Sexual Behavior and Sexual Morality
SEXUAL BEHAVIOR AND SEXUAL MORALITY
Lisa Z. Sigel
Two conflicting beliefs dominate discussions about sexuality. On the one hand, people think sexuality is innate and unchanging. On the other hand, many believe that Freud's era brought sexual diversity. Neither is in fact true. Although sexuality might appear inherent, historians have shown that it, like most aspects of human life, has developed over time. Sexual behaviors, orientations, and identities and even the understanding of the fundamentals of physiology have been shaped and molded by historical factors. Rather than being intrinsic to the individual, sexuality is affected by everything from food production and family systems to social class and psychological theories. In turn, rather than being segregated into a small and private area of people's lives, sexuality has shaped historical processes from systems of governance to styles of worship.
In excavating these patterns, historians have confronted the second misconception that dominates popular perceptions about sexuality. Many people believe that men worked, women stayed home, and a combination of "nature" and the church constrained sexual behaviors until the 1960s. Sexual diversity, including single motherhood, sexual experimentation, and homosexuality, supposedly began in the twentieth century. This cluster of beliefs formed a progressing narrative from repression to liberation that Michel Foucault decisively undermined in his series on sexuality. To help understand the past on its own terms, historians demonstrated that sexuality is neither static nor easily influenced. The reciprocal process between large social forces and the formation of the individual at his or her most basic level makes the history of sexuality particularly important to social historians who try to understand the relationship between individual choice and broad social change.
To document sexuality in the past, historians have grappled with gaps in the sources and learned to use sources in new ways. Traditional sources, like government documents, newspapers, and memoirs, tend to say little about sexual practices. In spite of the centrality of sexuality to people's lives, few individuals wrote about their sexual desires or sexual activities, and those who did often fit their experiences into preexisting narratives about temptation, love, or adventure. In addition the proportionally small category of literate people who left accounts of their lives, sexual or otherwise, were overwhelmingly from the aristocracy or bourgeoisie, which makes their documents exceptional rather than representative. The literacy campaigns of the nineteenth century did not focus on individual self-expression. When working-class people began to write their own stories, few wrote their sexual stories in any detail, and even fewer disregarded the morality campaigns that made sexual acts something to regret. Thus memoirs and autobiographies reveal little about sexuality for the majority of the population. Historians have had to resourcefully overcome these gaps in the sources.
Historians have augmented firsthand accounts with legal codes, criminal records, literature, art, medical tracts, and psychiatric testimonies. When using such sources, historians learned to read them as carefully constructed narratives that reveal as much about social expectations and prejudice as actual behaviors. Thus women who abandoned their children at foundling homes told careful stories of their own sexual experiences to fit with the demands of charity. Few bragged about their sexual exploits, instead relying on stories of seduction and abandonment. Decoding such information offers hints rather than certainties about people's lives. While social historians have learned a great deal about how Europeans saw themselves, their bodies, and their sexual partners, correlating thought with deed and belief with practice has proven difficult. Charting the history of sexuality is no easy task, and despite the proliferation of fascinating accounts, much work remains.
One of the first findings people need to confront about the history of sexuality is the frequently overlooked tie between sexuality and reproduction. Because sexual reproduction in the twentieth century was a choice and generally a positive choice at that, the lack of choice makes sexuality in the premodern world look a bit dismal. The limits on birth control and abortion made sexual intercourse fraught with economic and social consequences. The differences among European societies are the second issue that deserves consideration. Region, religion, social class, and urban or rural settings all effect patterns of sexual morality and behaviors and make universal generalizations impossible. Nonetheless, some broad patterns are discernable, and after the shock of sexual limitations, the ways that sexuality worked in European society before the twentieth century seem flexible, even though the constraints that influenced individuals and society were different than those operating in the twentieth century.
The church, the family, and the community were the three main regulators of sexual morality in the premodern world. The Catholic Church before the Reformation provided a theological basis for sexual standards across western Europe, even if the interpretation and implementation of theology varied from region to region. The standards set by the church included celibacy and sex within marriage. St. Paul, in his famous injunction that "it is better to marry than to burn," provided an illustration of the Catholic model of sexuality. Christian society saw sexuality as a powerful force that needed to be eliminated or, if that was unfeasible, channeled into marital procreation. Although priests continued to marry and have concubines until the eleventh century, by the Renaissance the church had developed a more uniform standard of sexual restriction.
In practice the family and the community saw to much of the informal and daily policing of sexual behaviors, working to maintain economic and social stability. The community regulated premarital and extramarital intercourse as well as nonprocreative intercourse, like bestiality and homosexuality. Because most Europeans lived in agricultural communities and depended for their livelihoods on the land—a limited and often unpredictable resource—they tended to delay marriage, a pattern which encouraged the curtailment of sexual activity generally. Women experienced menarche or onset of menses in their late teens, and the community further shortened their procreative years by not marrying them off until their mid-twenties. Most women went through menopause in their early forties, creating a window of roughly a decade and a half of fertility. Women spaced their reproduction through prolonged lactation after childbirth, herbal remedies, and mechanical devices.
By limiting reproduction, families sought to conserve their resources and thus to guarantee generational stability. But reproduction remained critical to the agricultural community. Thus premarital sexuality was tolerated in many areas when it was clearly "premarital." Often the community allowed couples some sexual interactions once a marital contract or promise was established. In some regions in Germany and the Low Countries, a couple married only when the woman proved her fertility by becoming pregnant. The lack of other economic options guaranteed that the suitor would fulfill his promise and honor his implicit contract.
The demands of survival in closely knit agricultural communities encouraged careful regulation of other sexual practices as well. The charivari, for example, disciplined extramarital affairs. Bands of young men paraded through the streets, stopped at the houses of cuckolds or May-December marriages, and demanded payment in coin. The community called attention to sexual deviance and insisted on sexual standards and sexual reform. The charivari also provided young men yet unable to marry with an outlet for their resentments against those who already enjoyed sexual relations.
Often the church and community worked together to police sexual morality. Although medieval legends attributed the origins of the Danish royal family to the sexual congress of a farm girl and a wild bear, by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries such legends of human-animal copulation, no longer suggestive of strength and virility, rapidly went out of favor. The church proclaimed bestiality a sin against nature, and the community responded with surveillance and turned perpetrators over to religious and state authorities. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Sweden cases of bestiality accounted for 25 to 35 percent of capital punishments, and even more men were sentenced to flogging, hard labor, and church penalties. Because herding was a young boy's occupation and milking was the labor of women, the Swedish community grew wary of interactions between adult men and animals, often watching at chinks in the barn and examining men's clothes for evidence of inappropriate animal matter. Families, servants, and friends were so horrified at finding perpetrators that they experienced fits and seizures and felt polluted. Wives of bestial men worried that they would give birth to monsters, and even the perpetrators believed they needed to practice coitus interruptus lest their sperm impregnate animals. Although the church set the doctrine, the community and the family regulated the individual.
In eastern Europe a similar cooperation between the church, the state, and the community controlled sexuality. Slavs did not become Christian until much later than western Europeans, but by the Renaissance paganism had been curtailed, at least on the surface, in eastern Europe. The Orthodox Church, which dominated a large part of eastern Europe, concurred with the Catholic Church in a number of important aspects of its conception of sexuality. Virginity and abstinence were favored in both variants of Christianity, though Orthodox religion stressed abstinence even within marriage. While Slavs recognized the relationship between intercourse and conception, they separated sexual desire, which came from the devil, from procreation, which was a blessing from God. Sexual impulses came from outside humanity and only brought evil to the individual and the community. In contrast, western Europe saw a rise of romantic and courtly love from the twelfth century onward that legitimated sexual impulses. Slavs tended not to connect love with sexual desire. Instead love remained tied to generosity rather than physicality, at least until the importation of Western culture by Peter the Great. However, the apparent harshness of these beliefs was tempered by a greater pragmatism than in the West. Orthodox theology judged on the basis of actions rather than thoughts, allowing individuals a less stringent standard of observance. Furthermore, while ideals for behavior remained high, expectations of observance remained low. Orthodox priests could marry even though celibacy remained the ideal.
In Mediterranean cities the traditional protectors of sexual morality, most notably the family, the community, and the peer group, were weakened by urban anonymity, economic opportunities, and population change. City life offered more room for sexual variation than did life in the village. Population losses from the plague encouraged the migration of the young with their unruly desires to urban areas, where they encountered a proliferation of prostitutes, courtesans, slaves, and servants and opportunities for seduction, fornication, and gratification of homosexual desire. These sexual options particularly benefited young noblemen, who could gratify their sexual desires down the social hierarchy with little interference. Although a woman could use sexuality as a way to influence her life course by copulating with a man on the understanding that it would cement their future marriage, the repercussions of the loss of virginity if such a method failed made the strategy quite dangerous.
Women were often victims of circumstances and status. Postpubescent women had far fewer opportunities than their male coevals, because society believed they should be daughters, wives, or widows, though even the last carried a certain instability. The other option for those whose families could afford it was joining a nunnery. That route did not always guarantee an end to sexual intercourse, as cases of nuns bearing children demonstrate. But even without actual intercourse the rhetoric of the church made nuns brides of Christ and infused spiritual life with sexual meanings. Life in the nunnery thus mirrored life outside the nunnery in its understanding of women as sexual creatures, even though it granted them a greater opportunity for autonomy. In the secular world marriage and the family continued as the central institutions upholding social stability, and city governments stepped in to guarantee the smooth functioning of those institutions. In cases of rape, seduction, and fornication, for example, the Venetian government often demanded that the perpetrator supply the woman's dowry and marry her or serve time in jail. The government assured that sexually active women did not become a burden on society by guaranteeing them a place within the institution of marriage. While urbanization and trade offered more opportunities for sexual congress, the ideals of marriage and family as the central organizing principles that guaranteed stability remained intact.
Paradoxically, the Protestant Reformation ended the sacrament of marriage but elevated the importance of marriage within society. Protestant theologians argued that celibacy brought hypocrisy rather than spiritual enlightenment and that all should marry, including clerics. Conflicts over sexuality and gender formed an important component of Protestant criticism of the Catholic Church. Their attacks on Catholicism emphasized the irregularities of contemporary moral life and encouraged the purification of society. Clerics railed against prostitution and in many places expelled prostitutes for the frequency of their sinning, while they generally only fined their clients. The metaphor of the whore as a symbol of evil spread beyond women, and the pope became known as the archwhore in antipapal polemics. In these polemics sexual irregularities and sexual chaos caused by the inappropriate insistence on celibacy in the Catholic Church were contrasted with proper Protestant sexuality regulated by the family. In regions that became Protestant, the end of the monastery, priesthood, and nunnery brought the reintegration of the spiritual into the familial world.
The opportunities for female autonomy and asexuality guaranteed by the nunnery ceased in the Protestant world and diminished even in the Catholic world, which tightened the constraints around nuns in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation insisted that all women existed within a sexual domain and that all should be placed under the hierarchy of the family. In the realm of symbols, the Protestants deemphasized the Virgin Mary, who had allowed a place for the mysteries of sexuality to receive a measure of contemplation, and, their suppression of the cults of both male and female saints—whose sexual renunciation, even if fictive, had often been a facet of their spiritual ascension—diminished the variety of available religious symbols. By minimizing Mary's place in theological discussions, removing the saints from contemplation, and eliminating the option of separate, celibate life as a spiritual path, Protestant theologians left procreative, marital sexuality as the most viable model for synthesizing spirituality with sexuality.
While mainstream Protestant thought used rhetoric about sexuality to distinguish itself from Catholicism, it maintained a sexual morality linked to the family and community. Familial control of sexuality characterized premodern social regulation across the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant worlds. Even in rapidly changing urban environments, the family and community were the central institutions imposing sexual morality. The church and government reinforced the family and community in the maintenance of sexual stability even though religion and systems of governance varied from region to region. The insistence on stability implies a recognition that sexuality could bring economic, cultural, and social chaos. The sheer force and power attributed to sexuality as a disruptive agent demonstrates its centrality to the Renaissance world.
Although the Enlightenment questioned established belief in the area of sexuality, the period experienced a tightening of legislation and a criminal crackdown on perceived deviance in sexual and gender roles. For example, the eighteenth century saw a reaction against sodomite practices. In the Dutch Republic a total of forty-four executions took place between 1233 and 1729, but roughly two hundred executions were carried out between 1729 and 1803. The most enlightened areas, including France, Britain, and the Netherlands, experienced the harshest administration of such laws.
Historians have debated the causes of the criminalization of sexual deviants and the relationship between sexual conservatism and Enlightenment thought. In general they tie changes in enforcement of sexual norms to the increased reliance on biology and science, on the ways that sexuality stood in for discussions of traditional authority (such as in the attribution of sexual immoralities to authorities of the ancien régime), and on new forms of gender differentiation. The application of reason to human behavior was supposed to clarify and expose where human nature ended and cultural forms began, allowing society to strip away those perversions that impeded its progress. Instead of presenting firm conclusions, the Enlightenment encouraged European society to question. The church's relationship to sexuality, the sanctity of marriage, and the relationship between the sexes could no longer be accepted as given, but all became subject to critical inquiry. As the Enlightenment stripped away the legitimacy of old authorities, it enthroned new ones, such as reason, nature, freedom, and the individual, that shaped in both constructive and destructive ways people's sexual options.
Most historians see the Enlightenment as a time when gender and sexual norms underwent radical revisions. Thomas Laqueur has shown that before the eighteenth century biological sexuality was conceptualized as a matter of degree. During the Enlightenment the sexes became antithetical, and gender became wedded to biological sex. In medical texts and anatomical drawings female genitalia began to look distinct from male genitals rather than as internal versions of male organs. Along with their new look, female genitals gained their own nomenclature, like ovary and vagina, rather than derivatives from male organs, like stones and shafts. The egg became a miniature version of the female, passive, waiting, and monogamous, while sperm became the active agent of reproduction. Science ceased to see maleness and femaleness as related in a hierarchy of perfectability and instead began to examine them as wedded to an incontrovertible biology. Women could not become men through the sudden descent of a penis because women and men were constitutionally different from the ovaries outward.
As science differentiated male from female on the basis of biology, social philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin emphasized the innate differences between the sexes. These authors overturned the traditional ideas that women were the more lusty partners and instead emphasized their maternal urges. Both writers argued that social fripperies and sexual intrigues led women astray, although their conclusions about how to provide women with a meaningful role in society differed. Wollstonecraft put forth a program of education for women that would allow women to develop their potential outside of sexuality. If given the chance, women could put aside coquetry and vanity and contribute to a sound home and a sounder society. Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that women should stay in the home and follow their maternal impulses. Education would harm women and lead society astray. As this example demonstrates, Enlightenment thought did not provide a single, clear line on sexuality or procreation but provided an impetus for debate and argument.
These debates, which took place in reading groups or clubs and through essay prizes (a common Enlightenment convention), centered on ways to differentiate the natural sexual drive from sensuality. Essay prizes encouraged extended discussions on topics like masturbation (1785), sexual control (1788), the ruination of servants (1790), and celibacy (1791), the last apparently funded by the king of England. And as Isabel V. Hull pointed out, the reading groups, clubs, and lodges that formed the foundation of a German civil society during the Enlightenment took sexuality seriously as an avenue for thought. Extended explorations of the "normal" preoccupied these groups, and the main concerns of citizenship, adulthood, character, and marriage overlapped with the issue of sexual maturity, potency, and restraint. Even the issues of abnormality, in particular masturbation and infanticide, became grounds by which to differentiate the positive effects of marital procreation from the sexual degeneracy associated with absolutist and aristocratic ruin. The discussion and elaboration of sexual standards thus played a pivotal role in the formation of a German civil society.
In France the relationship between sexuality and politics received even greater scrutiny. The Enlightenment's questioning of tradition opened clerical, aristocratic, and absolutist norms to debate. European aristocratic society was more sexually permissive than other classes. Extramarital affairs, concubinage, sexual clubs, intellectual salons, early marriage, and early widowhood allowed both male and female aristocrats a great deal of leeway for sexual dalliances. Enlightenment thinkers used those pleasures as a way to delegitimize traditional authority by focusing on the themes of corruption, profligacy, and the pitfalls of the social hierarchy. The disavowal of tradition, however, did not function just as a thinly veiled class-based attack on aristocratic behavior and privilege. In fact, the aristocracy who benefited sexually from their social privileges were often at the forefront of Enlightenment intellectual life, and thus party to the process of defining new forms of liberty. Aristocratic women provided the philosophes with financial, political, and social support and used their salons to popularize radical ideas and to encourage intellectual life. The philosophes' writings on sexuality took multiple forms, including attacks on religion and the sexual profligacy of clerics, mockery of the monarch's sexual peccadilloes, philosophic inquiries into the nature of sexuality, and anticlerical and antimonarchal pornography, which encouraged rethinking traditional sources of authority over sexuality. The French government saw the implicit threat in these philosophic and sexual writings and responded by outlawing them. Philosophes and pornographers were drawn closer together as they sought to escape prosecution and to earn profits from their writings. The combination of high political philosophy and low pornographic innuendo became a powerful way of stirring public opinion and fomenting change.
The changes inspired by such works took numerous directions. The Enlightenment encouraged freethinking, as the example of the English radical Richard Carlile demonstrates. Carlile advocated birth control so both men and women could engage in sexual intercourse and pleasure without fear. On the other hand, the marquis de Sade took liberty and freethinking to its most radical conclusions. His version of untrammeled liberty in sexuality meant that the pursuit of pleasures and liberties should allow no barriers, including the recognition of the personhood of others. The emphasis on reason and freethinking allowed people to reconsider the impact of sexuality on the individual outside of the traditional restraints of family, the church, and the community; from this starting-point, individuals arrived at radically different conclusions.
Freethinking in matters of sexuality and politics overlapped in low circles as well as in the salon. John Gillis has demonstrated that plebeians followed a pattern of informal marriage that received legitimacy from Enlightenment debates. Elites institutionalized marriage in the eighteenth century and attempted to impose new standards of betrothal, ceremonies, and bastardy on English society. However, plebeians resisted this imposition, and between the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century informal marriages reached new heights. In resisting marriage fees and clerical control over marriage, individuals avoided religious and political control over sexuality. They wedded and bedded according to their own dictates. Informal marriage and equally informal divorce were popular practices that Enlightenment thinkers followed rather than initiated. In advocating individual freedom to marry and divorce based solely on affection, Enlightenment and revolutionary thinkers like Thomas Paine articulated patterns of sexual freethinking already in place.
Paine justified his marital freethinking and his own de facto divorce with the model of Native American practices. The establishment of empires after the Age of Discovery allowed the European world much greater contact, however unequal, with regions throughout the Atlantic world and across the globe. The vast cultural differences between Europe and other regions gave rise to speculation on the state of nature, and many Europeans contrasted their own decadent society with the supposedly more primitive and natural societies abroad. European philosophes used travel narratives, like Denis Diderot's Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (written 1772, published 1796), and their own fantastical portrayals to discuss sexuality in nature as a way to undercut cultural corruption in Europe. European projections about Polynesian, Amerindian, and Turkish sexuality offered utopian models of sexuality without corruption. However, it is important to recognize that "utopia" means no where, and these ideas spoke more to a rejection of European norms than to any recording of sexual practices elsewhere. Europe's fixation on Turkish sexuality and the pleasures of the harem, for example, did little to elucidate day-to-day life within the harem. Instead, such accounts provided ways to think about the pleasures and dangers of sexual variation, like anal sexuality, within an absolutist society, where men ruled and women submitted. The range of places explored in such narratives speaks to the wide-ranging interactions that Europe had with the rest of the world in the eighteenth century. While in many cases Europeans argued for toleration and admiration for the "noble savage," they also exported their beliefs about the sodomite, the tribade, polygamy, and polyandry to the areas they explored and colonized. In North American areas where Europeans gained dominance, practices such as polygamy were outlawed, and the berdache was persecuted.
The Enlightenment left numerous contradictions in European society around the issue of sexuality. While it secularized issues of gender and sexuality, in essence delegitimizing religious authority over them, it also laid the groundwork for state control of such matters. It shifted rather than eliminated social control over sexuality. Many of the progressive impulses of the Enlightenment, like pleas for tolerance, helped root out older patterns of prejudice, like the illegality of sexual relations between Jews and Christians. But Enlightenment thinkers also contributed to new stereotypes, like the "noble savage" and the amorous Turk. Such stereotypes carried great weight and influenced social and political relationships between Europeans and other peoples. The triumph of science and the scientific method associated with both the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment offered new ways to envision sexuality and sexual biology and in the long term contributed to improved sexual health. However, the rise of science also endowed biology with a new importance that made male and female inextricably different. This turn to biology to explain the world allowed continuing inequalities on the basis of sex. These enduring contradictions set the stage for future conflicts between sexual morality, sexual deviance, and sexual behaviors.
THE LONG NINETEENTH CENTURY
As a result of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Code, which affected much of the Continent, replaced laws on sodomy with laws on public indecency and the corruption of minors. These laws institutionalized the distinction between private home, ruled by the father, and the public spaces, ruled by the state. While previous legislation made little distinction between public and private spaces, the new laws focused on the state's role in encouraging marriage and propagation. The more liberal-sounding laws did not decriminalize sodomy or other acts of sexual deviance. Instead, they shifted the rhetoric of prosecution from sin to antisocial behavior. Because much homosexual activity took place in parks, bathrooms, and other public places, the new laws about public indecency, exhibitionism, and corruption of minors became a way to control and penalize homosexual acts and practices. Although most European states ceased to execute individuals for acts of sodomy, the nineteenth century remained a period of repression for same-sex desires.
After the French Revolution legislation regarding adultery tightened. After the initial liberalization of laws between 1789 and 1795 allowed the redefinition of marriage as a civil contract, the Napoleonic Code of 1804 reintroduced a sexual double standard. Divorce legislation instituted during the high point of the French Revolution insisted on equality and freedom and allowed both men and women to sue for divorce on the basis of incompatibility or moral offenses. However, the Napoleonic Code, while maintaining the secular state of marriage, allowed a man to sue on the basis of adultery but a women to sue only if her husband committed adultery in the marital household. A man's sexual irregularities occurred because of his perpetual quest for freedom according to the new formulation, but a woman's adultery negated her essential maternal qualities as constituted by Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau.
A similar double standard prevailed across Germany with regard to female sexuality. A Prussian decree of 1854 insisted that any woman who had sexual relations with a married man forfeited claims to paternity and support. Both Prussian and French legislators, justifying changes in laws surrounding divorce and adultery, argued that women's sexual infidelity disrupted the public realm. Demands for order in the public realm reinforced the sexual subservience of women in the private realm. For both sodomy and adultery, the period of questioning and liberalization during the Enlightenment that culminated in the French Revolution gave way to a later reactionary regime that intended to suppress these supposed disorders of sexuality and gender. As part of this reaction, nineteenth-century society invented a tradition of continuity even though patterns of regulation, beliefs about sexuality, and sexual behaviors had changed. By linking sexuality to fictive traditions, nineteenth-century society developed a way of thinking about sexuality that seemed universal, intrinsic, and natural.
As part of the new natural order, new marital ideals developed. In the new model man ruled the household as the representative of reason, and woman submitted as appropriate for emotion. The two spheres joined through affection, compassion, and mutuality. The rise of the compassionate marriage among the middle classes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought new expectations to marital intercourse. No longer was intercourse supposedly based on physical hungers that made it necessary for good health. Instead, a new model of sexuality emerged in which intercourse became an expression of love akin to spiritual communication. The model of affectionate marriage brought new power dynamics to sexuality. If marriage was based on mutuality and love rather than patrimony, then forced sex within marriage broke the fundamental emotional exchange of affection and respect. Women's reform efforts stressed "voluntary motherhood," meaning that a husband should control his passions rather than expect sexual congress as a right of marriage. The model of affectionate marriage combined with the expense of raising children among the bourgeoisie, who clothed, fed, and educated their children until their twenties rather than sending them out to work, made birth control an economically prudent action. The falling birthrates in western Europe, particularly among the middle class, testify to the effectiveness of these economic and ideological changes, even though different societies used different means to achieve the decrease. By the mid–nineteenth century France achieved low marital fertility through prostitution, coitus interruptus, and nonprocreative sexual practices. In England delayed marriage continued to be the norm.
Regardless of the effectiveness of the informal and formal control over marriage, conflicts between compassionate marriage as a model and the desires for sexual pleasure as practice created tensions in the nineteenth century and helped contribute to an increased focus on sexual deviance. Medicine, social scientific theory, legislation, moralism, and popular accounts all contrasted the purified home as the emotional center of the family with the polluted world of public life, where sexual deviancy took place. Although sexual deviance in these formulations began to look like the opposite of sexual morality, the two reinforced each other at a number of fundamental levels. Sexual murder provides a clear example of this process. Although serial killers murdered before the nineteenth century, sexualized serial murder seems to be a particularly modern phenomenon related to new gender roles and the development of sexual and social autonomy for women. As the historians Judith Walkowitz and Angus McLaren have shown, sexual violence intensified existing gender and sexual relationships. The famous case of Jack the Ripper, in which an unidentified person murdered and eviscerated five London prostitutes in 1888, encouraged the policing of streetwalkers and raised tensions and concerns about single and independent women. Rather than working to make the streets safer for women, urban reformers worked to clear out the transients in the Whitechapel area in response to the murders, which dispersed support networks for women. The media and the police told women to remain at home, where the levels of sexual and other violence remained high throughout the century. In Victorian England, sexualized murder reinforced gender control and state surveillance of sexual deviants like prostitutes. Victorian society's use of a violent rhetoric against prostitutes and other independent women at some level contributed to actual violence against such women.
More routine examples also illustrate the relationship between sexual morality and deviance. According to medical authorities, the prostitute functioned as the main vector of sexual disease. Across Europe the state tried to stamp out syphilis and gonorrhea, even though the two were not yet fully differentiated, by controlling prostitutes, regulating the sex trades, and introducing coercive measures against "loose" women identified as carrying the diseases. Doctors and moralists contrasted the long-suffering wife with the degraded prostitute to justify these coercive measures but generally ignored the role of men in spreading the disease. Many doctors kept the information about a husband's infection from his wife even though that meant that she would receive little or no medical help or attention. The issue of public health elevated the home even while sexual deviance infected it with disease. The contradiction was noted by feminists and socialists, who focused on the husband's sexual philandering.
Feminists attempted to reroute the conversation about sexuality toward discussions of the implicit flaws in the marital contract, while socialists emphasized the economics of poor women prostituting themselves for rich men. The rhetoric about prostitution and syphilis from each side, whether conservative, liberal, or revolutionary, pitted ideals about sexual morality against problems of deviance. In each model, sexual morality needed to be reformed to combat greater problems in society. Ridding society of social problems like loose women, gender inequalities, or economic inequalities was supposed to make the problems of sexual deviance wither away. The Victorian world, which became in the modern formulations synonymous with repression, spent a great deal of time and energy focusing on sexuality. If sexuality was a secret, then it was a secret invested with enormous powers.
The home and family as the center of procreative sexuality received additional relevance with the development of eugenics. Eugenicists, building on Charles Darwin's theories about the evolution of species, developed a science of race. They believed that populations and races competed against each other in a struggle for survival. This struggle took place between nations and races through battles over fecundity. According to eugenicists, falling birthrates among the middle class and the proliferation of the unfit boded ill for the continued progress of society. Eugenicists attempted to counter the problem by encouraging births among the fit, a program called positive eugenics, and discouraging births among the unfit, or negative eugenics. Fitness in both the positive and negative eugenics programs remained a nebulous quality that often stood in for race and class and ignored environmental causes of ill health and debility, like malnutrition, work conditions, and impure food.
The eugenics program also overlooked the real reasons that people had for limiting their fertility, like limited economic resources. The fears about decadence and the decline of the white race across Europe encouraged greater control of sexuality in the public realm. Both national and international campaigns against abortion and birth control, both of which were said to contribute to race suicide; pornography; the white-slave trade; and homosexuality and other forms of so-called perversions were part of the eugenics program. In addition to discouraging practices that curtailed fertility, eugenicists tried to encourage procreation by linking it to patriotism and national duty, by providing tax incentives and social programs to help the fit raise children, and by providing scientific knowledge about ways to increase marital pleasure. The science of sexuality thus received legitimacy because of its links to nationalist and imperialist concerns. Eugenics demonstrates that issues of sexuality defy traditional political categories. Although in the twentieth century eugenics was most often associated with the far right of the political spectrum, most notably fascism, in the nineteenth century it was associated with the political left.
Nationalist concerns about fitness also contributed to new models of sexual deviance. Although the Enlightenment advocated sexual tolerance, nineteenth-century and early twentieth–century medical science more effectively promoted reforms if not tolerance by stressing the physiological character of homosexuality. According to these early sexologists, sexual perversion had two causes, environmental, which included habitual masturbation, and hereditary. Just as evolution caused heterosexual desire, so devolution caused homosexual desire. The stresses and strains of modern life and the availability of physical stimuli weakened individuals, making them susceptible to sexual diseases. Once introduced as pathologies into families, they caused devolution. The early focus of medicine and psychiatry on homosexuality, alternately called sexual inversion or uranism, had progressive motivations that nonetheless produced a number of negative consequences for homosexuals. Sexologists, including K. H. Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Havelock Ellis, tended to see sexual deviance as a medical problem that could be cured rather than as a legal problem that deserved punishment. In shifting the focus of homosexuality from the law court to the doctor's office, these reformers stigmatized the homosexual, however, creating a model predicated on mental illness that lasted well until the late twentieth century.
The increased focus on the origins of sexual inversion in the medical community was matched by a series of court cases that raised the issue of homosexuality in the law, the press, and the popular imagination. The cases of Oscar Wilde in England, Baron Jacques d'Adelswäärd-Fersen in France, and Philipp Eulenberg in Germany publicized homosexuality in each of those countries and contributed to the notoriety of the developing gay subculture. A gay culture flourished in homosexual balls, bars, and brothels in Europe's large cities. The negative outcome of these cases combined with the increased visibility of homosexuality made homosexuals increasingly vulnerable. Nonetheless, the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century saw an outpouring of literature for and about homosexuals. Memoirs and novels raised the issues of same-sex desires and allowed homosexuality to become more central to the cultural life of Europe. Lesbians also developed their own cultural life. While the notoriety of male homosexual subcultures and literature has frequently overshadowed the development of a lesbian culture and literature, with the possible exception of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), the increased opportunities for independence, education, and professional development allowed middle-class women to escape the familial home and live in same-sex relationships. The continued belief that women were less beset by sexual desires than men masked much of lesbian life under the rubric of spinsterhood.
In spite of the period's reputation for stifling sexuality, Europe between the French Revolution and World War I experienced major transformations of sexual ideals, legislation, and behaviors. Enlightenment ideals, like the freedom of the individual, a naturalistic interpretation of sexuality, and the turn away from tradition, continued to affect much of society. Governments across Europe attempted to stabilize society after the outbreak of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, but despite new legislation and policies, ideologies like nationalism, socialism, and feminism swept across western Europe and further reworked sexual behaviors and models. Women and workers began to fight for a greater role in society, and they saw sexuality as an emblem of the need for social, economic, and political reform. The rise of nationalism contributed to a race for procreation. Large urban centers that allowed extensive sexual variation in turn encouraged reformers to develop new models for dealing with sexual deviance. The extensive and often acrimonious discussions about sexuality demonstrate not only the central place that sexuality had in the Victorian world but also how political and social changes played out along a sexualized fault line.
EUROPE IN THE AGE OF THE WORLD WARS
In post–World War I Europe, sexuality remained a central metaphor for discussing changes in society. The extreme conditions during the war years allowed women to develop new roles and to take advantage of new economic opportunities. As young women from all classes stepped out of the paternal home, they developed their own sexual standards rather than inheriting them from their parents' generation. Dating, premarital sex, and a rise in illegitimacy became a facet of youth culture. In many ways the development of a mass society during the war gave rise to a liberalization of sexual culture after the war. The deepening of democracy as a result of the war made the state more accountable to the political and social desires of a broad section of European society, and as a result shifts in sexual morality occurred fairly rapidly.
The flourishing of film, jazz, flappers, modern art, and modern dance testified to the daring sexual culture of the age. Josephine Baker appeared seminude in cabaret shows across Europe. Marlene Dietrich, the German film star, dressed in a man's topcoat and tails and publicly inverted male dress patterns, hinting at the emerging butch-femme cultural formations in the lesbian community. Film, public dances, and seaside bathing resorts exposed even the poor to the emerging pleasure culture that flirted with sexual titillation.
Modernism, as both an artistic and an intellectual movement, began to confront sexuality head-on. The surrealists took up themes of unconscious sexuality and confronted the nonprocreative and nonmarital aspects of sexuality. Salvador Dali's Lugubrious Game (1929) used the themes of coprophilia and masturbation to provoke viewers. Although they based their art on Freudian psychology, surrealists' interpretations of the relationship of sexuality to the unconscious bore only a surface resemblance to that of Freud's. In the world of the surrealist little made sense, and certainly sexuality was not an orderly phenomenon. In contrast, Freud saw sexuality as integral to human development and believed that perversion only resulted when the orderly processes from oral, anal, to genital development went awry. His theories and the advocacy of the "talking cure" demonstrate the new place sexuality held in the culture of the interwar period. Although earlier sexologists like Krafft-Ebing had discussed sexuality and perversion, their work mattered to a fairly small section of interested scholars, doctors, and writers. During the interwar years, in contrast, the overt discussion of sexual themes became more central to conversations across European society in a wide variety of contexts, from the death impulse to the meaning of civilization. Freud's popularity as a theorist owes something to his emergence during this particular period. His theories of the Oedipus and Electra complexes, his beliefs that babies had sexual urges, even his advocacy of the vaginal orgasm legitimated sexuality as a central part of the human experience and moved ideas aboveboard that appeared perverse just a generation before.
Despite the rhetoric of conservatives who were affronted by these changes, the 1920s did not just advocate hedonism. Instead, sexuality took an integral part in the many struggles over the direction of society. Sexual themes in modern art criticized the hypocrisy of the prewar world and the atrocities of the war. Sexual autonomy became linked to the increased rights of the individual. Sex reform and access to birth control information became part of a cross-European effort to enact progressive social reforms. In contrast, sex education, stressing premarital abstinence, morality, and the basics of reproduction, using plants and lower animals as examples, was occasionally incorporated into schools, generally in classes on ethics and biology. The church continued to argue that sexuality was a product of lust and thus to be fought against. In 1929 and 1931 Pope Pius XI warned against sex education, while the left successfully lobbied for greater access to information about sex. In the Soviet Union the revolution gave rise to increased access to birth control, divorce, and abortion, which allowed women to define their own sexual destinies. Early Soviet policy allowed women to take control of their own fertility as part of a broader policy of social reform. However, prostitution and homosexuality were repressed, and little was done to insure the sexual safety of women in prison and work camps. The steps toward greater flexibility in promoting women's independence were curtailed by the 1930s, when Joseph Stalin stressed the need for raised birthrates to advance the state. Other sexual matters received even harsher treatment. In 1933 homosexuality was recriminalized, in 1935 pornography was banned, and in 1936 abortion was outlawed.
The importance of the state over the individual became symptomatic of the political shifts of the 1930s. Many of the programs and beliefs about sexuality that gained momentum during the 1920s came under attack during the 1930s. The rise of fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Portugal and conservative regimes across much of eastern Europe were in part predicated on the supposed social disorders of the preceding generation. In attacking these disorders, fascist ideology singled out sexuality and gender as key elements. Fascist regimes across Europe reacted to changes in society by targeting the supposedly decadent and degenerate sexual culture of the 1920s. In practice this meant outlawing birth control in Spain, insisting on the procreative role of women in Italy, and attacking homosexuals in Germany. Roughly ten thousand gay men went to concentration camps in Germany, where 60 percent of them died. Spain and Italy sought to eliminate the modernization of sexuality and return to a family-oriented state. In contrast, Germany developed a new ideology that stressed the state over the family. The Nazi Party incorporated eugenics into its political platform and sterilized roughly 400,000 people on the basis of the Law for Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases (1933). The Nazis also removed the stigma in laws regarding illegitimacy in 1940 to promote the birth of racially pure offspring within or outside of marriage. The Nazi agenda was by far the most radical and far-reaching in its attempts purify Aryan race lines and to eliminate the bloodlines of those who supposedly tried to pollute the Aryan body, in particular Jews who, according to Nazi propaganda, lusted after Aryan women. In conceptualizing sexuality as a race for reproduction, Nazi theorists took eugenics to its extreme conclusions and on that basis justified the murder of millions of people.
As conservative governments aggressively pursued population programs, democratic governments scrambled to find consensus to counter the threat of the right's military strength. For the most part, the search for consensus meant moderation or silence in the area of sexuality. Legislation and social programs took a backseat to the recovery from the Great Depression then preparation for war.
THE POSTWAR WORLD
In issues of sexuality, World War II did not end in 1945, according to a Dutch saying. In the Netherlands 250 homosexual men were castrated to avoid prison sentences between 1937 and 1967. While political conservatism was largely discredited at the war's end, sexual conservatism stayed intact until the 1960s. The sexual conservatism had real implications for people's lives that should not be overlooked. At the same time, though, this conservatism masked larger changes that allowed the transformation of sexual behaviors and morality in the next generation.
Individual states returned to prewar policies on sexuality. Germany returned to stressing sex within marriage and retreated from the intrusive stance toward the family it developed under the Nazis. Other European states emphasized family, population, procreation, and heterosexuality. The French focus on population and procreative sexuality continued unabated as it had since the nineteenth century. In England sexual conservatism existed side-by-side with rising illegitimacy and women's continued participation in the workforce. In Italy prewar conservative tendencies prevailed. However, the world after the war was not the same as the one before. Prostitution became a problem as a result of the war and occupation. The church reacted by reemphasizing the family, but the position of the church shifted slightly when it advocated sexual harmony within marriage as a way to maintain marital resilience. In 1948 the church opened a Catholic marriage counseling facility to combat the growing secularization of society. The church's new stance revealed a larger accommodation to secularization of sexuality.
Although the secularization of sexuality varied from region to region and from religion to religion, European states largely separated church and state and individuals increasingly tended to see spirituality and sexuality as separate realms. In part this shift had been building since the Enlightenment, which delegitimized the church's traditional authority over sexuality. With secularization and the rise of the state as a secular authority also came the growing distinction between public and private. This division contributed to the waning influence of the church over public behavior and public morality, as people believed that church teaching no longer necessarily applied to the public sphere. If the dictates of one church or another concerning sexual morality held any validity, they generally did so within the realm of the individual conscience, the family, or the religious community, no longer coterminous with the state or any other public authority. Regulation of sexual behavior continued, but it was now for the state to decide—its reasoning stripped of explicitly religious content—what types of behavior constituted a threat to society and how they should be dealt with.
These long-term trends toward secularization were augmented by a number of fairly rapid changes that occurred as a result of World War I and World War II. The impact of communism in Eastern Europe and a large socialist presence in Western Europe delegitimized religion and religious control of sexuality in much of Europe. Additionally women's continued participation in the workforce across Europe and the resulting female independence laid the groundwork for shifting sexual mores across Europe. As women became more economically independent, they could decide their own sexual destinies. The dominance of the mass media and American culture and the postwar economic recovery also made many changes possible. Because of the American servicemen and service-women stationed in Europe, American youth culture, including rock and roll, films, and dating, began to influence European society in the 1950s. This transatlantic pattern of cultural interaction intensified during the 1960s and continued into the twenty-first century. Medical advances separated sexual intercourse from the physical repercussions that society had used to tie sexual actions to sin and deviance. Syphilis and gonorrhea, the scourges of sexuality in the past, became curable with penicillin in 1943, leaving a window, before the onset of AIDs in the 1980s, in which sexual intercourse seemed disease-free. The apparent end of sexual diseases followed by the widespread availability of the birth control pill in the 1960s promised to liberate sexuality from its previous constraints.
During the 1960s the feminist movement, the gay liberation movement, and the youth movement rapidly transformed sexual morality and sexual behaviors in Europe. In many ways the 1960s signaled a return to the issues of the 1920s, which had been discarded amid the extremes of World War II. These movements were self-conscious attempts to transform society and also the culmination of slower changes in European society. The 1960s had far-reaching consequences in terms of individual behaviors and state policies. Sexual intercourse ceased to be predicated on an implicit premarital contract. Men and women began to have intercourse at younger ages as part of dating and early adulthood. The stigma against women's unmarried sexual activity lessened, so young women as well as young men envisioned sexual intercourse as an individual right and pleasure that did not involve marital intentions.
Across Europe marriage as an institution became less important. However, unmarried couples behaved in very similar ways to married couples, exhibiting patterns of monogamy, procreation, and mutual economic support. It appears as if the informal aspects of marriage mattered more than the formal institution of marriage, particularly since the economic, social, and legal stigmas against bastards were lifted. In many ways this model continued the longer trend of informal marriage among the working classes before the twentieth century. Formal marriage from the Renaissance forward was often a luxury that workers could not afford. The falling marriage rates in Europe did not signal the end of the heterosexual couple. Instead, an additional stage of life, in which young people lived together rather than married, became more standard.
In Western Europe states liberalized laws on sexuality and lifted restrictions on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and pornography. During the 1960s the Labour government in Britain decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults in private, began subsidizing birth control under the National Health Service (NHS), and allowed the NHS to cover abortions. Contraception, which was severely curtailed in France until 1967, became legal, and limited abortion rights were passed in 1975. In Germany the reassessment of the past encouraged a rejection of the earlier generation's sexual behaviors and morality as the two "dirty secrets" combined into one. German students rejected the double standard, premarital purity, and the linking of promiscuity and sin. West Germany legalized the birth control pill, abortion, and pornography. East Germany connected sexual liberalization with capitalism and American culture and did not respond as favorably to changes in youth culture. Nonetheless, East German young people pushed for similar adaptations, and across Germany beliefs and behaviors changed rapidly.
Along with new behaviors and regulations, new theories of sexuality took hold during this period. Theology began to emphasize the dignity and well-being of parishioners' lives as essential to Christian teachings. Partly in response to internal changes in the church and partly in response to the broader secularization of society, the Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations reexamined their own traditional stances towards sexuality. Because of the liberalization of abortion laws in many countries, the Catholic Church muted its message of the sinfulness of unmarried mothers. In contrast to abortion, bearing an illegitimate child seemed like the lesser sin. In turn this position promoted a more relaxed stance on premarital sex. Sexual purity no longer carried the force it once did. Even in Ireland, where Catholicism was the semiofficial religion, churchgoers relaxed attitudes on sexuality after the 1970s. In a poll taken in 1973 and 1974, 87 percent of those over fifty-one years of age thought premarital sex was "always wrong," whereas only 44 percent of those aged eighteen to thirty agreed. Moreover theology considered fair negotiation and trust in sexuality equally important as procreation. Abuses of power like rape and molestation violated these principles and seemed more compelling problems to individual priests, ministers, and members of the laity than sexual purity. The long-term impact of this focus created conflicts over abortion, sexual abstinence of clerics, and homosexuality within Catholic and Protestant Churches and divided Christian communities across Europe.
Other controversies, apparent at the origins of these rapid changes, became embedded in sexuality and continued to affect it. Most notably the relationship between the nature of biology and the social restrictions around sexuality called for new theories and new legislation. An identity politics that emerged from the Western European focus on individual rights legitimated alternative sexual desires. The contradictions between commercialization and sexual liberation raised important questions about what purpose sexuality should have in society.
Feminist scholars examined the relationship between sexuality and women's second-class status, which did not guarantee them the same rights, responsibilities, and freedoms as men. They noted that much of the theory about the biological origins of sexual impulses and behaviors guaranteed men's freedom at women's expense. The theory that women's sexuality was organized around maternity rather than orgasmic pleasure received particular opprobrium because it overlooked women's physical desires, justified the division of women into whore-madonna dualities, and legitimated legislation promoting maternity rather than protection of women as equal citizens. Feminists affirmed women's sexual desires as legitimate in and of themselves and lobbied for access to birth control and abortion to free those pleasures from reproduction. Reassessing the Freudian theory that posited the vaginal orgasm as the mature orgasm and the clitoral orgasm as immature, they argued that the theory promoted male pleasure through heterosexual coitus rather than female pleasure through manual stimulation. The continuing controversies around these theories pointed toward the gaps in understanding female and male sexuality. If biologists, psychologists, and doctors cannot agree on the physiology of sexual pleasure, then separating biology from culture remains impossible.
The gay liberation movement also attacked the theoretical underpinnings of sexuality. The disease model of homosexuality did not allow individuals to build an identity that incorporated their sexual preferences. Instead, it argued that same-sex desire was a pathology, even though no adequate treatment existed. Citing the work of Alfred Kinsey, whose book on American men, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), demonstrated that a significant proportion of the male population had same-sex desires and experiences, gay activists argued that homosexuality was not pathological but normal and as a normal desire deserved recognition rather than imprisonment, electric shock therapy, and other dubious treatments. If homosexuality is intrinsic and natural, then social restrictions against it are unnatural according to the new model. Feminist and queer theories redrew the boundaries of nature and culture and, in the process, threw into doubt the basis of previous legislation.
A third area of reconsideration developed around the issues of capitalism and sexuality. The commercialization of sexuality became an important issue to progressives and conservatives alike. Political differences over what to do about the issue persist, and many see problems in the economics of sexuality. For example, the use of women in sexually suggestive advertisements raises the question of whether women have been liberated sexually or made into another commodity. Similarly, the decriminalization of pornography, initially touted as a step away from state censorship, promised to liberate sexuality, political opinions, and artistic sensibilities. In 1960, for example, Penguin Books won a censorship case against the British government concerning D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). The relaxation of old standards seemed to liberate art from the vise of Victorian morality. However, the distinction between art and pornography remained shaky, and standards based on the idea of socially redeeming value permitted states to err on the side of free speech rather than censorship. First soft-core then hard-core pornography gained legal status across Europe over the objections of feminists and traditional conservatives alike. Especially in Britain and the United States, feminist work in the area of pornography has raised the question of whether legalization liberates both men and women or it only provides a way for men to conceptualize women's subjugation. Conservatives argue that pornography inspires perversions and desacralizes what should remain sacrosanct. In spite of these concerns, pornography has become an international phenomenon through the rise of film, television, and video. The breakdown of Communism in Eastern Europe and the economic instability it engendered encouraged a rise in the sex trades across national borders, including the manufacture of pornography. Pornographic production companies use actors from across Europe and sell the products to an increasingly international audience. The poverty in eastern Europe encouraged many women to sell their only asset, themselves, in spite of the equally international spread of diseases like AIDS. The transition to capitalism in eastern Europe demonstrates the problems of commercialization at its most profound levels.
As these issues demonstrate, sexual morality has slowly emerged from the province of the church, the family, and community, and the regulation of morality and behaviors has shifted to the state and the individual. This shift, though promising in its inception during the Enlightenment to free individuals from the chains of tradition and allow them to find more reasonable accommodations for their passions, created as many confusions and controversies as previous systems. Sexual behaviors transformed along with systems of regulation. The two seem mutually dependent, though their relationship is not as straight-forward as many might believe. For example, in spite of the enormous pressures toward marital procreation in the nineteenth century, individuals practiced family planning and curtailed the number of their offspring. Regulation attempted to control behaviors but to little avail. Religion and family did not successfully control sexuality before the Enlightenment, but the state and secular authorities also failed after the Enlightenment. Instead, systems of regulation seem to provide individuals with models that they build upon, reject, and accommodate. People's diverse reactions to changes in sexual regulation demonstrates the complexity of sexuality. As an identity, a practice, and a biological phenomenon, sexuality contravenes legislation and easy answers. Nonetheless, as the history of sexuality demonstrates, large changes reverberate through the individual, making it unclear where an individual's sexuality ends and social forces begin.
See also other articles in this section.
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