Pamela K. Gilbert

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online March 2011 | | DOI:

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  • Literary Studies (19th Century)



One challenge for a scholar working in this field is to know exactly what the field is. Once past the question of reproduction, sexuality has been interpreted very differently over time (and even in the same time by different individuals). Distinctions are necessarily somewhat arbitrary and here have been dictated by trends in the scholarship itself. Scholars tend to see sexual values in the period as shifting dramatically from the Regency, commonly thought to be a period of sexual license, at least among the upper classes, to a Victorian middle-class concern with governmentalizing reproductive sexuality and pathologizing child sexuality in the period from the late 1830s roughly through the 1880s. Darwin’s theories had a significant impact from the 1850s onward, and especially after the 1871 publication of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Victorian understandings of sexuality and reproduction tended to be couched in relation to Darwin’s ideas. This leads into another distinct era: that of sexology, depth psychology and eugenics, the rise of a distinctive set of sexual subcultures (and perhaps fall, as exemplified by Oscar Wilde’s trial and sentencing for sodomy), and feminist critiques of normative sexuality and marriage that continue into the period around World War I alongside of social purity movements. Within the boundaries thus delimited, scholarship has diverged into three paths: (1) work on what were at their own times defined as transgressive or (2) normative sexualities, and (3) work on pornography, pedophilia, and other particular areas of sexual practice. Within that divergence, there has been a fairly uneven development between the genders. Because of the history of the field, heteronormative sexuality has been the least studied in 20th- and 21st-century scholarship on literature, outside of some discussions of marriage and reproduction. Much of the range of 21st-century scholarship on sexuality, especially in the sciences and social sciences, is still continuous with the work done by sexologists and by Freud; like their work, it tends to emphasize sexuality as central to identity and seeks both to taxonomize sexual behaviors by their adherence to norms and understand them in a cultural and historical context as well as one based on notions of a biologized sexual instinct. Incorporating Foucault’s critique, current scholarship on sexuality and culture, largely from the humanities and social sciences, tends to critique that continuity, emphasizing the constructed nature of such taxonomies and questioning the very notions of instinct or a core self.

Article.  11750 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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