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The Power of Desire and the Danger of Pleasure: Victorian Sexuality Reconsidered

Steven Seidman
Journal of Social History
Vol. 24, No. 1 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 47-67
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3787630
Page Count: 21
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The Power of Desire and the Danger of Pleasure: Victorian Sexuality Reconsidered
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Abstract

The myth of the repressed Victorian has been seriously challenged in the past decade or so. In the revisionist histories of Degler, Gay, Rothman, and Smith-Rosenberg, among others, the Victorians are portrayed as having integrated desire and affect, eroticism and intimacy, in fairly effective ways. Although I draw on the work of these historians, I argue that they have advanced an overly sanguine, flat and presentist interpretation. I try to stake out a position that underscores the complexities of Victorian intimate culture without losing their historical specificity. Drawing on advice texts, personal documents and the Mosher survey, I analyze a tension between a Victorian concept of marriage that includes sexual expression and the equally powerful belief that the essence of marriage is a spiritual concept of love. The tension revolves around the susceptibility of sex to sensuality and the potential for engulfing marriage in a sea of lust. In short, sexual desire raised the spectre of destroying the spiritual essence of marriage.

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