Cover of Tipping the Velvet: A Novel
Psychological Aspects of Human Sexuality
Class reflection: Sex in the Victorian Era.
There was *sex* in the *Victorian Era*? Gasp!
I had heard of John Ruskin before, in a literature class at my previous college. We were assigned an essay of his, I believe it was Lilies and Sesame Seeds, and I had a hard time getting through it because I found Ruskin’s message so infuriating. Later, when we discussed the essay (and the essayist) in class, the professor (or maybe it was one of the students? Hm…) shared with us that poor old John had run away from his wife on their wedding night when he found, to his horror, that she had pubic hair. It was bad enough that his wife had pubic hair, but the concept it implied was even worse: women, in general, had pubic hair. Pubic hair was notably absent from all images of women he had ever seen, and the absence of it somehow epitomized to Ruskin the un-sexed nature of the “fairer sex.” What could possibly be more mortifying to a man who so deeply perceived women as nonsexual, child-like in their simplicity, purity, and power of reasoning, than to discover—on his wedding night—that women, his simple play-thing, are in fact whole and sexual beings?
There was a lot of noise made, in the Victorian Era, about homosexuality: its wrongness, its rightness, its illness and its naturalness. That is, the wrongness or rightness of male homosexuality. Has anyone read or heard of Tipping the Velvet? It’s a novel, a historical romance novel of some four-hundred and eighty pages, written and published in the last ten years—which should mean it has no relevance to this discussion, since it’s a work of fiction, right? Wrong-o! The book takes its title (Tipping the Velvet) from a term of the era in which it is set, the 1880’s—late Victorian times—a term referring to cunnilingus (oral sex performed on a woman); the term itself, which deceptively sounds like a boring aspect of millinery, was used by women of a sapphist persuasion. That is to say, lesbians. Victorian Era lesbians. Yes, the Victorian Era had its lesbians, and they had their own hidden, under-the-radar, legally reprehensible but not legally recognized (that is to say, there were sodomy laws for homosexual men but no laws set out for homosexual women; Queen Victoria is supposed to have dismissed the possibility of female homosexuality when it was brought to her in legal concerns; “female homo-what?” was more or less her attitude), sub-culture.
The Victorians, thanks to England’s Queen Victoria and others, were known for a reserved attitude towards sex, sexuality, and all things involving the (female) body. It’s interesting to notice that a (modern/contemporary) leading lingerie company—the opposite to a reserved attitude on sex, sexuality, and all things involving the female body—is named Victoria’s Secret.