.S. Patent Office (Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation, 1996).
- Maines, Rachel P.: The Technology of Orgasm, “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
- Ian Gibson. The Erotomaniac. The Secret Life of Henry Spencer. (Ashbee, London: Faber and Faber, 2001).
- Stephen Marcus. The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England. (New York: Basic Books, 1966).
- Ronald Pearsall. The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969).
- Lewis, Robert M. From Traveling Show To Vaudeville Theatrical Spectacle In America, 1830-1910. (The Johns Hopkins University Press)
Professor Calamity is a Queens-based researcher, activist, and bunco artist who works with Combustion Books, is one of the authors of Catastrophone Orchestra, and speaks regularly about the Victorian underworld.
Margaret Killjoy is a nomadic author, editor, anarchist, and activist. He is the founder and current editor of SteamPunk Magazine as well as the author of A Steampunk’s Guide to the Apocalypse, the interactive fiction book What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower, and is a co-editor of We Are Many. He blogs at Birds Before the Storm.