Thursday, March 17, 2011

Smith-Rosenberg - Sex as Symbol in Victorian Purity

Smith-Rosenberg, Carol. "Sex as symbol in Victorian Purity." From Alexander, Jeffrey C., and Steven Seidman. Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Originally published 1978

Smith-Rosenberg discusses Victorian reformers' critique of sex in writings during and after the age of Jackson. Set against the backdrop of the social changes of early industrialization (young men and women moving from agriculture to urban work), moral reformers argued pre-marital sex, promiscuity, and masturbation would cause an unhealthy release of energy. This damaged the individual and correspondingly threatened the society. Sexual behavior was seen as polluting the individual and the society. Reformers disliked young women and men going to boarding schools, which were thought to facilitate immoral behavior.

"On one level [the symbols of male moral reformers] expressed timeless fears of the power and uncontrollability of orgasms, of Oedipal conflict, of male fears and fascination with woman's sexuality and her reproductive powers. On the other hand, they provided an ideal sexual regimen for a newly urbanized middle class that had suddenly to revers the procreational practices of the past two centuries..."

Further, Smith-Rosenberg sets these fears within the cosmic system they were formulated, which perceived the threat of pollution being particularly dangerous during adolescence.

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