Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Tuesday 12th December 2017 | Manchester, UK

Get your ankles out for the lads!

Such conditions worried the early Victorian state immensely. Emerging social research confirmed that the environment as well as the physical and moral habits of a locality’s inhabitants stimulated disease and ensured its spread. The belief proliferated that sexual debauchery was at once a product of material squalor and a causal factor in the decline of the urban environment.

Sex, or more accurately working-class sex, was now a public issue. The logic that twinned sexual immorality and poverty was made through a specific language, the discourse of early social medicine, with one clear intention: greater surveillance and control of the working classes. We are accustomed to seeing medicine and health advice as objectively good, a source of well being that allows us to live our lives as free and healthy beings. Yet, it also serves to normalize our behaviour, to control rituals of the everyday. As such the early Victorian state utilised the growing medical profession in order to bring about public health improvements that weren’t wholly about improving public health. The system of regular inspection and detention put in place following the cholera epidemic of 1832, for example, was as much to do with isolating and eradicating disease as it was to do with controlling working class behaviour and sexual habits.

What brought about this statist putsch for control of the lower classes everyday lives? The first half of the nineteenth century is marked by on going mass urbanisation and industrialisation, which brought about the growth of the cities and effected new forms of social relations. The metropolis had created distinctive and degraded forms of mass commercial culture, which the elite believed required unprecedented levels of surveillance. The bourgeois became increasingly fearful of working class culture; it corrupted working class men, it eroticised middle class women, it left young girls in a vulnerable daze, and it would lead to the destruction of those family values so very important to the Victorians.

But the desire to effect greater control of the sexual lives of the Victorian working class was not purely brought about by a culture clash between bourgeois and proletariat as they arrived in the nascent industrial cities of Europe. Social reformers and members of the medical profession increasingly shared the utilitarian belief that population was the key to good government and the basis for maintaining the social order.

Indeed, William Farr’s appointment as the head of the General Register Office’s statistical branch in the 1830s marked the moment when moral hygenics entered official discourse. Farr believed that greater control of individual health, or more accurately working class health, would raise the strength of the nation. He hoped that controlling working class sexual habits, in addition to improving birth management, would bring about an increase in marriage and legitimacy rates thus ensuring the reproduction of middle class power.

And this is it. Victorian sexual discourse is pervaded by the struggle for power at every turn. Sexual regulation, be it through propaganda which condemned working-class men and women as moral pollutants and called for self-restraint, through health inspection in slum areas designed to stop the spread of disease, or through Farr’s plan for greater population management, always necessitated greater control of the proletariat.

On the one hand moral intervention and close personal observation of the poor served to confirm the absolute separation of middle class culture from the habits and morals of the working class. An act of bourgeois self-definition. And on the other hand the proliferation of sexual discourse allowed the bourgeois to systematise, analyse and ultimately marginalise those working-class sexual habits that they perceived to be dangerous to the social order and Victorian middle-class values.

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