by by Simone Landon

illustration by by Rita Bullwinkel

Everyone looks better in black and white, even porn stars. Despite the current in your face potential for colorful love, ranging from night-vision cameras to neon-colored condoms, we might consider toning down the tendency toward sensory overload and take a more historical approach.

I myself hadn't considered the possibility of grayscale erotica until I was confronted with some old-timey sex on cable TV one recent late night. I paused my channel flipping at what appeared to be a silent film either made or set in the early 1900s. Tinny jazz played over scratched sepia images of a young couple on a park bench: she, bustled; he, derbyed. Then they started taking it all off. Bloomers appeared, then stripped. The scene developed into soft-core pornography, Victorian visuals persisting all the while.

I learned that this particular film was no lone voice amidst the cacophony of color-saturated triple-X hardcore. Rather, I found interest in the naked lives of Victorians runs the gamut from accurate corset reproductions to antique vibrator collections and historical scholarship on child prostitution. Perhaps the modern fascination with Victorian sexual imagery stems from the simple fact that despite laced-up Cult of Domesticity public posturing, Victorians were pretty kinky behind closed doors. Peeking behind heavy velvet drapes and into some unlocked wardrobes only further proves the enduring quality of supposed sexual fads.

Please, Sir, I'd Like Some More

Channel 4 in England is currently running a series of television specials called "Victorian Passions," aimed at "challenging our image of Victorian Britain as a buttoned up, prudish and unsmiling society." One is a profile of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the linguist and first English translator of the Kama Sutra, who had a penchant for 'anthropological' homosexuality. In order to circumvent the Obscene Publications Act of 1857--an example of public prudery--Burton founded the Kama Shastra Society for the purpose of private printing and discussion of his more erotically themed work--an example of private pornography. Behind oak doors, Burton and his friends and fellow translators could sift through the sexual documents of the developing field of Orientalism.

Though shunned by the Society for the Suppression of Vices, Burton was one of the first Western scholars and documenters of pederasty (pedophilia), though he purposefully located such sexual practices outside of Europe, overstating their prevalence in the Middle East, Asia and the Americas.

In fact, Burton could have witnessed the ubiquity of child prostitution and rape by simply turning the corner in London. Prostitution and the trafficking and exploitation of little girls were so common that a 1980 historical study of Victorian-era child sexual abuse found that well over half the prostitutes arrested in Paris in 1910 were minors. Victorians were said to have a "defloration mania." Young virgins could fetch 400£ from wealthy gentlemen in England, leading brothel owners to kidnap street children and force them into sexual slavery. Sex with virgins was rumored to cure venereal disease, but, in fact, just furthered the spread of syphilis.

Burton's Kama Shastra was ostensibly a society of letters, focused on scholarly rather than carnal interest. But for those inclined toward similarly elite and secret societies of the flesh, London didn't disappoint. Hellfire clubs, a kind of aristocratic version of the much later swingers' party where men and women met as equals, became popular among the British upper crust early in the 1700s. Under the motto "Do what thou wilt," the clubs dabbled in all kinds of 'immorality,' including ironic devil worship and employing prostitutes dubbed as 'nuns.' The Hellfire clubs were eventually disbanded after members and patrons, often prominent political and social figures, were exposed for printing blasphemous and pornographic material.

You don't have to look far to find the modern equivalent of the Hellfire club. From CBS's fictional depiction of middle-class '70s sexual exploration in "Swingtown" to the very real-life scandal of the Emperor's Club VIP, we are still fascinated with the glamour of non-traditional sexcapades and high-profile figures mixing it up.

That's Hysterical

No discussion of turn-of-the-century sex can ignore the male medical establishment's invention of hysteria--a catchall stand-in for total ignorance that led one physician to assert that as many as a quarter of all women suffered from the 'disease.' The persistence of the concept did so little for understanding female sexuality but so much for the profit margins of vibrator manufacturers. The symptoms included just about anything, from dizziness to loss of sexual appetite, the common denominator being having a vagina. Supposedly curable through vibration sessions, hysteria allowed for some wacky medical practice, but perhaps indirectly some very useful inventions.

Today, the vibrator is acknowledged primarily as a sex toy, and Wickenden Street's sex shop, Mister Sister, has mostly modern, post-invention-of-plastic versions. But they do have one Victorian gem: a Royal Co. personal vibrator from the 1890s. It is proudly displayed in the front window, a black object resembling a hair-dryer with a long, cloth-wrapped cord and a sort of suction cup at the business end. It sits in its original box with a certificate from Royal assuring the purchaser that all parts are guaranteed, and repairs and replacements will be made by the company at no charge, except the cost of shipping. Above the vibrator in the display is an instruction booklet illustrated with a woman vibrating her spine. It makes no mention of the vibrator in more intimate contexts, but does assert that it can help relive uterine and ovarian pain when applied to the abdomen or lower back.

The 1890s vibrator is a collectors' item now but was a household object in its own time. After the invention of electricity, personal vibrators were the third electrical item patented in the United States, hot on the heels of the light bulb and the refrigerator. Vibrators were commonly sold in the Sears & Roebuck catalog with ambiguous ad copy. They lauded the benefits of vibration, including "thrills," "tingles" and "a healthy glow." Hinting at masturbation became more socially dangerous, however, when a 1920s stag film that used a vibrator not-as-advertised appeared in France, and Sears hastily discontinued the products. To this day, vibrator manufacturers represent their products as personal massage devices, even the ones that eerily simulate male genitalia.

Let's Get It On(line)
Though we may share similar interests with Burton's secret society and the Hellfire clubs, the 21st century has one radical advantage when it comes to access to sexual information: the Internet. Much as vibrators quickly followed the invention of electricity, new technologies become cornucopias of sexual produce. The same was true for the Victorians: with greater affordability and access to printed matter, smut ran amuck in 'amorous' fiction akin more to modern-day pornographic films in their explicitness than our current conception of the romance novel. The same is true for photography and video; the desire to and profitability of representing private acts for public consumption adapts quickly to any new medium.

The difference, and perhaps proliferating advantage, of the Internet is its anonymity. Google spits up STI data or armpit fetishes as you wish, no trip behind the curtain of the adult video store needed. Taboos? Out the window. Thanks to the incredible accessibility of every imaginable kind of sexuality online, I can un-embarrassedly walk into a real life sex shop and ask what kind of Victorian stuff they have. (Mister Sister doesn't carry anything specifically 19th century, but the manager admitted, people "are definitely into that.") And you can find those people who are into that with low risk of anyone figuring out who is really behind the bloomerxxxlicker pseudonym in your favorite Victorian kink chat room.

If you consider you're more interested in research than cyber sex, you can use the Internet to discover scanned archival images of 19th century porn or check out the modern-day imitators like the film I saw. Ever-expanding broadband allows us to investigate sexuality and its history more thoroughly than ever before. Thus, even if we don't invest in vintage corsets or go wild over a flash of ankle, we're free to explore how much we have in common with century-old erotic sensibilities. No role-playing required.

SIMONE LANDON B'10.5: explorer, writer, hypnotist, diplomat.