Marching on International Women's Day. Credit: Daniel Pockett / Getty

October 30, 2018   5 mins

A spring evening in 1908. In the drawing room of 46, Gordon Square, Virginia Woolf is talking about herself. Her sister, Vanessa Bell, is busy with her needle and scissors. Suddenly, a man appears in the doorway – the spidery figure of Lytton Strachey, future author of Eminent Victorians, Bloomsbury’s sweetest poison pen letter to the 19th century. He points a long finger at a stain on Vanessa Bell’s dress, and asks a question. “Semen?”

With that one word,” wrote Woolf, “all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation … It was, I think, a great advance in civilization.” Woolf, however, did not declaim her story about the death of Victorian restraint in 1908. She told it to a small group of friends in 1921. It remained unpublished until 1976, with the caveat, “I do not know if I invented it or not.”1

The history of sexuality sometimes looks simple – a costume pageant in which roister-doistering Enlightenment libertines give way to Victorian evangelical killjoys, who, after sending Oscar Wilde to an early grave, are staked in theirs by the Freudians, the Bloomsbury group, and the 60s generation liberated by the Pill. That apparent simplicity is an illusion produced by our desire to make ourselves the heroes in a Whig history of sex – one that leads from tight-laced ancestor-figures to laid-back, sorted, liberated us.

Today, that confidence is harder to detect. The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme court has added energy to the backlash against #MeToo – music, doubtless, to the ears of the disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. The present American administration contains men whom Margaret Atwood might have sketched in one of her more pessimistic moods. Roe vs Wade is in their sights. So is legislation that will argue transgender identities out of existence. And in this area, the arc of easy progress seems particularly broken. Science has revealed that biological sex is not purely binary, but determined by a constellation of genetic, chromosomal and hormonal factors that culture has yet to decide how far it wants to reflect. This is a transitional moment for everyone.

The history of sexuality might give us the means to negotiate it – not least because our attempts to describe it over time are a good demonstration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s argument in the Genealogy of Morals (1887) that nothing with a history can ever be defined. Sex has no discoverable past: it resides in the body. Sexuality is very different. It moves in culture. It is contingent, provisional and mutable. It has been escaping from and reacting to classification since the mid 19th-century, when medical science first began reorienting ideas about sexual behaviour from a focus on human acts to a focus on human types, and generated new and exotic beings such as similsexuals, monosexuals, uranians, uraniads, inverts and urnings. (Heterosexuals didn’t turn up to the party until 1869, which makes them a more recent invention than roller skates, the vacuum cleaner, or Harrods.)

The subjects of this research could not avoid responding to this new lexicon of sex. Oscar Wilde and his circle looked for evidence of themselves in Psychopathia Sexualis (1887) Richard von Krafft-Ebbing’s textbook of sexual categories. (The book was mentioned at Wilde’s trial.) The hero of EM Forster’s Maurice – begun in 1913 – describes himself as “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort”. But his psychiatrist substitutes a more precise term – “homosexual” – introduced to the English language by the 1892 translation of Krafft-Ebbing.

These taxonomic projects now offer a revealing snapshot of the cultures that produced them. In the same year that the Woolf and her friends had their spermy epiphany on Gordon Square, Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson, an American sexologist who wrote under the pseudonym Xavier Mayne, issued a psychometric questionnaire called “Am I at all an Uranian – Am I at all a Uraniad?” Responds were asked, “Do you whistle well, and naturally like to do so?” “Do you like rural solitude?” “Are you peculiarly fond of Wagner?” Easy to imagine readers of Henry James and Edith Wharton frowning over the questions and asking: is this me

We could ask it of ourselves. If we accept that our sexualities are subject to cultural and historical forces, the back catalogue of human experience might offer ways to question our own orthodoxies. In the 1880s, for instance, the writer Edward Carpenter lived in a ménage-a-trois with a Sheffield scythe-maker and his wife. They wore sandals, grew their own vegetables, and conducted a life that informed Carpenter’s book The Intermediate Sex (1908), which proposed mutually beneficial social alliances between homosexual and heterosexual couples. Doesn’t sound too dreadful.

And now those Rumpelstiltskins of the alt-right, the incels, have emerged into the light, might it not be worth looking back to the work that Freud’s pupil Wilhelm Reich published in the 1930s, which suggested that political extremism was fuelled by unexpressed sexual energy? (One of its few visible signs today is Shrek, whose creator, William Steig, was a follower of Reich and made the ogre an embodiment of his ideal type – a figure unswayed by authority and utterly at ease with his own effluvia.)

But there are other, colder, less flattering lessons to be drawn from the corpus of sexual historiography. Unsympathetic readings of the sexual past always flourish, and tend to be broad and tenacious. The Victorians, despite some recent hot competition from the inhabitants of 1950s suburbia, remain our favourite embodiments of sexual hypocrisy.

We seem compelled to reheat those false but comforting stories of their ignorance and bad faith in order to feel the warm glow of moral superiority. The one about them covering up their piano legs for decency’s sake – a 19th-century joke about American prudery transmuted into a historical factoid in the 1920s – has been given new and undeserved life by Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories books. That one about Queen Victoria refusing to believe in the existence of lesbians – a myth that goes back no further than the 1970s – turned up this year in a book by the historian Lucy Worsley. The persistence of such fictions ought to act as a warning about how the story of our own times may be told.

We, actors in the culture that produced digital upskirting, the private browsing function and Ashley Madison, should beware the unsympathetic assessment of those who will come after us. The evidence against us is mounting. Judgement is waiting. It’s hard to look into the future and guess who in our present moment will be celebrated as we now celebrate Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde, but I think we know those figures who will never make it to that as-yet-unwritten roll of honour.

It won’t be self-identifying, non-rapist Brett Kavanaugh, using college football stats to certify his virtue. It won’t be Harvey Weinstein, accepting arrest while clutching a biography of the disgraced-but-somewhat-forgiven movie director Elia Kazan. It won’t be Sir Christopher Chope MP, who acted for whatever reason to preserve, temporarily, the right of British men to forage surreptitious snaps of women’s underwear, wherever it is worn on the Circle Line.

It won’t be the current occupant of the White House, crowing about how “they” – some faceless, undifferentiated stockpile of female adults – never resist the progress of his fun-size celebrity fingers. Nor, I suspect, will it be Julian Assange, who, rather than face the women who made charges against him in Sweden, has chosen to sue the people who bring takeaway up to his bedroom.

Men like this may make history, but they tend not to write it. They’re not sufficiently observant or reflective. Nonetheless the snail-trail of their actions and utterances will be all over the story of this period in human sexuality. Whatever we say, whatever we do, they besmirch us already. Even if we point a finger, and name the stain.

  1.  Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings by Woolf, Virginia ed. Jeanne Schulkind (Brighton: Sussex University Press, 1976)

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.