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LHMP #222 Binhammer 1996 The Sex Panic of the 1790s


Full citation: 

Binhammer, Katherine. 1996. “The Sex Panic of the 1790s” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 6, no. 3: 409-34.

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A number of historians have concluded that there was a major shift in attitudes toward sex in western Europe in the last decade of the 18th century. Binhammer lays out some of the underlying forces and manifestations of that shift. Although the article largely concerns English attitudes (and any unmarked references can be assumed to concern England) the shift can also be observed in France and other western European cultures.

Critics of Mary Wollstonecrafts’s feminist arguments for women’s right to sexual self-determination contradictorily depicted her as lascivious and immoral, and as frigid and sexually unattractive. The social and political complexity that made these mutually exclusive claims possible in that particular point of history is the focus of this article.

With regard to Wollstonecraft herself, one part of the contrast hinges on the publication of her husband’s memoirs, laying public the open sexual nature of their marriage. Things that were not permissible to say about Wollstonecraft’s sex life before that admission became possible.

Modern correlations between political and sexual ideologies can create a misleading idea that there is some absolute alignment between conservative politics and repressive social attitudes and the converse. But in the late 18th century, writers who held diametrically opposed political positions with regard to revolutionary thought found themselves closely aligned on the question of female sexuality. In certain ways, the intense conflict generated in the wake of the French revolution manufactured a consensus around gender and female sexuality than can reasonably be depicted as a “sex panic” that resulted in a redefinition of acceptable female sexuality that carried through the entire 19th century. Central to this redefinition was the domestic ideology of the woman’s role as an unpaid domestic servant, household manager, a consumer but not producer of goods, and someone expected to be fulfilled by her role as wife and mother rather than by a “public” life.

Not coincidentally, this is the era when the modern feminist movement for equal political and social rights emerges, alongside a conjunction of the philosophical consequences of the French Revolution, the social enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality, and a judicial system focused on surveillance, censorship, and control of personal morals. Many of these forces were already in motion, but together they created a mechanism that tied images of power and gender to the domestic ideal of female sexuality.

Among the symptoms or consequences of this shift were a rise in sentimental literature, the creation of an ideal of maternal domesticity for women, and an equation of women’s moral lives with the vitality of the state.

The French Revolution had inspired a rise in pressure for women’s equality that was met with a backlash that depicted women’s participation in politics as sexually unnatural. The negative aspects of the Revolution then became linked to women’s political influence, creating a rationale for excluding women from public life for the sake of the public safety. Public concerns about economic and social relations were displaced onto the sexual realm, emerging as a flurry of popular literature (pamphlets and tracts) around the supposed rise in adultery and cases of divorce, as well as other moral-tinged concerns such as prostitution. This supposed sexual crisis was considered to pose a threat to the very existence of society.

Sex panic literature used the image of the French Revolution to conflate female sexuality and the personified nation. The nation--coded as a chaste and virtuous woman--was depicted as being at risk from violent sexual attack. This image was then turned around to place the burden of national honor on the proper and acceptable behavior of women. This concern cut across traditional class lines, using anti-aristocratic sentiment as a mobilizing force to shape bourgeois ideals.

The theory went something like this: the debauched morals of French women, as symbolized by the pornographic accusations against Marie Antoinette, legitimated the need for the Revolution and were directly responsible for the fall of the ancien régime. But this female moral corruption was then the cause of the worst excesses of the Revolution itself. No matter whether one supported or opposed the Revolution, the upheaval could be blamed on immoral women.

To make the accusation stick, however, required a reformulation of ideas about the nature of female sexuality. The early modern understanding of women’s sexuality included two principles that were about to be stripped away: that women actively enjoyed and sought out sexual pleasure (true) and that women’s orgasm was biologically necessary for successful procreation (false).

The desexualization of women was accomplished, in part, by redefining them as maternal rather than sexual beings. This was accompanied by a shift from viewing the sexes in a hierarchical relationship (i.e., that women were qualitatively “like men” but simply lesser versions) to a complementary one (where men and women occupied separate and distinct social roles). If women were qualitatively similar to men, then the same arguments made for the social and political equality of the lower economic classes could apply to them. But if women were a separate and distinct species from men, then it was rational to argue that they were constitutionally unsuited to equality--a sort of gender-based “separate by equal” philosophy.

Within this shift, the abandonment of the idea that women’s sexual fulfillment was biologically essential for procreation was necessary in order to position the ideal woman as sexually passive.

One place this shift in the image of women’s sexuality can be seen to play out is in the literature surrounding adultery trials. For all practical purposes, adultery was treated as a property crime wherein one man (the adulterer) deprived another man (the husband) of something valuable (exclusive sexual access to the wife). The husband was suing his wife’s lover for damages, with the wife’s function in the trial reflecting the symbolic role she was expected to play. What Binhammer argues is that the most important topic under debate in these trials was not the guilt or innocence of the man, but the nature of approved female sexuality that was emerging in this new domestic economy. (Note that adultery trials were never concerned with a husband’s extramarital affairs, just as it was not possible for a woman to sue for divorce on the basis of her husband’s infidelity, while the contrary--though difficult--was done.)

These trials for “criminal conversation,” as the act was called, became a topic of popular literature, including purported trial transcripts and fictionalized narratives. The public attention, in turn, supported the politically-charged belief that adultery and divorce rates were on the rise. Not all such publications took a conservative view of sexuality--alongside the didactic accounts were pornographic versions that embraced a more active image of female sexuality. But while active male sexuality was taken as the normal baseline, women’s active sexuality was depicted as inherently depraved and predatory.

The popularity of the “crim con” trials waned with the establishment of the new image of women’s sexuality. It became increasingly unacceptable to view women’s adultery as something for which monetary compensation was appropriate. Images of women’s sexuality were displaced entirely onto the spheres of pornography and prostitution, leaving no acceptable role for “respectable” women but one of sexless domestic passivity.

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