In her study of the relationship between sex, gender, and social change in Britain since 1880, Lesley Hall justifies her starting date by pointing out that ‘recent historians of the nineteenth century have perceived a definite change in sexual attitudes, and in ways of talking about and dealing with sexual issues, around 1880’. She suggests that this marks the beginnings of ‘certain ways of thinking about sex which are essentially “modern”’. This special edition, which focuses on readings of texts published from the 1870s to the late 1920s, examines these ‘modern’ ways of conceptualising sex in relation to the dangerous figure of the sexually active woman and to female sexuality in general. It takes its impetus from such recent developments in the historicizing of sexuality that have designated the fin de siècle and early twentieth century as particularly important for understanding the early formation of ‘new’ female sexual identities. At this time the new science of sexology, the development of psychoanalysis, the social purity movement, the rise of the New Woman and the proliferation of more sexually explicit texts all contributed to increased public debates about the nature of female sexuality. As Frank Mort has argued, this was a period when social purists and feminists increasingly felt compelled to ‘speak out about sex’ and ‘to confront the conspiracy of silence and shame which surrounded the subject’, a confrontation which also took place in New Woman fiction.
'New' Female Sexualities, 1870–1930
The social purity ‘crusade’ that gathered force after 1885 initiated a change both in ways of representing prostitution and in public opinion about ways of dealing with the sexually deviant woman. Since the 1860s the police had been granted the power under the Contagious Diseases Acts to apprehend women of doubtful virtue in the streets and insist that they be medically examined; if found to be diseased, they could then be detained in lock hospitals. Once these acts were repealed in 1885, prostitutes had greater freedom but were also kept under surveillance by philanthropists and the medical profession. A variety of discourses constructed the prostitute either as an innocent victim of male lust or as a ‘demon’ and ‘contagion of evil’. Judith Walkowitz has argued that such an ideological framework excluded the experience of women who drifted into this lifestyle temporarily, and provided ‘a restrictive and moralistic image’ of the fallen woman. Arguably, literary representations of prostitutes tended to flesh out the potentially restrictive images used in feminist, medical and periodical writing on the subject, though no form of discourse was immune to the strong influence of the language of purity used by the members of the National Vigilance Association (NVA) and its advocates.
Heike Bauer, Ann Heilmann, Emma Liggins, Angelica Michelis, Nickianne Moody, and Chris White
Notes on contributors