Sex, death and masturbation in Victorian England — what could be better? Here’s an except from Deborah Lutz’s “Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism”:
What is erotic about death? This question could be asked today of popular television shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (and all its many offshoots, ancestors, and imitations), where beautiful corpses proliferate in glamorous cities, and equally gorgeous professionals piece together the dramatic deaths. Or the Goth style minted in the 1980s could be interrogated: why the corpse-pale visage and the reverence for all that is macabre? Or, as many have asked, why those models that fall in and out of fashion, with their skeletal thinness and heroin-induced pasty-green complexions?
Sexual climax can have all the emotional finality and drama of death, or at least an imagined death. Orgasm and death are both moments when we lose control of our bodies — when we experience pure being, without the intervention of personality and consciousness. As Georges Bataille writes, eroticism is “assenting to life up to the point of death.”
Death is terrifying, but for many Victorian men and women, sex was, too. Prevalent Evangelical thinking dictated that sex outside of marriage, masturbation, and sodomy all held the taint of sin and corruption, and would lead to everlasting torment in hell. For believers, to dive into this sinful state was reckless, akin in feeling to throwing oneself off a cliff.
Those who didn’t adhere to such Christian morality had medical opinion to deal with. Most doctors throughout this period, including those who wrote popular books on the topic, claimed that masturbation, also called self-abuse, led to indolence, ruined lives, and possibly madness. It was widely believed that when men expended too much semen, they would suffer from “spermatorrhoea” — “a state of enervation produced, at least primarily, by the loss of semen.”
Other symptoms might develop: debility, loss of sight, and confusion of ideas. When semen left the body, the thinking went, it took a quantity of life force from a limited pool with it. Thus the “little death” of orgasm. For women, sex could lead to pregnancy, and often enough did, since most forms of birth control carried a stigma. Pregnancy was dangerous in an age when medical knowledge was limited: it was all too easy to die in childbirth. And this is not to mention the burdens, mental and physical, of a large, perhaps unwanted, brood of children.
Diseases picked up through sexual contact could strike the fear of God into even the most severe of atheists. Condoms were rarely used, even when having sex with strangers, and syphilis and gonorrhea were easy to contract. In 1864, for instance, one-third of the men in the British army were admitted to the hospital for the treatment of gonorrhea or syphilis (and these were just the ones who sought treatment). Gonorrhea was barely recognized as a disease, and the regimen for syphilis was almost worse than the disease itself: regular doses of mercury, which led to cases of poisoning. The terrifying effects of syphilis — the last stages include paralysis, insanity, and death, and the disease could be passed on to future-generations — were thought to be deserved punishment for sin, and most believed that it could be caught only by those who sank themselves into the deepest pit of depravity.
“Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism” (W. W. Norton & Company) by Deborah Lutz. Used with permission of the publisher.